Why we should write our own science textbooks – Part 1 of my researchED Rugby talk

 I used to think I was really ace for never using textbooks.

In my lessons, I said, you’ll be active learners.

You’ll learn by doing practicals, because that’s what real scientists do.

You won’t be reading about science – you’ll be doing it.

What a prat I was.



Like many people here today, I had something of a Twitter-induced epiphany – a Twittiphany? – and got switched on to what they call “traditional teaching”.


To knowledge, and the teacher as expert.


To direct instruction, for effective and efficient transfer of knowledge.

And strong discipline as a necessary precondition for great teaching.


In the past I had always believed my superiors when they told me things like “teacher talk is bad” and “pupils don’t learn out of textbooks”. I wanted to be a good employee. And yet. I wanted my pupils to get good grades, and I could get them, but only by (whisper) talking to them about what they needed to know and doing lots of (scowl) practice on paper.


I drive an automatic car. I needed to learn quickly when I moved out of London and that was the best way. I’m always slightly embarrassed about it. I can get from A to B as well as the next man, but I’ll always be doing it in a slightly crap way, because I’m not driving manual.


Traditional teaching used to feel like an automatic car. I could make it work and it could get me where I wanted to go, but I thought I was doing it in a crap way. I thought “if only I was somehow better, I could use progressive methods and get results.”


This is why my “Twittiphany” has been so uplifting. Now that I know that traditional teaching is a proper thing, with research and history and advocates and books about it… I feel like all the cells in my professional being are aligned, all pulling in the same direction, all internally consistent and coherent. I feel like I can do things that work for my pupils and know that there’s a whole body of leaders, teachers, and bloggers who have got my back. For the first time in a very long time, I want to lead a department because I no longer feel like an outsider, like there’s a piece missing from me that’s stopping me make it work how it’s supposed to. So I’m so so grateful to Tom Bennett for ResearchED and all the other bloggers and tweeters who’ve helped me to reach this point.


Anyway. After I’d recovered a bit from the ecstasy of my Twittiphany, I marched off to get the science textbooks to use in my brave new traditional classroom. Oh. It turns out that while I was very wrong in thinking I was ace, I was right not to use these textbooks. For a start, they’ve got what my esteemed colleague Deep Gatorra has called “doublepagespreaditis”.


On one double page “spread”, for example, we find the the motor effect, Fleming’s Left Hand Rule, magnetic flux density, and electric motors. This is cruising for a cognitive overload. Fleming’s Left Hand Rule is hard. Electric motors are hard. It doesn’t work having all this together on one page like this. And questions for pupils to practise on? Yeah, er, 7 for that double page spread. There was no way I was going to use these in my lessons. So, inspired by blogs by Olivia Paris Dyer and Joe Kirby, I set out to make my own.


I did a fair amount of reading for this project and I found some explanations for why several things in science education and science textbooks have not been working for me. Happily, I found pointers for what we can do better.


In “The Reading Mind”, Daniel Willingham says “In order to become a proficient reader, one must read a lot.” How many lessons have I taught with no reading whatsoever? Writing, and talking about science, and practicals, but no reading? And how many times have I been frustrated with poor reading for revision and exams? There is a link between these two things and I have only just realized it! I think school science has suffered because we have sacrificed reading on the altar of “engagement” and “activity”. More privileged pupils will do ok under this system but the gap will only widen for those less privileged. I want textbooks that pupils read every single lesson, so that all pupils, regardless of their background, can become fluent at reading scientific texts.


In “Why Knowledge Matters”, E.D. Hirsch says: “The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge related to the subject.” I want textbooks as a source of first-class knowledge for my pupils. I want them to be explicit about every single piece of declarative knowledge, the facts, descriptions and explanations of science. And I want them to be explicit about all the procedural knowledge, all the calculations and diagrams and processing of science. By doing this we can put knowledge at the centre of our curriculum.


In “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, Daniel Willingham (again) says: “Memory is the residue of thought”. I think textbooks haven’t worked in science because they’ve treated questions almost as an afterthought, a garnish. I want textbooks that treat questions as the means to plant knowledge in pupils’ minds. Every – single – piece of knowledge in the curriculum.



In “Peak”. Anders Ericsson describes “deliberate practice”, the “gold standard” for learning reaching the highest level of performance. Deliberate practice is practice “involving feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.” A classic example is in music where a student practices exercises repeatedly, is observed by their teacher, and then given directions and exercises to further refine their playing.


In “Making Good Progress?”, Daisy Christodoulou talks about the Quality Model vs the Difficulty Model for different subjects. Subjects assessed using the Quality Model are those such as English and Art where a biggish piece of work, like an essay or a painting, is judged against criteria or other pieces. Subjects assessed using the Difficulty Model are those such as Maths and Science where pupils are assessed on their answers to questions of a range of difficulty. These questions have only one or a small number of possible correct answers.


I think feedback in science has failed because it has been based on a quality model while Science follows the difficulty model. I think textbooks in science have failed because there has been too little emphasis on the questions and their answers. I want textbooks that contain the answers to all those questions, so as to allow a feedback model that serves the structure of scientific knowledge. In this way we can create the conditions for deliberate practice by our pupils, so that they can reach the highest level in the subject.



There is nothing more critical than the knowledge we give our pupils and the questions we set them to make them think about it. And yet these are often thought up off the cuff in lesson or when trying to fit planning into our overcrowded days. I want textbooks that contain carefully constructed expositions of knowledge and questions so that this most critical element of our teaching never suffers because we’re busy.


5 thoughts on “Why we should write our own science textbooks – Part 1 of my researchED Rugby talk

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  1. It was a wonderful rED talk — I can still picture the mannerisms!

    Have you noticed that the questions you -say- to students are the ones picked up by SLT? “You’re questioning wasn’t effective, you need to use lollipop sticks” etc. These are all about verbal quesoning.

    It goes through to teachers themselves “just give me a worksheet”.

    The intentionality behind the questions we choose is important. I think that you’ve taken on board Tim Oates’ call and have done the first teacher-led example of what great looks like (you’re right on twitter that Collins have produced some outstanding texts).

    1. Yes! Questioning only cool if spoken apparently. Again, reading is sidelined. I love Oates!

  2. I took a lot from your talk. Nice to be reminded of the importance of reading – in all subjects – and in the necessity of a solid knowledge base before higher order thinking can happen (I’ve been saying this in primary science for a good while). I got some new stuff too. Quality v difficulty model is very important in thinking about assessment. It’s obvious – but having the terms defined helps a lot. Now I really must go and read Hirsh, Willingham and Christodoulou!

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