There’s a link between high test scores and textbook use, says school minister. But England outperformed some heavy textbook users. What, if anything, does that prove?

Janet Downs's picture
England is among the top ten countries for primary maths, according to the Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2012.

But instead of praising English 10 year-olds, schools minister Elizabeth Truss used TIMSS to attack low textbook use in England.

TIMSS showed other countries used textbooks far more, she said.  She praised four countries for heavily using textbooks to teach Maths to 10-year-olds.  But English 10-year-olds outperformed three of them: Germany, Poland and Sweden.

Only 8% of English 14-year-olds used a textbook for Science, Truss said.  Textbook use was higher in Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Chinese Taipei.  But only two outperformed English 14-year-olds: Korea and Chinese Taipei.   Hong Kong’s score was not significantly different to England’s, and Malaysia’s 14-year-olds significantly underperformed.

These figures suggest text book use had little bearing on TIMSS scores.

But that didn’t stop Truss claiming textbook use is essential for high results in TIMSS.  She blamed “child centred learning” for the decline in their use.  She implied declining to use textbooks meant unstructured learning.  But it doesn’t follow that not using textbooks means a chaotic approach to teaching.  Conversely, using a textbook doesn’t automatically mean learning is structured except in the sense that pupils can be told to turn to page 100 and do exercises 20-30 while the teacher gets on with some marking.

But that anecdote is unfair – textbooks can be used effectively.   But so can other methods of teaching including the derided worksheets.  Textbooks provide a ready-made structure but so do other materials.  But Truss says worksheets are tatty bits of paper which get stained with orange juice in the bottom of bags.  But the same fate awaits dog-eared textbooks.

And they’re heavier.  And more expensive.

Oddly, considering Truss was addressing the British Educational Suppliers Association and the Publishers’ Association, she attacked one particular book which, she said, grew from the view that textbooks stifled creativity.   It’s the UK edition of the Anti-Coloring Book* which provides templates to encourage children to use their imagination.  But these ideas didn’t impress little Elizabeth when she'd been given a copy –she'd scribbled over the pages.

Little Elizabeth, according to grow-up Truss, would have much preferred colouring-in.

That’s not to say that colouring-in isn’t an enjoyable activity.  And it can be a teaching tool (eg finding hidden triangles and colouring them).   It can persuade shy children to talk if someone sits alongside them and also colours.   

But colouring-in, used inappropriately, becomes busy work.  A worksheet, used inappropriately, becomes busy work.  A textbook, used inappropriately, becomes busy work.  And busy work keeps pupils quiet and seemingly engaged but there’s not much learning going on.

Truss said the new national curriculum only provides a framework - it’s up to teachers to decide methodology.  But as so often with ministerial pronouncements, they tell teachers how best to do it:  don’t use group work; no talking – it’s only chatter; and, the latest, use textbooks.

ADDENDUM 16.12 18 December 2013

I confess I'm stumped.  I can't find the source of the figures cited by Elizabeth Truss for textbook use by countries participating in TIMSS.  I looked in the NFER analysis of TIMSS 2011 results but the data wasn't there.  So I looked at TIMSS and PIRLS Home for the results for Maths and Science but the only reference to textbooks was in the question "How much is your school's capacity to provide instruction affected by a shortage or inadequacy of the following?"  But I couldn't find anything about actual textbook use.  If anyone knows where the data is which shows the percentage of teachers in each TIMSS participating country who used textbooks to teach maths and science I would be grateful if you could put the link in a comment below.


*Published in the UK by educational publisher Scholastic.  Details here.
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