Oh, (no!) more marking: getting trainees to examine the impact of their planning and teaching.

More marking, more writing about marking.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that our trainees write about the impact of their work – how they or understand the *what* in WWW and EBI. Our second PGCE / PGCert module asks our students to plan a sequence of learning (SOL), in the light of some reading about teaching that topic, and about using specific techniques or approaches in teaching that topic. The assignment then requires the trainees to evaluate the impact, the effectiveness of the plan, and of how they implemented it.

Different subjects and different partners take very different approaches to the assignment. And, we’ve a range of them, from Social Sciences to Drama, and Physics to D&T, with PE, maths, Science, English and the usual suspects in between. Some subjects take to the idea of a sequence very well, others are more suspicious of the idea that some aspects, maybe knowledge, or activities or even the assessment of those things can really be ‘sequenced’.This means that we take a fairly ecumenical, but at the same time relative focused approach to the variety of styles we see, and how they have tackled the resulting essay.

Clarity and Focus on Progress

In terms of focus we ask them to concentrate on the specific topic – so rather than consider the literature about ‘progress’ more generally, we encourage them to look at professional and classroom resources that help them to understand what that might look like in relation to *this* set of concepts and skills. Sometimes trainees really struggle with this. Some of the drafts we discuss get pulled towards a mechanistic or managerial approach, perhaps focused on GCSE grades, or school-based data or descriptive data terms.

Generally, it isn’t until they have a good sense of *what* they are teaching that some are able to then think about how they will recognise when pupils understand or can do those things better. It can be helpful to ask them to look through a few different textbooks, or examination syllabus(es?) about a topic – so that they can bring together some of the big knowledge themes, and then start to consider sequencing, or what might be difficult.

Case Study 1 – History and Second Order Concept Confusion

I’ve been working with a few history PGCE trainees recently, trying to work out a way together of thinking about *what* it is when we are teaching. A very difficult example came in the form of a sequence, which was really about change and continuity, in the context of a school department which has confused it for ‘similarity and difference’ over time (see the TH180 ‘What’s the Wisdom on…Similarity and Difference (2020) for more on this).

Possibly because of this confusion, this trainee was really struggling to articulate *what* was being compared, in a series of lessons that had teaching about two empires very remote from each other in time and geography, and therefore *what* was the point of the comparison. Talking through aims using a table such as this might have helped, but not because it would or could have settled matters.

In this case we ended up by talking through what is historically difficult and purposeful about making comparisons between these cultures – what contextual or framing factors make it difficult, or less meaningful to make comparisons? What kinds of coloniality or other issues of evaluation and judgement can cloud issues? What specific *points* in time or groups in each society are we comparing (and, of course, why!). These are really hard questions, and often (as in this case) the trainee is also hedged in by the traditions and resources of the department in which they are working.

What it did help the trainee to clarify – a little – was the type of understanding in the comparison that they wanted to see in their pupils’ responses, spoken and written, to the questions and activities he had devised.

Case Study 2 – What does ‘progress look like’ – a maths trainee goes all in on the role of misconceptions and errors

About 5 years ago it was really common for some departments to ask trainees to use pre-teaching tests with a class, so that they can resolve the question of progress by comparing before and after scores. That doesn’t mean that tests, and scores can’t play a role in evaluating progress – there might be really important key ideas, concepts, facts that pupils really need to know, and be able to bring to mind. Making that part of a measure of progress can be really important – but even then it can’t be the only way.

I saw a brilliant maths lesson a few weeks ago as part of my external examining work, in which a trainee had created a sheet of worked, and partially worked, examples of quadratic equations for the end of a sequence of learning. Each of the lines was designed to address a common misconception which the students had been taught to avoid, or to increase levels of challenge and complexity. The first was a complete example, and each following line was therefore progressively more difficult. The real impact and importance of the sheet became clear in our discussions after the end of the lesson – it enabled the new teacher to see which of his pupils had made progress in respect of specific things that had been taught over the sequence, what support and reminders to give, and how to think about re-addressing specific issues in the coming lessons.

Ecumenical Matters

The ecumenical part comes in the way that students can approach the literature based professional justification for their plans for resourcing, teaching and activities. For some subjects, such as PE, History, MFL, RE, English, or Science, there’s often lots of subject community guidance, which can be directly related to the sequence or the topics and concepts at its heart. For others, this is often harder to find. In each case we provide reading lists, but in the case of the latter we also make it clear that they can use other subjects by analogy, and indeed any subject topic might be explained and justified by reference to a generic teaching and learning technique, especially those derived from ‘cog-sci’ approaches. If you want to know more about that then you can read the last blog post I wrote about the affordances, and difficulties, of that approach.

Those plans, the ideas about progress, the learning objectives and the potential activities and their outcomes are then used as the basis of an evaluation – a space for the trainees to compare their practice with the ideas in literature, and to analyse aspects of the pupils responses to them, in order to help them work out which aspects of the techniques, or their practice, they might focus on in their professional learning. As you’d imagine, we also take a focused but ecumenical approach to the form that this analysis might take, and provide the trainees with lots of guidance. The focus comes in the guidance that they should structure their evaluation around the specific aspects of planning and teaching that they developed in their literature review – and that this evaluation should be based on evidence.

Part of the guidance a consistent differentiation between “objectives” and “outcomes” in planning. The former being the aims, the direction, the detail of what is to be learned, mastered, improved or polished – whilst the latter are the artefacts, clues, the stuff that are left as a result of activities of the lesson. For all of the trainees there should be clear outlines of the aims in the sequence of learning that they have planned, but what washes up on the shore at the end of the lesson that will help them evaluate it? I’ll write about that a bit more in the final post.

(NB. This doesn’t mean that trainees can’t write about things like engagement, behaviour, or motivation – they do this, sometimes very successfully. That success depends on the extent that they can outline what is dissatisfactory about that issue, how it might relate to or impact on the planning, and what the professional, community, or subject literature might suggest in ways of addressing those issues).

Books I read about the Restoration of Charles II.

Helen on Twitter asked me today if I had any recommended reading for someone new to the Restoration period.   It seems like quite a long time since I wrote the book for Hodder, but as many teachers will be starting to think about how they might teach this next year, it seems that this might be a good time for me to set out what I read.

This list is quite eccentric, and doesn’t include any of the journal articles that I read. This is mainly because I didn’t practice what I preach, and failed to make a running reference list. Sorry about that… Anyway:

General Background Reading. 

 Can heartily recommend the Jackson, though I didn’t read it until after I had finished writing my book.  Of all the books on the list, read this if you’re new to Chas II.
The Restoration itself

 Can’t beat Ronald Hutton.  Understanding the different pressures on the Restoration settlement is crucial, and Hutton sets these out very well. Bliss is a very good short introduction – with clear analysis as well as narrative.  I’d read this one second after the Jackson if I were new to this.

Politics and Government.

Patterson most helpful here in setting out and explaining the shifting positions and conflicts between Council, Monarch and Parliament.  This would be the third book I’d read if approaching this for the first time.


One of the important things about the course is helping students see the bigger picture, the seeds of economic and imperial growth in the events of Charles II’s reign. Both of these books help with that.  Ferguson is good for big picture, though a little overblown.  Canny is a good survey.

Women in the Restoration period. 

The Fraser is brilliantly written and comprehensive, full of just the sort of interesting stories that history lessons need.


Lots of the spec is focussed on London. Picard is great for atmosphere, Porter is a joy to read, but is not just about the Restoration.

War, Plague and Fire 

The Jones is really good on naval tactics, the relationships between War, aristocracy and the coffers of the exchequer (and through this its relation to Parliament).  On the fire, Hanson is a bit fluffy, but a good page turner and possibly a source of interesting ‘interpretations’. Slack is absolutely forensic in the detail of the impact of the Plague.


 Speaking of interpretations, I found that the pictures and text of Ladybird books were a really good source for these. Would also recommend Our Island Story by Marshall, and G. M. Trevelyan  for same reason.

Writing to Argue

writingMy undergraduates are unwilling to argue, in person, or in writing. Their essays are often surveys of a scene, descriptions of a landscape. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a survey if that’s what you’ve been asked to do – but I want my students to have an informed opinion – and to have practised the art of coming to an opinion – so that they can work out when it’s necessary to change their minds about something.

So, in order to do that we’ve been presenting arguments.  This is something that I have done in the past with AS students who have often struggled in the change from more descriptive answers at GCSE to the direction and argument of an KS5 essay.  The discussion that follows will clearly show that my thinking is often influenced by my practice as a history teacher and the professional literature in Teaching History journal from the HA, or books written by teachers or academics such as Christine Counsel.  As I am still new to HE – I’m painfully aware that there is a body of evidence and practice which I’m starting to explore. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you think I should really know about something that I don’t – please feel free to let me know!

We’re coming to the end of a module that I’m teaching on “Special Educational needs and Inclusion” which has focused on the history and conceptual underpinnings of ‘inclusion’, and the tension between this and ‘differentiation’. Part of the assessment is for the students to write a short essay on an aspect of inclusion – they have a choice of questions, but each one requires them to come to an informed judgement.

The issues:

My students see essay writing as a kind of complicated obstacle course.  They like to tackle each part as it comes to them,  instead of lifting their heads to the horizon.  This leads them to focus on issues such as ‘how to write a good introduction’ or what should go in a ‘good paragraph’. I’ve been trying to encourage them to see an essay as a way of communicating with a reader – and a way of persuading that reader.

I’ve also noted that these undergrads have trouble differentiating between the big and little points of their developing argument – and will often conflate these, meaning that the paragraphs they write are sometimes ‘scatter gun’ – they will cram in all the things that they can think of to do with the topic in the question – rather than attempt to actually answer it.

I suspect that these students have not seen enough examples of academic writing, and have not spent enough time considering the style of different academic writers, let alone their own.

These are the issues I perceived from the other pieces of writing that they have done for me before this module, and from their directed task submissions.

One Line Answers

They had a choice of essay titles for this module – and in order to make them read these carefully (so that they’re not tempted to ‘do’ the one that they recognise some key words from) they were asked to look down the list and then spend 5 minutes drafting a one line answer to the question.  I explained that this was the kind of answer they might give if someone asked them a question like this on the bus, or in discussion with friends.

Model Answers

We then looked back at some model essays written in response to questions that were asked on the module the year before.  These were different from this year’s question.  I wanted them to be clear that they were reading good academic writing – not ‘good answers’ to the questions. They were asked to use highlighters to look for examples in the text of the following things:

  • Points – things that this person writes that moves on the argument in their answer to the question
  • Evidence – things that are used to support the argument that this person makes.
  • Evaluation – places where this person makes a critical point, or a judgement or weighing up of an approach or idea.

They were also asked to work out what the writer’s ‘one line answer’ to the question might have been.

A multi-faceted ‘One Line Answer’

When they’d done that, and following a discussion of some of their examples, and of the ‘one line answers’ from the model essays, I asked them to look again at their one line answers, and to re-write them, using the following words if they could:

  • However
  • But
  • Only
  • If

I wanted them to learn that their one line answer could contain a more nuanced line of argument, or perhaps an acknowledgement of another perspective or even some indication of how universal their ‘one line answer’ was.


I also decided to ask them to present their plans as part of one of their directed tasks, using a template which acts as a kind of ‘speaking frame’.   They presented these arguments in support of their ‘one line answer’ to their peers. Their peers were then encouraged to ask questions that will help them understand the argument that is being made.  I was hoping that this would act as a kind of dry run for writing the assignment itself, in that it would help them clarify their ideas.  wanted to see if their role as presenters of an argument would help them become writers of an argument.

How’s it going?

Not bad – the sessions in which we looked at ‘model’ essays were very interesting – there’s still some work to do in helping them see what the ‘big points’ are in models of academic writing.  I’m also having to think quite carefully about the kinds of things I want them to read – academic journals often are not full of ‘essays’, and ‘education’ undergraduate textbooks on these topics are often quite descriptive. I think that getting them reading more pieces of writing in which people have made and sustained arguments is the key way in which they will understand how this works.

During the presentations it was clear that whilst many had now made the leap from ‘survey’ or ‘everything I know about’, and were starting to think in terms of ‘what’s my argument’, some of these students were still hesitant in making definite and confident choices in selecting evidence or ‘little’ points to support these arguments.

Overall the level of writing has improved across the group.  Many more of these students are writing in shorter, much more focused paragraphs – even if they have not yet made the leap to argument.  Those that have made that leap are often writing sharply focused sections in support – though sometimes this is not sustained throughout.  Those that engaged more wholeheartedly in their presentations tend to be those who have gained the most in these improvements.  Next time we do this I’ll ask for permission, before we start the process, to share their work online – so that I can us it more precisely here.

Tweet tweet! That’s the sound of the police…

6364040129_125d4754ef_mI’ve been thinking about (and will probably have been writing this post) for quite a long time – collecting examples of a kind of twitter behaviour that has been interesting me for some time.

A key feature of many edu-twitter users’ online life is the seeking out of practice that they disagree with or find abhorrent, in order that they can publicise their worries and coral condemnation from their followers.  I’m writing this piece not as a form of condemnation, but as an opportunity for me to  explore why this phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable. It’s inspiration is this tweet by @mrhistoire, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher who I have followed for ages – and with whom I agreed when he tweeted:

This isn’t history – nominally it is about the past, but that doesn’t mean ‘history’.  I could imagine ways of improving this, but not without relating to wider histories of gaming or leisure. Even with much effort not to such an extent that I can imaging spending any of the precious and restricted curriculum time reserved for history in primary or secondary schools.

So, I agree – end of post?

Well, no.  I wanted to know where Toby had found this poor bullet point – so I asked him. It turns out that this was from a page that was tweeted around by @C_Hendrick – another tweeting teacher whose work I’ve long read and admired.

Carl’s tweet included more items from the list of activities that this teacher was recommending:

Carl’s comment made me uncomfortable, especially when considered in the light of a tweet that he sent earlier in the week:

I’m not getting here at Carl personally.  These are just two examples of the kinds of tweet that I’m concerned with – there are many others.  In fact they have a long (hey, everything is relative) history.  We could argue that there is a tradition which has seen followers of various tweeters present them with ‘gifts’ of tweets or webpages that they hope might be tweeted around as examples of practice, beliefs or resources that can be pronounced as ‘beyond the pale’.


There will be other examples.

Why do these things worry me so much?  Why do I find them unpleasant – so much so that I have un-followed many (not all) of those who do this?

A big part of this might be because I (like many other people) don’t enjoy having my ideas challenged.  I’m quite interested in the sociology of education, and therefore how theories such as Bourdieu’s might be used to understand aspects of it.  @JamesTheo’s post might therefore be one that I find distasteful because it challenges my own preconceptions and beliefs.  Even though I’m also someone who tries to seek out ideas that challenge my views – and enjoy reading and being convinced by others perhaps sometimes these tweets force me to face up to things that are at the core of my world view – this might explain some of the feelings they inspire.  However many of these tweets I agree with (Toby French on the value of creating a ‘history of pokemon’ for instance).  Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some of this discomfort comes from feelings of disorientation and challenge.

What partly worries me is the way that these tweets make twitter the sort of place where one comes for a duel, a spat, rather than a place to find out, explore or improve.  I’ll admit that I’m someone who doesn’t like conflict or aggression – emotionally as well as intellectually.  I just feel uncomfortable when I see others being attacked, even @philipdavies (though he seems to like it).  I can’t help wondering how they feel, what effect this is having on them.

Intellectually I fear that such tweets are counter productive – that they create feelings of aggression and being under-attack which make it hard for anyone to understand either (1) how others are to be persuaded to change or (2) why their ideas or practice might need to be re-examined.  Misapprehensions and conceptions which are attacked to aggressively tend to be un-examined and instead tenaciously defended or driven underground in silent protection.

I detect a righteousness in some of these types of tweet, and as I reflect on that I think I detect in myself another form of envy. I wish I knew what I thought about things with such confidence, such decision and righteousness – really, I do.  No doubt a some aspects of my personal history leave me wishing I was one of those people who could come up with a supported opinion about something without worrying that I might be wrong.  Perhaps I’m also envious of the groups of followers that tweets like this inspire. Do I wish my social media footprint were bigger? This might be true – though I’d probably force myself to write more controversial blog-posts if were an important ambition for me.  I always hate pressing the ‘publish’ button, and much of this is driven by anxiety about whether I’m making a fool of myself.  I certainly envy those who can do this with fluency, free of such worries.

However, what worries me much much more is the way that some of these tweets – even by the most thoughtful and inspiring teacher – have the effect of closing down the categories of what it is acceptable to post about.  We might cite Carl’s insistence that some practice be ‘eradicated’ when it is clear from a moments reflection that aspects of the work in the post above could well be viable and valuable in many classrooms.

Carl’s earlier tweet, that a Philosopher’s thought experiment about preventing parents reading to their children, was ‘beyond parody’ is a great example of this last concern.  The report was an excerpt from a longer interview about about ‘familial relationship goods’ – the things that parents can do to confer advantage on their children.   Andrew Swift considered that the benefit of reading to children at bedtime conferred a bigger advantage than sending them to ‘elite private schools’.  Their conclusions were that parental reading should _not_ be banned (the opposite of the headline) because that would interfere with the proper establishment of ‘loving, authoritative affectionate’ family relationships.  (Interestingly they decided that we _could_ prevent people sending children to private school without making a ‘hit’ on family relationships, and at the same time prevent un-fairnesses for other people’s children).

These are important questions to consider – and it is the job of philosophers to do this. Not all the examples above are those in which such important questions are at stake, but all are examples of the ways in which debate is shut down on twitter.  I bet I’ve done it myself on occasion – but I hope I think more carefully before doing so again.

[NB – there is a twitter vigilante! https://twitter.com/tweeting_police ]

Patriotism and Brexit – a few thoughts.

Patriotism is often the last refuge of the disenfranchised, or a lever of power which is used to wield influence over them.

People need institutions and ideas that they can invest belief in, and that they can trust to help them in the important and sometimes hard times in their lives. In the near past these roles have been fulfilled by many different groups, associations and ideas: family, church, the political party or the co-operative organisation, the local union, the workplace, night schools, football clubs, libraries, schools, leisure clubs or the doctor’s surgery have all played these roles. These are things that we can believe and trust in because we can touch them, we know the people who, alongside us, make them work. We make decisions with them, and through them. Through them we also help each other – not only in the obvious ways of distributing money and services, but through a million small ways in which we show care for each other.

Slowly we have removed the potency from many of the institutions that serve most people. Either we have turned our back on them, or refused to pay the taxes that fund them, or we have taken their responsibilities and powers into the disinterested central state. At the same time, and often as part of the same process, we have re-exposed many groups of people to the raw winds of economic change and risk in ways which mean they need these institutions more and more.

Amongst the wealthy we have, by and large, kept our institutions. Our good schools, private gyms, well stocked and supported libraries, our banks still serve us, we can get a game of tennis or a round of golf or a swim in the pool if we want. We raise money for the PTA, we buy insurance and own shares which limit our liabilities but bring us profits. We feel comfortable, we are not at risk, by and large.

However, we’re not just alright, we are rightly rewarded. We look at our wealth and the fact of its existence confirms that we are superior – because in this world value and wealth attain to the hardest working, and the most naturally gifted. The lack of comfort in those beneath us becomes a fact, a fundamental clause in the laws of the universe.  Those exposed without protection to these laws cannot afford, or cannot use, institutions that they can put their faith into and take comfort and support from.  They are even denied the right to place confidence in themselves because of the way that they are treated in the media.

When this happens it seems to me that people often invest in and turn to more dangerous abstract conceptions. They have to use accessible ideas that are free and open to all. Given such meagre resources these ideas have to generate a great deal of diffuse comfort. These ideas need to act as a mirror in which we can see our finest qualities, a lens through which we can only see the faults in others, and a way in which we can advertise and detect kinship with others in a world where there is a great deal of threat and uncertainty.

Patriotism and nationalism are two such ideas, and in the last week we have seen how they can be used not only to generate warmth but also to control and beguile.  We will wait and see what it means to ‘get our country back’, to take control back over our lives, but already it seems that this might not be pretty.  When it becomes clear that immigration will not fall as a result of the referendum result, we’ll see if these ideas can continue to be controlled by those who thought they could use them, and people, as a way of seeking further influence and positions of power.

However, the fundamental lesson of the referendum is that large numbers of people decided to vote when they have never voted before and may well never vote again and that they were often inspired by nationalism and patriotism.  If the media are to be believed many they did so thinking that the only way they had to protect their kids from competition from and to shore up their identity against that of ‘others’, was to tear down the UK’s membership of the EU.

Those of us in the 48% have ignored this large and important group of people for too long, and, in thinking that their condition was such that they deserved uncertainty, deserved poor housing and access to public services and institutions, that they cannot have a first chance, never mind a second or third one, or a regular wage or a steady job, we’ve abandoned them to Paul Nuttall and Boris Johnson.

Give me the closed factories, the zero hour contract, the shut library, the underfunded FE College and the jerry built school with 2000 plus kids in it, and I’ll give you Brexit.


Writing school textbooks is a lot like dropping big rocks into a well. It takes some effort, and there’s a bit of a splash when you first publish them, but then…. silence.

So I happened to look at the first book I helped to write on amazon yesterday, and was really very delighted to see that someone who I don’t know (as far as I know!) had positively reviewed it!  That’s my first independent review.  Now I know it’s not just my mum that likes it!

book review

Whitechapel 1870-1900

The other day I was asked on Twitter about the books that I read whilst writing the Whitechapel 1870-1900 section of this book.


I’ve got five minutes, so I thought I’d quickly write about one or two of them.   Of these,  Crime in England by Godfrey and the London’s Shadows by Drew D Grey were most useful from a writing point of view.  Grey’s, in particular, is a detailed and interesting introduction into the social context and a real pleasure to read.  Along with City of Dreadful delight it made me think carefully about how I was going to write the book, especially when I was writing about the lives of women generally and those of the Ripper’s victims in particular.

‘Victorian Convicts’ by Godfrey, Johnston and Fox will be very useful as the course goes on and as you start to teach it.  I heartily recommend it (if you’re going to buy a copy of this or all the other books buy it from Mr B’s Emporium, a proper bookshop that’ll deliver just as quickly as Amazon and which pays its taxes and everything else that we like proper bookshops to do).

Online / Electronic Resources

I also used a few books which I read online. Neil R Bell’s ‘Capturing Jack the Ripper’ was really helpful, not only about the particular circumstances of the Ripper case, but also about police procedure, recruitment and life ‘on the beat’.

Some of the geographic bits of ‘the Historic Environment’ were very interestingly addressed by http://www.jacktherippermap.info/map.php.

The Whitechapel Society (http://www.whitechapelsociety.com/) not only contains great articles but also hosts a really great podcast (which Neil R Bell is a regular contributor to).

Of course I spent a great deal of time at http://www.casebook.org/ a very detailed and comprehensive site, with some very wise contributors.

Because the records of police courts have not usually survived in detail, the best record of the crimes that appeared at the Thames Police Court at this time is the reports in newspapers.  I used the https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ a great deal – as well as the amazingly free www.oldbaileyonline.org , which gave me the moving story of Sarah Fishers’ baby that starts my section of the book.

Lovely Friendly and helpful people.

Whilst trying to find out more about this incident, 615H_GraphicI found that I really needed to see the Attestation Ledgers and Divisional Registers for H Division (Whitechapel’s division).  They’re in London at the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and they have not (yet) been digitised. So, I rang them.  I expected that they’d say ‘you’ll have to come down’, but they didn’t. They looked it up for me, and helped me to understand the information on the ledgers. They sent me a pic of the Divisional Ledger, and even put me in touch with the Friends of the Met Police Historical Collection (https://www.metpolicehistory.co.uk/) who used their forums to help me work out where this event had taken place.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book to find out what I discovered though :).  I couldn’t have written my part of the book without their kindness and their efforts, and I’m really grateful.

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 (http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/news/new-research-shows-why-textbooks-count-tim-oates/) 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 https://www.bera.ac.uk/promoting-educational-research/issues/background-to-michael-goves-response-to-the-report-of-the-expert-panel-for-the-national-curriculum-review-in-england

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 http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195112290.001.0001/acref-9780195112290-e-0730.


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!