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.



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