Should maths be taught from government approved textbooks?

Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, would like to see the introduction of a “quality framework” against which maths textbooks could be assessed. Is this a strong move to improve the national standards in mathematics or government meddling in curriculum being taken one step too far?

Let’s be clear that when you cut through the language of “quality framework” what is sitting behind here is a government sanctioned textbook for the teaching of mathematics. But would a national textbook for mathematics really help us raise the standard of mathematics in the nation or are there other factors which may have greater impact?

Here are my five concerns about a national mathematics textbook.

1: It will limit attainment and we will lower all students to the lowest acceptable standard.
My first concern is that the implementation of a new national curriculum becomes void if the state then controls the textbooks for curriculum delivery. The purpose of the National Curriculum is to provide a minimum entitlement for all children. Schools are encouraged to develop their own curriculum that builds from this agreed national minimum entitlement. A school curriculum should have at its heart the national curriculum to which we all adhere but if this is the only aspect of a school’s curriculum then the national curriculum becomes restricting rather than liberating. A state sanctioned textbook in mathematics could have exactly that effect. One of the positive aspects of our national curriculum in England and Wales is that we allow children to develop at their own rate. We encourage pupils to go beyond the curriculum boundaries for their year group and we introduce concepts to pupils when they are ready. Pupils in such a system can exceed the expectations laid down by the national curriculum. A state sanctioned textbook for the subject can only expect the agreed minimum and therefore would become restricting. Pupils would have be expected to complete the book by the end of the school year, but what of the pupil that could go beyond the confines of that book. As opposed to encouraging pupils to excel and allowing each individual to achieve to his or her maximum we could well end up lowering everybody to the lowest common denominator; the basic level expected of the national curriculum.

2: We will kill teacher creativity and in doing so promote lazy teaching that fails to respond to the need of individuals in the class.
A defined textbook for a subject encourages teaching by numbers. It promotes lazy teaching and the best teachers within the system will be those who adhere to the materials and complete the necessary work with all pupils. The teachers that were supplementing the school scheme with exciting creative teaching will be pushed aside. Forget the need for initial teacher training as surely anybody can instruct a pupil as to which page we are working from today.

3: Pupils will become bored and bored pupils misbehave.
Pupil engagement and motivation will suffer. The most successful teachers are those that engage with their pupils and make the learning interesting and relevant. How do you do that if the materials is controlled centrally? We will run the risk of taking away the creativity that engages pupils and makes the learning relevant and interesting, fun even. The end result will be greater disaffection and almost certainly more behaviour problems. Bored students, especially bored high attaining students who are not being challenged, show behaviour problems.

4: We will further dumb down the entry standard for teaching.
Any attempt to excessively control the teaching taking place in the classroom has the effect of blurring curriculum delivery and teaching. The two are different and we need to avoid any attempt to make it appear as though a teacher’s main role is delivering the curriculum content. The learning takes place through the curriculum and the curriculum itself is not the learning. A consistent message about high performing education systems is that they need well qualified teachers. The national strategies of the previous administration are an example of how a content laden curriculum distracts from the core purpose of initial teacher training (ITT). One of the core roles of ITT is to prepare teachers for teaching. Not delivering curriculum, but teaching. Understanding pedagogy, understanding how children learn and developing the skills to adapt learning experiences to match the individuals in the class. If ITT is taken up with marching mindlessly through a content rich curriculum then we no longer require thinkers to step forward as teachers. We maybe don’t even need degree courses and the routes into teaching will become more varied with the end result of a national body of teachers who know only how to deliver a curriculum.

5: We are ignoring the elephant in the room.
Nick Gibb wants the UK to perform well in international comparative tests such as PISA. This proposal for a nationally sanctioned textbook for mathematics is coming directly from government ministers and their acolytes visiting Shanghai. The notion that Shanghai students perform well (my opinions on Shanghai’s performance can be seen here) because of a national textbook is laughably foolish. High performing school systems perform well usually on the back of significant cultural differences. To put it another way, they have adapted their high performing educational system to their own culture. In Shanghai many students come out of school and go on to additional private classes in the evening. Yet, in Finland, another high performing educational system, students come out of class with no homework until thirteen years old and are encouraged to spend time with their families or out playing. So, homework isn’t the consistent factor in high performing school systems and neither is the presence of a government controlled textbook. That might suit the politics and culture of China. The nation is used to government control of society and it is an accepted part of the culture. It isn’t however the consistent factor in high achieving school systems. So, what is the consistent factor in high achieving school systems? What should our ministers dispatched around the world have noticed and brought back if they want the UK to rise to the top of international rankings?
So, what is the elephant in the room? High performing school systems put their best graduates in front of classes. They don’t have one year fast track schemes to convert other professions into teaching; they don’t allow trainee teachers to bypass national standard testing by sitting university access qualifications in core subjects. Indeed, in Finland all teachers have a masters degree. They spend four years studying how to teach before they are allowed into classrooms. The result is a highly motivated, valued and trained workforce of teachers. If we cannot develop a highly motivated, valued and trained body of teachers then no amount of tinkering with the textbooks or raising the bar in national assessments will make any difference.

If we want a high performing educational system the secret is simple!
High performing educational systems have high performing teachers.

High performers: The secrets of successful schools
by Alistair Smith

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