Michaela Community School | Science – 05.04.2015 – Textbooks: Liberating, not constraining
Michaela Community School, Wembley

Science – 05.04.2015 – Textbooks: Liberating, not constraining

18 May 2015, Posted by admin in Michaela's Blog

Posted on April 5, 2015 by Olivia Dyer


Having missed AM registration due to traffic on the M25, Lucy’s science teacher wades into SC6, briefcase in tow. Beads of sweat trickle down his face as he takes a seat in front of the class and places one foot over the other on the desk in front to give his feet a rest. Lucy and her classmates raise their eyebrows; they know what mood Mr Callaghan is in. A textbook mood. “Lucy, do us a favour, and pass these out”, Mr Callaghan leans back and reaches over to the filing cabinet to his immediate left, and grabs a class set of GCSE textbooks. Lucy stretches over the wooden desks, frisbee-ing the textbooks as Mr Callaghan removes his feet from the desk to swivel his chair to face the whiteboard. He grabs a pen out of his shirt pocket, shoves the lid between his teeth and scrawls, ‘Page 60-62 on space exploration. Read and answer questions.’ The hour passes slowly, only interrupted by a few barks from Mr Callaghan, attempting to hush Lucy and her friends.

The above narrative depicts what I used to think a lesson using textbooks looked like. There is a view that using textbooks undermines the “professionalism of teachers” (Oates, 2014, p. 5). 96 per cent of science teachers in England do not use textbooks as the basis for instruction (Oates, 2014). Many argue that textbooks dictate teaching style. This post will aim to show that rather than being oppressive, high quality textbooks can liberate the teachers that use them.

Firstly, the term ‘high quality textbook’ can be used to refer to any rigorously designed paper-based resource, which can be considered an antidote to the current “undesirable narrowing” (Oates, 2014, p. 6) of content that is taught in most schools in England. The problem, however, is that there is a lack of high quality textbooks on sale in England. This is a result of a move away from wide use of high quality textbooks since the 1960s in America and 1970s in England (Bennetta, 1997; Oates, 2014).

An example of a high quality textbook is the 1992 edition of Integrated Science (Allen et al.), which is unfortunately outdated. If you look carefully at Fig 1.1, you can see that it includes a 1982 Observer article about the US Plans to build a village in space, or what we now know as the International Space Station (ISS). The assignment requires pupils to answer challenging comprehension questions. This 654-word excerpt from the Observer can be starkly contrasted to a more recently published science textbook,Activate (Hulme, Locke and Reynolds, 2013), which includes only 31 words about the ISS (Fig 1.2). This lack of high quality, current science textbooks has led me to create my own paper-based resource (Fig 1.3 and 1.4). I will now outline how I would use this resource to teach a lesson on the ISS.



Fig 1.1 A page of the Integrated Science textbook published in 1992 by Allen et al.



Fig 1.2 A page of the Activate textbook published in 2013 by Hulme, Locke and Reynolds.



Fig 1.3 The first shared page of my unpublished textbook.



Fig 1.4 The second shared page of my unpublished textbook.

Previous lesson

In the previous lesson, pupils would have started a new sub-unit of Astronomy called space exploration. Pupils would have answered four questions assessing their understanding of natural satellites before progressing onto the new sub-unit:

Write down the number of natural satellites that the planet Jupiter has.

Name Earth’s natural satellite(s).

Copy and complete this definition of orbit; “The path that an object takes to…”

Define ‘natural satellite’.

Having demonstrated that they are prepared to begin the new sub-unit, pupils would have read about and discussed the history of artificial satellites, answered seven comprehension questions on the text that they had read, and then memorised the definitions for ‘artificial satellite’ and ‘Sputnik 1’, the two non-negotiable pieces of knowledge that pupils are expected to memorise from the first lesson:

Artificial satellite – A man-made object launched by rockets into space, orbits celestial objects.

Sputnik 1 – First artificial satellite. Launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

Lesson on the International Space Station

1) Recap

Whole class recap on definitions memorised last lesson.

Teacher: What is the name of the man-made objects launched by rockets into space? 3, 2, 1…


Teacher: What do artificial satellites orbit? 3, 2, 1…


Teacher: What was the name of the first artificial satellite? 3, 2, 1…

Whole class: SPUTNIK 1!

Teacher: Who launched Sputnik 1? 3, 2, 1…

Whole class: THE SOVIET UNION!

Teacher: What year was Sputnik 1 launched? 3, 2, 1…

Whole class: 1957!

Teacher cold calls pupils, asking them to recite the definitions learned in the last lesson.

Teacher: Lucy, tell me what an artificial satellite is.

Lucy: A man-made object launched by rockets into space, to orbit the Earth?

Teacher: Almost! Said, can you help Lucy out?

Said: Instead of the Earth, it’s meant to be any celestial object. Artificial satellites orbit celestial objects.

Teacher: What do you think, Nimco?

Nimco: Miss, I agree.

Teacher: Can you articulate what you agree with, Nimco?

Nimco: I agree that artificial satellites are man-made objects launched by rockets into space, that orbit celestial objects.

Teacher: Excellent use of full sentences, Nimco, you can have a merit!

2) Whole class reading

Teacher nominates pupils to read sections of the textbook aloud.

Tia: Construction of the artificial satellite, the… (struggles to pronounce ‘international’)

Teacher: INTERNATIONAL, 3, 2, 1…


Teacher: International means something involving more than one country. Can you repeat the sentence from the beginning, please Tia?

Tia: Construction of the artificial satellite, the International Space Station (ISS) began in November 1998. The ISS is truly international because its construction involved more than one single country.

Teacher: Well done, Tia. Perfect pronunciation and projection. Ashley!

Ashley: In fact, five space agencies – NASA (American), Roscosmos (Russian), CSA (Canadian), ESA (European) and JAXA (Japanese) – constructed, launched and use the ISS. This shows that space exploration has come a long way since the Sputnik crisis of 1957, as countries and regions now work together.

Teacher: Why does this show that space exploration has come a long way? Joseph!

Joseph: Well, yesterday, we read that when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, we read that the US government saw it as a threat. But now five different space agencies have made an artificial satellite together.

Teacher: For such a detailed explanation, Joseph, you can get a merit. Thank you. Reesha, may you continue where Ashley left off?

Reesha: The ISS is a manned artificial satellite, which means that the satellite is carrying or operated by one or more person.

Teacher: So, ‘manned’ means that there is one or more person in the satellite. The person inside is not necessarily a man, however! Reesha, can you tell me what manned means?

Reesha: Manned means that there is one or more person in the satellite.

[Continue reading in the same manner until end of section]

3) Comprehension questions

4) Memorising definitions

Around one third of the lesson time will be spent on part three and four. This is because it is important to consolidate learning. Not only do comprehension questions check pupil understanding of what has been read and discussed, they also give pupils an opportunity for extended writing. In my PGCE and NQT year, I was forever having discussions with tutors and mentors about how to develop pupils’ scientific literacy and support them to write more in every science lesson. In my opinion, a high quality textbook embeds opportunities for literacy in every lesson.

So why do textbooks liberate?

Rather than having to think about what that extended writing activity might be, future PGCE and NQT staff can be supported with a high quality textbook. Instead of being a straitjacket and horrible guide, a high quality textbook is an effective tool that can free up resourcing time, so that teachers can instead produce writing frames for their weaker pupils, plan their teacher-pupil dialogue and explore different aspects of what is being taught. Surely giving teachers a high quality resource that allows them to focus on their delivery of the content can only be referred to as liberating?

I used to think that textbook lessons were incredibly dull and unhelpful. However, since producing paper-based resources that prioritise an efficient, content-rich approach to lesson delivery, I have found them not only to be incredibly useful, but actually, quite fun, too! As classroom teachers, we have to trust that the content that we are teachingis fascinating. This textbook approach might be very far from the status quo, but, let’s face it: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.


Bennetta, W. J. (1997) A Dumbed-Down Textbook Is “A Textbook for All Students” Available at: http://www.textbookleague.org/82dumbo.htm

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

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