Liz Truss, Minister in the UK DfE for Education and Healthcare, has been calling for a return to textbooks. The headline story masks a more complex argument that bundles together several different strands. Instead of dismissing Truss’ call as regressive, it should be brought together with Matt Hancock’s ETAG initiative to stimulate a serious debate about how teachers can be given better tools of the trade, which exploit the opportunities provided by digital technology.
Liz Truss, Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, has been arguing for some time for more use of textbooks in schools. Her most recent contribution was an article in the Telegraph on 26 June.
This post started as a reply to Tricia Kelleher, who blogs for the Stephen Pearse Foundation and who starts her post on textbooks by summarising Liz Truss’s position as follows:Go back to traditional textbooks, says Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, because all that differentiation is a waste of time!
I think this rather caricatures the position of Liz Truss, who suggests at least three reasons to return to textbooks. One of them is indeed about differentiation—and I shall come to this point later—but the main argument is about the efficient use of teacher time.
Not reinventing the wheel
Liz Truss’ main argument is that international comparisons (notably PISA) show that:Our teachers… spend more time than almost everyone else planning their lessons. Yet given that our 15-year-olds are up to three years behind their peers in the top-performing countries in reading and mathematics… it is clear that longer working hours are not translating into results.
Surely this is an extremely strong argument. It is no good teachers objecting that they are the experts and Truss is not and that she should therefore not teach grandmothers to suck eggs. Expertise is nothing if it is not based on the evidence and the evidence clearly supports Truss. So does OFSTED, whose Michael Wilshaw has repeatedly complained about “death by a thousand worksheets”, a large proportion of which are of poor quality. So, surely, does common sense.
The same argument was made in 1970 by the Director of Learning Resources at the Nuffield Institute, Kim Taylor, who observed that we were never likely to have enough well qualified teachers to staff a universal education system without shifting the balance of funding from staffing to producing effective “resources for learning”. I reviewed his argument in a long article, Education’s coming revolution. Taylor’s arguments led to the pre-digital attempts in the 1970s of both Nuffield Science and SMP Maths to create high quality instructional resources. But by the 1990s, the attempt was being abandoned. Publishers were producing textbooks that were increasingly glossy and increasingly thin, leaving the heavy instructional lifting to serried ranks of filing cabinets, stuffed with dog-eared, home-made worksheets.
What Truss, Wilshaw (and, for what it is worth, I) argue that this development was mistaken. Tim Oates, Director of Assessment at Cambridge Assessment, recently said that he still regarded the Nuffield Science materials, produced under Kim Taylor in the 1970s, as the best quality learning resources that are available today. Is this not an extraordinary indictment of our handling of the digital revolution, that ought to have given us such promising opportunities to better Nuffield’s achievement forty years ago?
As Truss comments, the expectation that teachers will develop their own resources not only results in poor quality resources but loads extra and unnecessary work onto teachers’ shoulders. Apart from dealing with poor discipline, one of the most stressful aspects of a teacher’s workload is continually having to come up with new answers to the question, “what am I going to do with 12B tomorrow?”.
It is easy to knock Truss’ call for less differentiation—but the uncomfortable fact for UK teachers is that the PISA evidence again supports Truss’ position, not theirs. PISA not only shows a correlation between extensive differentiation and low achievement: it also provides an explanation for what must strike many UK teachers as its counter-intuitive findings. One of the key cultural differences between Western and Asian education systems is that in the West, poor performance is excused as being a function of innate ability (or lack of it), while in Asia, poor performance is seen as a function of a lack of effort. Who has not heard people say “I’m just not very good at Maths”, or “I am not musical”, or “I don’t have a scientific mind”. It is not as if the West does not understand the point: it was the American inventor Thomas Edison who coined the aphorismSuccess is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
But this is a lesson that Western education systems appear too often to have forgotten. Explicit differentiation supports the corrosive view that some people can’t do it, and leads to an indulgent attitude on the part of the teacher that is nervous of putting pressure on poor performers. Clearly there is a balance to be stuck here: we should not draw the conclusion that there is no place for differentiation. We just need to be careful to get the balance right.
I would argue that it is not just about the amount of differentiation that we apply but its type. I think that there is great scope in applying differentiation as a form of real-time feedback to particular performances produced by the student—and for automating such “progression management” through digital learning systems. This type of differentiation does not say “you are not very bright so I am giving you easier work to do”. Rather, it says that “given your most recent performance, this is what you need to do next”. It is a sort of micro-differentiation as a spin-off of individualised feedback, not a sort of macro-differentiation by the classification of learners.
This approach to differentiation, that responds to what the student does, rather than classifying what sort of person the learner is, requires advanced pedagogy that manages the process of teaching. We need to understand what instructional pathways are best suited to the different cognitive states that students will commonly find themselves in as they tackle a new body of learning. To map those pathways, to provide the different learning activities to populate those pathways, to validate the effectiveness of the different learning activities in their various positions on the pathways, to optimize our learning designs, and to deploy and manage such personalised learning in a manner that encourages hard work in the quickest and the slowest of the group: these are challenges that teacher-developed learning materials are completely unable to meet.
Truss is right to use the PISA data to criticize differentiation as it is currently understood and implemented. This does not mean that we should not prioritise the development of the next generation of adaptive, personalised learning resources, that will depend on digital activities that are integrated with digital learning management and analytics systems.
A focus on exposition
A third argument that is being attributed to Truss is in placing an emphasis on expositive teaching—i.e. talk and chalk. Tricia Kelleher points out that the Asian cultures that Truss alludes to:are cultures of instruction where young people sit passively in lessons in large teaching groups working hard to understand the content being delivered to them.
This is again a slightly cheap point. We can surely reference the startling success of the Asian cultures in the PISA tables, without saying that we necessarily want to adopt every aspect of their education system.
The Telegraph news story that reports Truss’ article also says that Truss is criticising the fact that British teachers to not spend enough time:on the basic task of teaching children from standard texts
with the phrase “standard texts” suggesting to my mind an expositive approach. But both Kelleher and the Telegraph itself attribute to Truss and argument that she never made. On the contrary, she argues that:we need to deepen such collaborative practices and encourage joint activities across different classes and age groups.
Truss does not use the words “content”, often used (in my view misused) as code for “information”, or “texts” other than as the word is embedded in the word “textbook”.
When I did my PGCE in 1990, we were told always to use the word “coursebook” rather than “textbook”, to avoid making the implication that we were talking about a sort of reader, a collection of texts. But the word “textbook” still has more currency than “coursebook” and is often used in that wider context, particularly when addressing (as is Truss) the general public.
Over the past eighteen months, I have been an editor of a Technical Report being produced in ISO/IEC on a set of recommendations for “e-Textbooks”. The report is led by China, which is in the process of mounting a major initiative to introduce all-digital learning materials for the Shanhai district. Other jurisdictions (notably California) are considering similar initiatives. Foremost among our recommendations is that e-Textbooks must support activity-based learning and not just exposition. What impact this work will have may be questioned and I have become less active in the project recently. I think that the connotations of expositive learning are too deeply associated with the term “textbook”, which suffers at the same time from much commercial jockying for position between big players, for whom the education market is of little significance. Nor is it easy to introduce activity-based learning to emerging e-Textbook formats, when there is not yet any robust evidence of digitally mediated activity-based learning occurring outside the e-book format. For all these reasons, I no longer think that e-Textbook formats will play a significant role in introducing activity-based digital learning content to schools. I suspect that digital textbooks will be little more than a brief, transitional, and largely inconsequential phase in the development of more effective forms of education technology.
Wth regard to Liz Truss’ statements, I think the argument about expositive teaching is a red herring. Truss never meant to imply that we should return to a staple diet of chalk and talk. Nor do I think it a fair riposte to denigrate the evidence of PISA by saying that we would not want to become more like China and Korea. There are undoubtedly aspects of the Chinese and Korean systems that we would not want to copy—but that does not mean that we cannot at the same time learn from the fact that these systems are so much better performing in international comparisons than our own.
A third argument used by Truss is that good textbooks that can be taken home, where they will support homework. Too many schools keep the few textbooks they do have for use only in class, both in order to reduce costs by sharing resources and to avoid wear and tear.
The decision taken by so many schools not to fund one-textbook-per-child is a symptom of the low esteem in which textbooks are held. In many cases, this may be justified by the quality of textbooks currently in circulation.
With respect to managing wear and tear, this will be addressed by the introduction of digital learning resources that can be taken home on a tablet or accessed on the cloud.
It is worth noting that Truss’ argument for more emphasis on homework parallels the argument made by many in the ed-tech community, that digital technology will support “informal learning”. The two arguments both address the relationship between learning in school and learning out of school. Although most would assume that they come up with very different answers to what the nature of that relationship should be, they both recognise the importance of bridging the gap. I think it would be useful if these two different camps did more to discuss their different perspectives; to explore what common ground they might have; and to define more clearly in exactly what respects their approaches to learning out of school were opposed.
My previous post but one called on Matt Hancock to “rescue ETAG” by following my advice to “say no to “FELTAG”. As I explain in my later article in Terry Freedman’s Digital Education, From FELTAG to ETAG, the DfE response to FELTAG did indeed reject most of its recommendations. But even though this has concentrated minds on the ETAG committee, I do not think that ETAG has the time or the will to turn itself around in the few short weeks before it is scheduled to produce its final report.
What we are looking at now is not rescue but salvage: not an expectation that ETAG will deliver the answer but that the search for that answer should be allowed to continue after ETAG has been wound up. And in that continuing search, I hope that Liz Truss’ call for more professional learning resources will play a significant part.
There is much good sense in Liz Truss’ call but the language is perhaps prone to misinterpretation. The future for professionally produced learning resources is digital. This means that, having mapped out a general direction of travel, Liz Truss and Matt Hancock need to sit down together and discuss how they can together plot a detailed course that will both:
- exploit the opportunities for digital education technology, and
- professionalise the production of educational resources.