Go back to traditional textbooks, says Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, because all that differentiation is a waste of time! In essence this was the message from Miss Truss following the publication of an OECD sponsored report which stated teachers in England spend more time preparing materials for lessons than their colleagues in other countries. And the UK is still languishing (relatively speaking) in Mathematics and English in PISA, that oft-quoted league table of attainment which casts such a long shadow over participating countries.
Textbooks appear to be king in Miss Truss’ argument because they provide core knowledge which every student should have and clearly is not being addressed through current pedagogy. Indeed we should be learning from the pedagogy which pertains in China and Japan where textbook-led lessons are the norm: “The top performers in international tests, like Shanghai and Japan, are adept at building on years of experience, at learning across the system. Schools use textbooks which children can take home to use for homework.,” Miss Truss said. Interestingly the Minister is critical of the practice whereby teachers prepare different lesson plans for groups of children in the same class – in her view the same textbook should ensure that all children achieve the standard required.
Textbooks are an interesting concept. How can one book address the learning needs of children across a range of ability? What Miss 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. In this context a textbook makes sense – you didn’t get it first time? Take the textbook home and work it out for yourself before you return to class. Arguably this is the ultimate in independent learning. It is important therefore to note that governments in China and Japan are themselves reflecting on pedagogical practice. There are real concerns that whilst successfully educating high performing students, these same young people struggle when challenged to be creative in their approach to learning. And there are real concerns about the level of anxiety among young people in China. Back in 2011 these concerns were being publicly voiced:
“In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity,” Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this.” In fact reform of the Chinese system of education has already begun.
So the traditional textbook as a silver bullet, although enticing, is not the way forward. Young people may learn for the tests from textbooks but this does not necessarily mean they can think independently. Which takes us back to the English pedagogical approach. And I have a suggestion which is radical but I believe would make a real difference. Just imagine if every young person had an iPad. This device is a platform for access to iTunesU and iBooks – the former offering teacher-curated access to digital resources and the latter a turbo-charged book created by the teacher for their learners. This digitisation of learning answers Miss Truss’ desire for every child to have a textbook as well as the propensity of teachers in this country to ensure every child in their classroom is engaged, inspired and challenged whatever their ability. Certainly in our school we are piloting the use of such enriched resources and already can see that access to a range of resources beyond the capacity of a traditional textbook is making a real difference to the learning environment. This is real independent learning – students engage with the digital material in ways which are meaningful for them.
Expensive solution? Yes. But what price do we place on education? As the late Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Surely this should be motivation enough.