How to get more high-quality textbooks into classrooms

Nick Gibb congratulates publishers for recent improvements in textbook quality and ambition and discusses further challenges ahead.

Many thanks for inviting me back this year to take part in your annual conference.

I am here to discuss the progress that is being made towards improving the quality of textbooks in English classrooms, but first I would like to talk about ‘The Simpsons’. In general, I am a great fan of ‘The Simpsons’, but sometimes the series gives the teachers of Springfield Elementary School too hard a time.

In one memorable episode, Lisa is quizzed on her homework by Miss Hoover: “What 19th century figure was named ‘Old Hickory?’”. Lisa does not know the answer, so Miss Hoover reads from the teacher edition of the textbook: “The Battle of New Orleans”. Clearly, she has read the wrong line. As any American history buff here will know, the answer is Andrew Jackson.

This gives Lisa the bright idea of hiding the teacher edition of all the school textbooks in her locker. Pandemonium at Springfield Elementary School ensues. “What do we do?” cries one teacher. “Declare a snow day!” cries another. Miss Krabappel forces class prodigy Martin to take over all teaching responsibilities for the day.

The moral of this Simpsons episode seems to be that bad teachers rely on textbooks, and are powerless without them. What has been termed an ‘anti-textbooks ethos’ is frequently seen in popular culture - from the scene, for example, in ‘Dead Poets Society’ where the inspirational teacher John Keating encourages his pupils to rip the pages out of their dreary literature textbook, to Severus Snape’s withering demand that Harry Potter “turn to page 394”.

This anti-textbook culture is an unusual feature of the Anglosphere. When I spoke at the PA/BESA conference last year, I quoted a statistic from the 2011 TIMSS international survey. Year 5 mathematics teachers were asked whether they used textbooks as the basis for instruction in lessons. In Singapore, those who did accounted for 70% of pupils surveyed, in Finland 95%, but in England the figure was 10%.

The majority of pupils in all but 10 of the 50 participating countries had teachers who reported using textbooks as the basis for their teaching. But in New Zealand, the figure was 7%, in Australia 25%, and in America 45%. I believe this has much to do with the historic legacy of child-centred education in the English-speaking west. Firstly, the dismissal of subject content as the basis of a school curriculum has pushed teachers away from teaching a codified body of knowledge, so typically embodied in a textbook. Secondly, what is often called ‘personalisation’ – the belief that teaching should be tailored to the interests and capacities of each individual child – runs against the alleged uniformity of whole-class teaching from a textbook.

Such an anti-textbook ethos has created a fundamental market failure in this country, leading to poor-quality textbooks, or none at all, being used in our classrooms. This is a self-reinforcing failure of both supply and demand: teachers have been told not to demand good textbooks, so publishers have neglected to supply them with high-quality textbooks.

One year on, I can report that we are breaking this cycle; and I am delighted that on the supply side, publishers have moved a long way in such a short space of time. Inspired by what we have learnt from the far east, primary teachers from the 35 maths hubs that we established have been trialling 2 English adaptations of Singapore mathematics textbooks in their schools: ‘Maths No Problem’ and ‘Inspire Maths’.

These books are based upon the principle of ‘mastery’, where whole-class mathematics teaching is clearly scaffolded, learnt through intelligent practice, and designed to achieve mastery of a concept before new concepts are introduced.

One year on, the NCETM have written a short evaluation of their use, and teacher feedback was almost universally positive. Mark Cotton, the headteacher of Our Lady of Pity Primary School in Wirral, reported that the resources have “vastly reduced” the time teachers spend planning mathematics lessons, and resulted in a much faster rate of pupil progress.

He quoted a year 3 pupil from nearby Bidston Avenue Community School, also involved in the trial. She reported: “I love this book… it’s all just ‘there’, ready for me to learn”.

In addition to ‘Inspire Maths’ and ‘Maths No Problem’, Collins has recently published the mastery-based ‘Busy Ant Maths’ series, on top of the Shanghai Maths Project practice books which have been adapted from the mathematics curriculum in Shanghai.

In the short space of 2 short years, we have gone from having no mastery-based mathematics resources for English primary schools, to having at my count 5.

There are other glimmers of hope on the school resources horizon. It is a credit to publishers that some of their materials for the new mathematics and English GCSEs - such as those from Hodder and Cambridge - have been developed in the light of the recent international analysis of the detailed features of the highest-quality materials, such as an intense focus on discipline content, the inclusion of high-quality practice activities, and effective ongoing assessment.

High-quality school resources needn’t just mean textbooks. At the department, we have been looking into what it would take to provide more class sets of classic novels for schools. Seventy years after a novelist’s death, their work enters the public domain and becomes free from copyright. My ambition is that every secondary school should have sets of a wide range of classics such as ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’, so that whole classes can enjoy them together. For this reason, I have challenged publishers to market class sets - 30 copies - of 100 such books at a minimal cost, so that all children get to know the classics of English literature, especially if these books are not on their bookshelves at home.

I have been delighted by the response from publishers. Penguin have suggested 100 books from their Black Classics range, and are confident they will be able to sell class sets at minimal cost. Scholastic have highlighted 26 classics that they are making available to schools as an ‘easy book buy’ at £1.50 per copy.

In addition, may I congratulate PA/BESA for launching their subject-specific guidelines for new textbooks. My hope is that these guidelines will be the first step in ensuring the profession has an agreed foundation on what constitutes a high-quality textbook, be it the way new concepts are introduced in science resources, or the presentation of source material in history resources. I am grateful to all of the teachers, authors and publishers who gave up their time to produce such clear and constructive guidelines.

All such innovation from publishers is welcome. But supply is not enough, and stimulating more demand is also crucial. To achieve this, we must work together to challenge the philosophical underpinnings of the anti-textbook ethos. And we can do so by talking about the evidence base that exists on 2 fronts: the benefits for pupils, and the benefits for teachers.

Historically, teacher training, schools inspectors, and senior leaders have all played their part in promoting this damaging ethos. This is not to say that textbooks have been absent from our schools, but they have been seen as a slight embarrassment. At best, a necessary evil. Compare this to educationally high-performing jurisdictions around the world, where text books are respected as a central component of teaching, and therefore revised and refined to ensure they are of the highest quality.

In 1996, a British research group from the University of East Anglia went on an international study tour and wrote up their findings. Were I to read a section of their report, what country would you guess they visited?

“Whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher. Rows and rows of children all doing the same thing in the same way whether it be art, mathematics or geography. We have moved from school to school and seen almost identical lessons… [We] did not see much evidence of, for example, student-centred learning or independent learning”.

The country in question was Finland. One can hear the disapproval of whole-class teaching from the British research group dripping off the page of that report, but why should they disapprove? They were witnessing Finnish schools at precisely the time that their pupil attainment peaked, according to longitudinal analysis of Finnish military conscript test scores, and before Finland’s current period of decline.

Everything that we are currently learning about cognitive science and memory suggests that textbooks are a good thing for pupils: the need to sequence instruction so not to overburden working memory, the need for prior knowledge to contextualise future teaching, the benefits of testing as a means of improving recall, and the importance of spaced practice and revisiting topics. These aspects of pupil understanding are all well served by clear and well-designed school resources.

Last month, a think tank called the Center for American Progress published a report entitled ‘The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform’, arguing that adopting new curriculum resources is an inexpensive, effective, and currently under-recognised means of improving pupil outcomes. It created a minor tremor on Twitter thanks to the claim that compared to other school improvement policies, adopting effective curriculum resources has almost 40 times the average cost-effectiveness ratio.

Digging a little deeper, this claim from the Center for American Progress is based on an analysis of 4 elementary school mathematics curricula, conducted by the US Department of Education in 2011. The 4 curricula, ranging from constructivist child-centred resources to teacher-led resources, were randomly assigned to 110 elementary schools, and the effect was recorded in both first-grade and second-grade classes. According to this analysis, the best overall curriculum was Saxon Math. Originally developed by John Saxon for home schoolers, but now increasingly used in American classrooms, it is commonly described as a ‘back to basics’ approach. The US Department of Education describe it as follows: “a scripted curriculum that blends teacher-directed instruction of new material with daily distributed practice of previously learned concepts and procedures.”

Whilst the effect size of textbooks may be small in some meta-analyses, it is important to realise that the effect of particular textbooks - such as Saxon Math - is statistically significant in a number of American studies. So, we should make an argument not just for textbooks in general, but high-quality textbooks in particular.

This sort of analysis of text book efficacy is almost entirely absent from British education journals, but I would like to see far more of it. The best education systems know that a good workman finesses his most important tools.

And tools reduce workload. In the most commonly used secondary PGCE text, there is only 1 index reference to using textbooks in the classroom, which leads you to a short passage recommending that textbooks are numbered before being handed out as a system of stock control. By comparison, there are 6 index references to personalised learning, including 1 whole chapter. The fact that the use of textbooks is so roundly ignored in what is essentially a teacher training textbook shows how self-defeating this stricture against their use has become.

To win the battle for textbooks, it is vital that we publicise the great gains textbooks provide in reducing the burden on hardworking teachers. Since we last met, the Secretary of State has published her response to the teacher ‘workload challenge’, which gained more than 44,000 teacher responses. Three major concerns emerged to explain why teacher workload is so severe in this country compared to others in the OECD. We have established 3 working groups to produce reports on how they can be combatted. One is ‘planning and resources’.

I visited the planning and resources working group during their first meeting, and was delighted the anti-textbook ethos was being interrogated by members of the group. One member of the group told a disheartening story of a lesson inspection, where a teacher spent the preceding evening typing the contents of a textbook onto a hand-out so it appeared as a ‘teacher created’ resource. What a preposterous waste of time! I hope when their report is presented to the Secretary of State early next year, one of the key outcomes will be the rehabilitation of text book use in our classrooms.

One of the many interesting things that I have learnt from the teachers and officials returning from the Shanghai exchange is that Shanghai teachers often refer to recipe books as an analogy to explain their enthusiasm for textbooks.

The very best chefs in the world may be able to make do without a recipe book. Most of us mere mortals cannot, we learn to cook through earnest use of recipe books. As we improve we may stray from the instructions, make adjustments here and there, and even combine recipes from 2 books. However, recipe books remain at the foundation of what we do.

To extend the analogy, in England we have done the equivalent of encouraging all home chefs to cook with minimal recipe book use. Some unusually gifted and dedicated professionals may manage without, but as you can expect, most are cooking inconsistent and, on occasion, un-nourishing and strange-tasting meals.

Since I last visited the PA/BESA conference, some great strides have been made - particularly in mathematics. But we need to build upon these early successes and spread them to more and more parts of the curriculum. We need to see more textbooks to allow non-subject specialist teachers to inspire primary pupils with a core knowledge curriculum. We need to see more textbooks to overcome the problem area of key stage 3 that Sir Michael Wilshaw rightly recognised in his recent report. And we need to see text books for national examinations which are more than revision guides, and challenge pupils to read around the confines of the exam specimen.

I am confident these aims will be achieved for 1 simple reason: textbooks work. We are not trying to push upon the profession some strange and unusual pedagogical tool. Within a school-led system, as more and more schools prosper with well-designed resources playing a central role, other schools will follow that best practice. We have seen this process occur in phonics, we are seeing this occur in maths, and in time we will see it occur across the primary and secondary curriculum as a whole.