Or a mule, maybe. You can lead a mule to textbooks.
About a month ago, there appeared a Conversation article by Rachel Marks, a researcher in primary education at the University of Brighton, in England. Based upon research for which she was the Principal Investigator, Marks’s article was about a UK government program, launched in 2016, where primary schools were offered matching funds to purchase mathematics textbooks. Marks and her colleagues concluded that schools substantially rejected the program: few schools took up the offer of subsidised texts, and fewer stuck with it.
The goal of the UK program was to have primary schools adopt a “mastery approach” to teaching mathematics, including the use of “east Asian style” textbooks, and with accompanying training and online resources. The two textbook series approved for the program were Maths – No Problem!, which Tony Gardiner has praised here, and Power Maths. Marks and co make clear, however, that having most primary schools adopt any text would have been a dramatic change. A TIMSS table included in the Marks’ research paper makes clear how infrequently mathematics texts are used in English primary schools as a primary source:
We have only skimmed Marks and her colleagues’ report on the survey, but what we read was informative and interesting. The paper seems devoid of the usual ideological language and is clearly written, with care taken to describe the varied usage and semi-usage of textbooks and the (commercial and ad hoc) alternatives; such use generally lies upon a spectrum, making it difficult to summarise textbook use as a simple yes or no. Nonetheless, it is obvious that in England there is much more “no” than “yes”.
Of the schools which responded to Marks’s survey, just a third eligible for funding took up the UK government offer (p 10). Then, of those schools that gave it a go, 37% had “largely or completely abandoned” using the approved textbooks, with a further 24% continuing to use the textbooks “in a partial manner but putting no further funding into the provision of consumables associated with the schemes” (p 76). The percentages speak clearly enough, and is the basis of Marks’s Conversation article:
In all, only just over 10% of [presumably responding] primary schools that were eligible for the textbook scheme took it up and are still using it in full.
If the results seem clear, and we’re not really contesting them, there are nonetheless a couple points worth noting: on the validity of Marks’s survey; and, more importantly, about the message Marks feels that these results send, and that she herself sends.
Marks indicates that the survey was distributed to all 17,038 English state primary schools, of which the researchers received 664 “valid” responses. That doesn’t sound like a great response rate, although Marks throws around some “power calculation” jargon in an attempt to assure us that this 644 is “in excess of the minimum ideal sample size”, and makes for a “representative sample”. We are not so assured.
Marks might have had a suitably representative sample if the sample had been random in some reasonable sense, but of course it was not. Schools chose whether or not to respond to Marks’s survey, and there are very good reasons to suspect which schools would have been inclined to complete the survey, and which would have chosen to ignore it. It seems a fair bet that the textbook program was received significantly worse than Marks suggests.
As for the supposed implications of the survey, Marks and co end their paper with an Implications and Recommendations chapter (p 78), with Key Messages for all concerned. These key messages are highlighted in the Executive Summary (p 10), including:
Department for Education: “Consider fewer, full or majority-funded, strategically targeted, funding initiatives.”
National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics: “Support schools to match or tailor existing resources to their pedagogic approach.”
Publishers: “Further investigate why teachers adapt materials and provide support for this.”
School Leaders: “Enable teachers to be involved in decisions about which scheme to adopt and how / when to use it.”
Researchers: “Deepen understanding of uptake and attrition patterns in the [Department for Education] textbook-funding, to enhance the implementation of future initiatives.”
So, plenty of recommending that anyone and everyone pay greater attention to teachers, to what they want and why. And this is the message with which Marks closes her Conversation article:
Our research underlines that we need a solid understanding of how maths teaching is done in England before adding in any new initiatives or policy – not only what’s happening in classrooms, but the complex reasons behind why it is happening. We hope governments learn from the inefficient administration reported here before implementing further new or borrowed policies.
Yeah, well, maybe. Undoubtedly, the textbook program didn’t go according to plan, and there are lessons to be learned. But it is not at all clear to us that Marks has learned the most important lesson, and the most obvious lesson.
In the introduction to the survey results, Marks and co note the current low usage of textbooks, with the table above, and contemplate the reasons for this:
Possibly because of the previously poor quality of texts available, textbook use is somewhat controversial in England, particularly in primary schools. Across the UK, pupils tend to hold critical views of textbooks (Wang & Fan, 2021), citing textbook-based teaching as ‘boring’ and ‘tedious’ (Ni Shuilleabhain et al., 2021). Indeed, it is concerns that textbooks may come across to pupils as dull which leads many teachers to supplement the resource (Silver, 2022). Further, while textbook-schemes have been demonstrated to increase teacher subject knowledge and confidence, resulting in pupils holding a more “robust understanding of mathematics” (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics [NCETM], 2015, p.1), many teachers worry that such textbook-schemes have the potential to exert curricular and pedagogic directions. There is a fear that textbook-schemes have the potential to reduce the role of the teacher to that of a ‘technician’ (Boyd & Ash, 2018, p.221), delivering pre-packaged lessons to a compliant class and eroding teacher autonomy (Gear, 2022; Turvil, 2021).
One could write an entire post, an entire book, about the nonsense beliefs outlined in this paragraph, and of the depressing implications. But we’ll make it short. We’ll simply note that with this background it is entirely predictable that the generous textbook offer would fall on barren ground.
In Marks and co’s summary, they note that the East Asian model of teaching was “not being replicated with any fidelity”, and that “This is not surprising” (p 77):
England has a very different educational history, and, importantly, a different relationship with design of and approach to using textbooks. Pedagogical practices in primary mathematics in England are – and have always been – far removed from a single jurisdiction-wide mandated textbook model.
Which is really the point. Less time and money could be spent on offering teachers things, less pandering to teachers’ nonsense beliefs, and more energy could be spent on instructing teachers on what to do, on mandating the use of good materials in practices that work.