Monthly Archives: March 2016

Project Halpin – Reading books I think I might not agree with.

7215063582_ff54ecf9e0_mAt the end of February I went to hear David Halpin’s public lecture at Leeds Trinity University, where I work and where Prof. Halpin is a Visiting Professor of Education. This inaugural lecture was entitled ‘Tears of Longing: The Role of Nostalgia and Tradition in Education’. I went along expecting a thoroughly enjoyable evening of having my prejudices confirmed by an engaging and well informed speaker. I hoped also to pick up a few reading tips along the way and to leave the conference room at LTU with my world view strengthened.

I’d even had a little bet on with myself. I thought that this talk would be about the inadequacy of policy makers’ nostalgic view of education – the silliness of looking back to a golden age that never was when trying to come up with solutions and policies for today. I was expecting him to cite the crocodile tears of politicians whose ‘golden age’ rhetoric was a cover for uncharted change, giving the un-tested a patina of age and experience.

Prof. Halpin did take aim in particular at the poverty of thought which leads politicians back towards grammar schools, as a tool of social mobility, when all the evidence points to their role in depressing social mobility for most of the population. He claimed that policy makers ‘half shut their eyes’ when thinking nostalgically about their own experiences, so that they could ignore legitimate questions, and that they used tradition as a way of avoiding these questions.

However, Halpin also said that we all use nostalgia, and that its use could be negative or positive. As a tool, nostalgic thinking could help us to open our eyes to a current situation, and to resist the way things are or are changing in the present, as well as challenging others’ vision of the future.   The crucial thing is being honest with ourselves about the character of the nostalgia in which we’re engaged.

As an example he talked about his own experiences as a boy who got enough marks to pass the eleven plus exam where he lived.  He recalled how he had been put on stage at the school assembly, and presented as a role model to the others in his primary school, and the realisation that he would be separated from his friends.  He talked about how he has met them since, and how different their lives have been. But he also talked about how that change in his life led to a successful and fulfilling career.

This was all very interesting, but I think I missed the point until I asked a question at the end. I asked him about the more recent tendency for reformers to denigrate the comprehensive system, despite the fact that it helped many of them to reach Oxbridge universities.  David’s reply made me think.  He asked why they thought that, and said that it was up to the proponents of comprehensive education to ask why even those who had benefited from it were questioning its effects.  Very clearly he said that there were ‘legitimate questions’ to ask about comprehensive  education.

A few days later my youngest, who has been obsessively reading the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan, said to me that she’d like to learn ancient Greek. She’ll go to our local comprehensive school, which is a great school that is looking after our eldest really well.   They don’t teach Greek, ancient or otherwise.  This request really got me thinking, as I realised that there wasn’t going to be much chance of her learning classics unless I used my privileged resources to get that for her – which I will probably do.  Not everyone can do that, and perhaps this leads us to ‘legitimate questions’ about comprehensive education.

Recent discussions with other academics, debates that I’ve had online with other supporters of the Labour movement, and the recent whitepaper have made me realise that we all, on all sides of political and ideological thought have the tendency to leave our nostalgia, and our basic assumptions un-examined.  I started to think about how I have read lots of books, but not many I didn’t agree with. If there are legitimate questions to ask about the positions that we hold (and there are, for all of us), and our ideas are better, stronger and more effective if we take care to interrogate and scrutinise them properly, we need to challenge them.

To that end I’ve given myself a bit of a project.  I’m going to read a book a month that, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

March – The Other Invisible Hand, by Julian Le Grand

April – The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

May – Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou

June – Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools by Robert Peal


I’m halfway through the Le Grand, and in the context of the current white paper it’s fascinating.  However, I need more suggestions – can anyone help?

Undergrad Day

17303176035_035cd2da96_zToday is undergraduate day. I’m teaching a module on SEN in the secondary school to my undergrad PE and Secondary Ed students in May, and I want to be well prepared. I read an interesting study by Benjamin Bloom earlier in the year (1984) about ‘Mastery’ and his attempts to solve the ‘2 sigma problem’, i.e. the 2 standard deviations in increased attainment that he found between pupils taught in ‘conventional classrooms’ and those who were instead ‘tutored’ one to one or in very small groups.  I think that aspects of this study can help me with my students.

This study seems to be one of the original studies that informed the current vogue for ‘mastery’ approaches in teaching and assessment. The recommendations are for iterative cycles of formative testing which allow a student to reach the desired ‘mastery’ level of attainment. I’ll not go into that now (perhaps I’ll plant a seed in the ‘post-garden’ and come back to it later). Suffice to say that I think that Bloom underestimates the time cost, and fails to make out what he really means by mastery (80% in a test score is the usual level – which we can see means pretty much nothing).

What grabbed me more is an idea that that Bloom develops from Leyton (1983) of techniques that “enhance the students’ initial cognitive entry pre-requisites” (who said that educational research can’t be easily understood?!). Broadly, this means ‘making sure they know and can do the things they’ll need to be able to do before they start to learn the new things that you have to teach them’.

Today I’ll be reading through my course materials, looking at the development activities I want them to do during the 10 weeks of the module, and working out a list of these ‘prerequisites’.  I’ll then scrap the first week’s sessions and turn them into a ‘prerequisites’ week.  I might have to think of a snappier title… any suggestions?

Where will this lead?  I’m hoping to make an ‘knowledge organiser’ which the students themselves have to complete, and which I’ll then check over formatively.  I’m sceptical that an organiser on its own will do anything (I need to make sure they read it and commit the ideas to memory for a start), but I’m hoping that if they have a first go at coming up with the ideas, which I then correct, this will give me an idea of where they’re coming from, and them a couple of chances to understand the material they need to know.   I’m hoping that my prerequisites audit will also help inform decisions about the way I structure the workshops and seminars that follow, as well as the content of the weekly lecture, as well as giving me some clear hooks and points to attach to ongoing quizzing.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bloom, B.S., 1984. The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational researcher, 13(6), pp.4-16.

What is a textbook?  III What are textbooks for?

8788334370_3ba12a82ae_mOne can’t read about textbooks for long without coming across Tim Oates’ policy paper (1) ‘Why textbooks count’ (Oates 2014). Mr Oates was one of the expert panel on the review of the National Curriculum – I think he was the only person who was left advising the government from the Panel after 2012 when Michael Gove removed the others.  He draws heavily on the work of the Panel and its Review in drawing some of his conclusions.   He identifies the purposes of textbooks in lots of different ways, but in my reading of his paper these seem to fall into three categories.

  • Purposes at System / State Level
  • Purposes at Classroom Level
  • Purposes at Student Level

I’ll be dealing with each of these in turn, and each in a separate blog post. First though I want to say something about the paper’s methodology. Oates seems to take almost a critical-realist position in that he acknowledges that textbooks are just one subsection of one of 14 aspects or ‘system elements’ that contribute to the workings of education systems – we could say that success or failure are emergent phenomena which depend on the structures which form between these elements which are lower in the system of causation.  These elements he has adapted from the 13 ‘control factors’ mentioned in his 2010 paper ‘Could do better’ (Oates 2010), and which grow out of Schmidt and Prawat’s 2006 paper.

Oates 2014 paper is focused on textbooks – so these are the main topic of discussion, as you would expect other elements are only mentioned.   However his acknowledgement of the complexity of such systems is only a nod.  In effect this the kind of nod you make across the street at someone, whilst hoping that they won’t engage you in conversation that disrupts your own valuable thinking.   This comes out strongly whilst looking at the potential for ‘control’ (Oates 2010) or ‘coherence’ (Oates 2014) that textbooks seem to offer at a system level and which I think Oates overplays as a result.

Purposes at System / State Level

For Oates there seem to be three main purposes that textbooks perform at a state level:

  1. Supporting national education policy, as part of government’s steering system
  2. Implementing the detail of national curricula.
  3. Improving or maintaining high quality outcomes across the jurisdiction.

Oates central point, and perhaps his central warning to publishers and authors of textbooks, is that attaining these three aims requires there to be a high degree of coherence between textbooks and the values and intentions of the system and or curriculum.  In Oates’ view obtaining this coherence in systems where ‘market failure’ has led to the publishing and adoption of ‘instrumental’ textbooks focussed on the requirements of examinations, might require State control over the contents of textbooks.  This was the situation in England in 2014 as Oates saw it – control might be the only way to fix this failed market.

In case we worry too much about the prospect of state oversight in to the content of textbooks, Oates tells us an interesting and comforting story of the development of a coherent curriculum in Finland, and the role that state control had there.  I’ll come back to his story in further posts.  His reading of Finnish history is that there were 4 phases in which the Finns evolved their educational ideas, and their systems; passing through desires to establish high quality education of teachers, growing concerns about ‘spread of attainment’ (15), to the foundation of a comprehensive system under a ‘systemwide reform policy’ which was ‘established’.  We should note well the use of the passive voice here. We’re in a strange land where policies ‘are established’ and curricula and systems have ‘values and intentions’ without any detailed mention of the people who established the policies, or who had these intentions or proper discussion about the processes by which their values were shaped and shared with any by others.

According to Oates, the enactment of this policy required ‘heavily deployed inspection’, ‘high levels of legal prescription’ and central control of the content of textbook.  However, these lasted only as long as was necessary to ensure that teachers and teaching was ‘consistent with full comprehensivisation of the system.  Following the ‘thorough ‘re-conditioning’ of the system around the principles of fully comprehensive education’ there was a ‘strategic move to higher levels of school autonomy’ (15).

Textbooks form a vital part of Oates’ story, as a ‘vehicle of transmission, and of consolidation of new values and practices of the reformed system’, and once their coherence was achieved the Finnish Ministry, it’s mission finished, could step back from controlling textbook contents.   For Oates this is an example of how state control over textbooks can, when these are improved in ways that meet Schmidt and Prawat and Prawat’s criterion of coherence, lead to rapid improvements in a jurisdiction.

Coherence – top down, or bi-directional?

This vision of coherence is ‘top down’ model in which the values and intentions of the curriculum or system are ‘mediated’, or ‘transferred’ downwards using the system elements necessary for coherence (which as we’ve seen Oates referred to as ‘control’ elements in their earlier guise (2010)). It seems daft to have to point this out, but systems and curricula don’t have values or intentions.  They embody the values and intentions of the people that controlled their writing.  Their success or failure is partially explained by the way that these cohere with the other people who are working in the system.  Coherence is bi-directional, and requires elements of consent as well as control.

Schmidt and Prawat’s 2006 article, and further study of Finnish history also seems to suggest that the issue of coherence is more complicated, and perhaps more bi-directional than Oates presents it.  My reading of Aho et al (2006) suggests that comprehensivisation as a ‘systemwide reform policy’ far from being ‘established’,  enjoyed considerable support from political parties of left and right, and reflected a shift in societies attitudes and expectations that they had for the way that state education provided for the needs of their children, and the needs of their society.   In this way ‘was established’ becomes

“Legislators and educators rallied to craft a blueprint for reform. After much committee work, experiments, pilot programs, input from the elementary school teachers’ union and above all, vast political support and consensus, the Finnish Parliament decided in 1963 to reform compulsory education using the comprehensive school model.” (2006 p.34)

It seems that the political context in which coherence is required is as important as the mechanisms of ‘coherence’.  On the first page of the article Schmidt and Prawat claim that:

“a firm sense of what must happen comes from the top, along with the political capability to bring it about”.


Schmidt and Prawat develop this idea of ‘political capability’ by reference to the idea of authority, which they suggests is maintained in two ways –

“First, it must be one to which teachers are willing to listen, that can speak with authority on the issue of what to teach and how to assign priority to that content relative to other important topics in the Curriculum.”

The second way in which authority is maintained is by ensuring the ‘credibility’ of curricular instruments, such as the ‘grade specific goals’, which we might call a national curriculum, and the specification of examination content, or ‘examples of specific kinds of items on the year-end examination’.  Thy say that such instruments will have ‘credibility’ when they ‘satisfy the criterion of being capable of ‘inspiring belief’ (656). The crucial question therefore is whether there is enough authority in the body which seeks to control or cohere the system, and it seems that this authority rests on credibility.

We can see from the Finnish example that such credibility and the authority that it generated did not arise in a vacuum – that the policy was not ‘established’, but that it was desired, demanded and eagerly approached by the majority of the Finnish people.  The ‘comprehensivisation’ that textbooks were checked for was a particular vision for a particular time in a particular place, and the consensus and coherence was bi-directional.

The OECD book ‘Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education’ (2011) gives us more detail about how this ‘credibility’ arose in Finland’s successful reforms in the late 60s and early 70s.

“ A major vehicle for addressing the anxieties of veteran teachers and resolving some of the difficulties inherent in merging the formerly parallel sets of schools into a unified system was the development of a new national core curriculum for the comprehensive school. The process for developing the curriculum engaged hundreds of teachers and took place over a five-year period (1965-1970).” (p.120)

Authority in England?

This seems to contrast with what happened during the review of the National Curriculum and the consequent re-drafting.  Indeed the concerns of the members of the Panel who left it seem to focus on exactly the kinds of things that the OECD book also highlights as markers of success in Finland.  The departing members were concerned with the lack of consultation with educators and educationalists, and the pace of the process that took place.  In addition they seemed to worry about the tight focus of the continuing review on comparison of subject content in different jurisdictions (2), rather than taking a broader view of the way that pupils move through the different parts of these systems (BERA 2012).

As noted, there is some evidence of this bi-directionality in coherence in some of the evidence that Oates cites, but his acknowledgement of this is cursory and undermines his argument for the driving force that state control over textbook contents can be, as we’ll see in the next post which focuses on the role that he sees for textbooks in the classroom.   What I think I’m edging towards in my reading of these articles is that what is missing from Oates’s paper, and his argument about control over textbook content, is the ‘vast political support and consensus’ in respect of which political nations can demand coherence, and which justified the centralisation that Finland required in the 1960s and 70s.

  1. Interestingly the Cambridge Assessment page ( on which you can find the paper, refers to it as ‘New research’. I’m not sure that it qualifies as research – it’s definitively a policy paper. The rhetorical weight of the words ‘New research’ as opposed to those attached to ‘policy paper’ is obviously greater and adds to the impression that this is serious, empirically supported stuff – rather than the serious ‘well-informed reckon’ which it actually appears on reading it.
  2. Also interestingly Tim Oates implies that these objections were informed or motivated by postmodern beliefs which have infiltrated (a word he borrows from Marsden (2001)) educationalists. There’s not a hint of postmodernism, not even much worrying about imbalances of power or the imposition of meaning in the letters that Andrew Pollard and Mary James wrote to Gove to raise their concerns.  I think I’ll come back to this in another post.

Aho, E., Pitkanen, K. and Sahlberg, P., 2006. Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland Since 1968. Education Working Paper Series. Number 2. Human Development Network Education.

BERA 2012 – Letters between Michael Gove and the members of the Review Panel, retreived from

Oates, T., 2014. Why textbooks count. Cambridge Assessment.

Oates, T., 2011. Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England. Curriculum journal, 22(2), pp.121-150.

OECD, 2011. Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results, in: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, pp. 117–135.



What is a textbook?  II The textbook definition

8788334358_10a8460c36_mThe OED has some very interesting and definitions for the word ‘text-book’. An entry from 1730’s Dictionarium Britannicum has defines it (“in Universities”) as

“a Classik Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines”

So, we go from copying to inter-textual dictating in one book, which must have made reading between the lines easier and more restrictive at the same time.

Our post-modern age means we have to consider putting more than one interpretation in a history textbook, or at least to recognise (perhaps make a nod to) the fact that other interpretations are available.   Finding ‘Room for an Interpretation’ in the sense of this ‘Text-Book’ is at least an explicit insertion of the Master’s view.  I’m enough of a realist to hold on to the possibility that what happened in the past and how people have interpreted it are separate things, even if it might be approaching an impossibility for us to finally decide between the two in many cases. Some books written for children about history make an art of obscuring the line between interpretation and the past itself.

Other definitions are perhaps more obvious.  The second in the OED is

“A book used as a standard work for the study of a particular subject; now usually one written specially for this purpose; a manual of instruction in any science or branch of study, esp. a work recognized as an authority”

Do we have ‘the standard work’ in history teaching?  I guess the closest we have come to date is the various editions of Ben Walsh’s Modern World History, and perhaps Ian Dawson’s books on medicine through time, and I hear that his The Tudor Century is highly regarded.

Apparently one of the main reasons why Ian’s Tudor book changes hands regularly in second-hand editions on Amazon is the exercises and tasks, which teachers really appreciate as helping students understand the topic.  One of the things that I look at when working out whether to buy a textbook is whether the tasks and exercises are any good – and it is also something that I pondered over whilst writing my own books. I have used Ben’s book for most of my career as a teacher, and found that the breadth of information and the tasks were invaluable.  I added my own expertise as a teacher of my pupils, and my knowledge of the exam they were going to sit when using it in my lesson.

As an aside, the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science tells us that these exercises are a new thing – before the early 19th Century textbooks contained information only.  They were standard sources of information on topics which presented this information without any need or any way for the person reading to assimilate, check or test their understanding.

Interestingly these two themes – the instrumentalist purposes behind textbooks which refer to and help students pass examinations, and the ‘expansive’ focus of those textbooks which teach beyond or around the specification also emerge as the foci of Tim Oate’s policy paper ‘Why Texbooks Count’, which I hope to write a post on later when I’ve finished taking it to bits to see how it works.  For now it is interesting to note that neither of these two books could be accused of an instrumentalist approach, but as a teacher I have, when needed, brought that approach to books that I have used.  This seems to run contra to Tim Oate’s position that much of the textbook publication in England has been far too narrowly instrumentalist.

A couple of more points to close:

In law a ‘textbook’ is a book of legal discussion and theory which can be cited in court.  By convention only works written by authors who had since died could be used in court, though nowadays even living writers are referred to. There is a special category of legal textbook called a ‘Book of Authority’ – a (classik?) book which has the same authority as case law from the period in which it was written.

Finally, textbook can (and more often did) have a derogatory use – textbook meant ‘general’ or perhaps a superficial examination of something, but now it has come to mean something more like an ‘exemplary’ version of that thing.  A textbook manoeuvre, case or approach is exactly the perfect one to use.

This seems to suggest that there is power in the textbook, and perhaps also that the ‘Master’ of this power is the person doing the writing, the dictating. I’m not sure about this though. As an author of textbooks I certainly felt that there were many other people and places where and from whom power was emanating, as was discussed briefly in the last post.



“text-book, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 March 2016.

Olesko, K.(2003). textbook. In The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 Mar. 2016, from

What is a textbook?

8781754999_4ec835c0cb_zIn 2010 I started writing a textbook on Italian Unification. Over the next three years, with the help of my co-writer Pam Canning and our editor Ian Dawson we made something of which I am really quite proud. The book tries to go beyond the specifications that it supported at the time (and the ones that are current). Not only does it consider things that not mentioned in those specification, it also takes the idea of history as an ongoing discipline seriously. In particular it tries to deal with ideas such as Romanticism, the Enlightenment and concepts such as nationalism in ways that I think will help students reach a deeper understanding of the period.

I can’t pretend that I set out with those aims – they came partly to me as I read for the book – because my knowledge of the period developed greatly as I did this. The main sources of those aims was Ian – who gently pointed things out and encouraged me to think historiographically and the very kind Christopher Duggan whose own book The Force of Destiny was inspiring, and who acted as academic adviser to our work. My ambition increased as the book was written; though I didn’t expect it to change the world, I hoped instead that it would be a good textbook.

With the new GCSE specifications have come new opportunities for writing textbooks at KS4. I recently signed off the proofs of a book for the AQA spec on Restoration England. This one I approached with more awareness, informed by a great talk I went to at SHP by Abigail Tazzyman and Bridget Lockyer, from the Centre for Women’s Studies, at the University of York. They have a website which contains some guidance on better integrating the history of women in lessons. I also met Kate Moorse at that conference who wrote a great book called ‘The changing role of Women’ in 1996 and which I remember using on my PGCE whilst training at Lord William’s School in Thame. Both experiences informed my approach I tried to use when writing the Restoration book, and I hope that this comes across when people read it.

I also wrote two sections for books on the Edexcel spec, both of which were about ‘the historic environment’. The ink is still wet on the last one, about crime and policing in Whitechapel in the late 19th century. Both were fascinating, both required me to learn a lot and even to do some research of my own, and both saw me agonise over inclusion of elements, texts, sources, questions.

That wasn’t the limit of the thinking and questioning. As an author of textbooks I found myself constrained as well as informed by the specification (more constrained and frustrated by some specs, but I won’t tell you which) and by my experiences as a teacher. The number of pages were limited, the number of hours that I knew my peers in classrooms would have is also limited – very much in some schools. I knew too that some classes would be taught by non-specialists, and that probably many of the teachers who used one of these books would not have studied these periods or topics at high levels, as indeed I had not before starting to plan and research the books.

So I couldn’t do everything that I wanted. I had hoped to convey more of a sense of women as politicians and powerbrokers in Charles IInd’s court, but space prevented this. The voices of people arrested, tried and imprisoned in the late 19th century are very hard to hear, only their answers to questions in Old Bailey reports, or a journalist’s summary record of their police-court testimonies survive. Writing the blitz involved selection from an embarrassment of sources, thanks to modern archiving, digitisation and the work of Mass Observation.
I final got around to reflecting on this writing, all this activity this afternoon. Apart from the thinking outlined above, I realise that I have never, once, thought about what it means to write a ‘textbook’, or what a ‘textbook’ is or for, nor even I have I systematically considered how textbooks might be used. This seems to be an obvious direction in which to investigate. Watch for further text!