To teach from the textbook or not?
Before we begin, I should probably say that I am generally of the opinion that a good history teacher uses a textbook as a tool. They know what they want students to understand and make use of the textbook as a resource to this end, deviating from it where the intended aims are not met by the author. It was a great tragedy that so many teachers during the 1990s and 2000s were told that to even see a textbook in a lesson was a sign of failure. I certainly understand therefore why there has been an enormous backlash against this anti-book culture which seems to pervade in many schools. Of course, I also know why so many people were wary of using textbooks which promoted a very particular kind of history, or which ignored large chunks of the wider world story. Sadly, I don’t have space for more on this debate here, but there are some interesting examples of how this debate has played out internationally too. [i]
In my view, therefore, I tend to check over a textbook for the types of questions and activities it sets, however it is not usually the prime reason I would buy it or otherwise. To take a good example of this, I generally love the ‘Citizens’ Minds’ book by Longman, but I find some of the activities too detailed and time consuming to be practical in a normal history scheme of work. However, many recent voices on the issue of textbook use in schools, have suggested that the textbook should effectively be the progression model for students. This is coupled with the fact that there are large numbers of non-specialists teaching history. Addressing these perceived issues have been part of the drive for the ‘Knowing History’ series released by Robert Peal. Given that Peal is claiming so many other textbooks are “dreadful” at securing progression, it is crucial to consider the types of questions and activities contained within his books, but also those which are being labelled as failing.
What are students asked to recall?
One does not have to look far at the moment to see the influence of neuroscience on mainstream education. Courses are popping up all over the place explaining how we can “make history stick” or promote long term memory in history lessons. It is great to see the profession responding to more recent developments in theory, and I am sure that the new drive for higher quality CPD has had a big influence on this. Such CPD is often based around the work of a few “celebrity” neuroscientists such as Howard-Jones or Willingham.
One of the major maxims which has come out of Willingham’s work is that recall and testing are a crucial part of the testing process.[ii] As such, it is worth exploring how often students are asked in textbooks to recall information they have seen in the text they have read. I am going to focus on the medieval life sections I used previously for this comparison, and focus on the knowledge students are asked to recall/extract from the text they have read. The double page spread from ‘Knowing History’ on the medieval village has 5 questions (as with every spread), whilst the sample section I used from the SHP book has around 10 mini-activities which get students to recall/extract in some way. If students were to complete the questions and activities in both books, this is the knowledge they might have recalled in the process: