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Why do students still need textbooks?

Posted by on May 27, 2015

By Dan Rowson, education policy officer at the Society of Biology

Tim Oates pic 1 407x204At the May Policy Lunchbox, we welcomed Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. Previously Tim was Head of Research at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency and in 2010 he led the Government review on the National Curriculum. On the back of this review, Tim published the policy paper: Why textbooks count.

Tim addressed how the National Curriculum is, unsurprisingly, not really a ‘curriculum’ but actually a list of desired outcomes. A full curriculum defines aims, content, pedagogy, assessment and evaluation, ie. the School Curriculum. What we call a National Curriculum, other countries call ‘curriculum standards’. A National Curriculum alone cannot raise academic standards, not least because there will always be scope to interpret it in different ways.
The other issue is that the only legal instrument in England is the National Curriculum – in countries such as Finland and Singapore, it is mandatory to also use a State textbook. Tim explained that textbooks help pupils understand the totality of and progression in each area of their education, namely what they’ve done and what they will do. ‘Worksheet culture’ in England tends towards making education a series of fleeting experiences rather than structured progression.

Tim reported research showing an ‘anti-textbook feeling’ in the UK – shared by high-performing jurisdictions around the world. This may be in part due to the dawning of a digital age where some may regard textbooks as obsolete. Tim discussed evidence of undergraduates accessing more information digitally but remembering less. This easy access may be resulting in less effort to retain information. In some instances, this is not a problem. When, for example, cars become automatically driven, we will forget how to drive – this may pose no problems. By contrast, in medical diagnosis, skills of observation and linking this to physiological, and other knowledge will most likely remain essential.

134329177_73f61a9bf3_bIn other countries, the highest quality teaching methods are drawn from teachers on the ground and then enter the State textbook used by all. However, UK law prohibits the State from requiring that parents purchase textbooks. Tim estimated that the cost of a suite of high-quality textbooks in a range of subjects could be 50p a day, of course with possible subsidies for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Also discussed were TIMSS survey responses by teachers which showed little use of textbooks in the UK compared to Singapore and Finland. In the latter countries, textbooks are much more central to the education system and all teachers understand the underpinning learning model upon which the texts are based. Around the globe there is interesting research into textbooks; there is little in Britain. To compound the issue, Ofsted’s comments during school inspections are largely negative in relation to textbooks, stating teachers can be “over-reliant” on their use.

The structure of a textbook is a physical manifestation of the education system and the structure of knowledge itself – it has a start, an end and is arranged by key themes. Digital versions have a far less tangible structure, and students may find it more difficult to mentally construct their mental map of a discipline.

In Hong Kong, the introduction to each new chapter begins with an assessment. This determines whether students have the prerequisites to properly understand further concepts. In Singapore and Hong Kong applying what you’ve learnt in the classroom to ‘real-life scenarios’ is also explicitly encouraged and structured through the textbooks.

What can we do to support high quality textbook use?

Although Tim suggested it was too early for a kite-marking exercise, something which quickly could become too bureaucratic; a positive step forward would be a quote of support within textbooks that learned societies deem high quality. Tim also believed that a textbook produced with support from learned societies, that have enshrined what has been learnt from the review, would do very well.

There are also merits of supporting a system where changes in the curricula occur less frequently, allowing more time to produce high quality textbooks and resources.

Finally there was discussion regarding the importance of extra-curricular content. Tim stated that it is vital that students have opportunity to explore subject content beyond the curriculum; something only OCR has as a requirement for textbooks.

The next policy lunchbox: The importance and impact of public dialogue on policy is on Monday 8th June.
Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society, the British Ecological Society, the Society of BiologySociety of Experimental Biology and the Society for General Microbiology.

Read about the Society of Biology’s education work.

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