Textbooks: everyone’s guilty pleasure and a workload saver

Disclaimer: I was provided two copies of the GA’s KS3 geography Teachers’ Toolkit for free in return for an honest review.

I’ve wrote back in 2009 that textbooks are everyone’s guilty pleasure. The fashion at the time was for textbook bashing, especially amongst members of the Geographical Association (The GA) which was a bit strange as they are also a publisher. Now I have a confession to make: I write textbooks. There, get over it. The problem with the discourse around textbooks is that they focus on the artefact and publisher rather than their use in the classroom. In my view, the appropriate use of textbooks is just like using an anemometer, a bunsen burner or a computer: a tool in the shed of the great teacher. Yes, textbooks have limitations and the department I led even used textbooks to create bunting, but used well they are a timesaver. I’m also neither in the progressive nor traditional camp (not that I’m entirely sure what each one actually is). I use what works with the students in front of me.

In addition, much is written about teacher workloads and wellbeing. Having worked with trainee teachers and in a number of geography departments, it always amazes me at how willing teachers are to reinvent the wheel. Yes, there are some brilliant fresh ideas (I certainly benefitted from the brilliant work of Tony Cassidy, Alan Parkinson and Noel Jenkins), but mainly content stays the same. To me it seems counterproductive to banish textbooks, which are usually well researched and written in some detail. They also contain a wealth of resources (although many fall short of delivering upon Geographical Information Systems).

I was pleased to look through two copies of the GA’s KS3 Geography Teachers’ Toolkit: The Role of Stones and Through Think and Thin which focus on geology and glaciation.  Although the original titles of this extensive series were published too late for the 2007 national curriculum, the latest titles tackle some of the areas that may have traditionally been neglected by departments at Key Stage 3 and those that teachers tell me they are least confident in. This is good to see. I spent the summer term teaching the glaciation unit to Year 8 and found the books very useful and they certainly live up to the claim of being directly applicable to the classroom, indeed sometimes it seems as if they are a series of TeachMeet presentations around one topic.

In addition, I welcome the aim of the series to provide ‘material for immediate and direct use with students with minimal preparation.’ (page 4 Editors’ Preface). What I like about each title is that it contains a rationale for teaching the topic, a medium term plan, individual lesson plans that blend background theory with practical pedagogical ideas as well as a wealth of electronic downloads that support the unit. In other words, they are a tailor made unit of work.

Of course, most department will want to tweak and adapt the schemes of work and if they are truly to provide an ‘exciting and challenging’ curriculum especially the assessment framework which I found lacked ambition because of it’s differentiated learning objectives – it just doesn’t sit well that we should accept that some students will progress as a slower rate and therefore we should expect less of them and departments will need to spend some time around how they will fit the unites into their institutions assessment model. Having said this, I love the graphical way that the series presents the curriculum links so it’s easy to visualise the value of following the whole sequences of lessons rather than individual lessons. . It would be good if some assessments were given, especially ones that increase the rigour of Key Stage 3 and prepare young people for the high stakes GCSE and A’Level testing.

Another niggle is that I find the Starter, Main, Plenary model presented in the book restrictive and not conducive to quality teaching, but this is a minor niggle that is more than made up for by the quality resources and background theory. Indeed, I would expect that even the novice teacher, a non-specialist or one not confident in the topic to be able to teach the unit from the resources given.

I find these books highly accessible and the online content easily adaptable and of high quality. I love the overview of each unit and a gem is the little tips that encourage high quality geography. For example the Geology book provides some golden nuggets about how students can interrogate a photo depicting a rock covered in moss – a real strength.  Having also used the China title in the series in the past I would recommend this series. Get at least one of them and use them to develop a unit before going further. Certainly, if you are in a lone department or leading a number of specialists the book deliver a good blend of background theory and practical ideas. The lesson-by-lesson scheme of work would be easy to follow and I like the way that local fieldwork opportunities are presented (although there is a lack of GIS opportunities in the titles under review). Finally, the units are well thought out and integrated, which means that the lessons follow a logical sequence and link to each other rather than sit as one offs.

Overall, I would recommend this series. They are a time saver (I’ve used the glaciation book to map our curriculum directly into 4Matrix’s new Assessment Without Levels framework); model high quality geography and live up to their claim of providing resources that can be used directly with classes.  Of course, as with any resource, they should be adapted and fitted into your own context and I some work is needed around assessment. Another main strength is that these will be accessible to non-specialists and veteran teachers alike. They would also be a useful addition to primary schools as some of the ideas and content would be accessible. I doff my cap to the GA.

Image credit ‘old geography textbook’ from Flickr used under the Creative Commons.

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