Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Life of a Textbook Writer

I've now written two textbooks, one for GCSE and one for Key Stage 3. I've also just completed a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. I honestly don't think there are many things for a classroom teacher that provide better professional affirmation, you quite literally have "written the textbook on it". I am incredibly humbled and grateful to my two fantastic publishers, Oxford University Press and Harper Collins. 

The latest exam reforms have been somewhat different to those in the past. For a start, gone are the hard copies of the of specification - in come the ever changing electronic versions. Secondly, everyone is far more accessible via email and social media: exam boards, Ofsted, publishers... and textbook writers. Thirdly everyone is far FAR more results and exam focused than ever before - stakes are high!

My journey began at the London RE Hub in April 2015, when OUP where one of our two brave sponsors. The LREH team remain ever grateful for OUP and TrueTube for taking a huge risk and sponsoring our brand new grassroots conference. I got to know some of the team, and then by June, we were sat in a hotel in London planning a textbook for the new Edexcel GCSE in Catholic Christianity. This ended up as an amazing, but tough journey. Writing began in the late July 2015, but final accreditation for Edexcel only actually happened in July 2016... when the book was due for publication in September 2016! Somehow we pulled it off. There were some incredible people behind the scenes; thank you all. I wrote over 50% of this book, and helped oversee all the sections I didn't write myself.  

My son was born in October 2015. He here is, aged 18 days, with me writing... 
Since then, I was invited to be part of the Knowing Religion writing team for Harper Collins, using my improved understanding of Judaism to write a Key Stage 3 "knowledge focused" textbook. This allowed a great freedom not experienced while writing the GCSE textbook. This series provides a new approach to Key Stage 3 RE, which seems to be proving popular.

Finally, I have nearly completed my third book, a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. Even with the difficulties of the original books with Edexcel's late approval, this one has probably proved to be the hardest of the lot. The further reduction of material, as well as focusing on exam questions and support has proved challenging. I think Religious Studies, and particularly the Catholic paper makes this even harder. Is my hugely condensed version of complex Catholic teaching accurate? Could the exam board ask a question on this? How can I ensure students are not being pushed into writing heresy? 

It is impossible to not see, or often avoid being tagged into, discussion of GCSE textbooks on social media. It is hard to not get overly defensive when you have been as involved as I have been - and made huge sacrifices to actually get one written. I do get frustrated, and annoyed, at some of the comments made - both the general and specific. I think it's normal, it would be easier to log off Twitter, Save RE on Facebook etc, but I am happy to engage. I want the very best resources for students and colleagues; I also know how frustrating it is when something you want, or feel you need, isn't there.

Aged 5 weeks. Mummy was in bed. Daddy needed to write...
Over the last few weeks, many comments have been focused on 3 things:
  1. Why are there errors in the textbooks?
  2. Why aren't revision guides ready for Year 11 mocks?
  3. Why aren't there more model answers / exam guidance / support in textbooks?
As such, I have tried to put together a 10 Things About Textbook Writing list:
  1. Writing a textbook on top of full time teaching is incredibly hard. However, I still believe teachers who are encountering students on daily basis, who can trial things, who know what students 'get' and what they don't, are best placed to write textbooks. Thankfully my amazing wife has been incredibly supportive, and my son seems proud as he is always stealing copies of the book from my desk and carrying them around the house. There were days when he was not sleeping and I was trying to survive on two hours sleep a night. In the end, however, it is incredibly rewarding and I am really proud of every book.
  2. Awarding Organisations, ie exam boards, are not the same as publishers. Textbooks are accredited and then endorsed by exam boards. Edexcel, for example, does not publish textbooks. OUP and Hodder do. Naturally there are working relationships between the two, but someone wrote "Andy has unrivalled access to the chief examiner at Edexcel"  suggesting my own students are unfairly advantaged - this is simply not true. We do check everything we can, of course, however any teacher can email the exam board in the way I do - Email <here>
  3. The speed of the reforms has been incredible. People wanted textbooks, and revision guides, as soon as the specs were approved. The GCSE textbook took over a year to write - imagine if we had waited until the Edexcel spec was finally approved? (However, this was heartbreaking at times... there was a number of pages written which simply had to be cut as spec changed) We did have a short break, before the planning and writing of revision guide began... ready for publication in the January before the final exams for Year 11. Publishers tried to get things to teachers as quickly as possible, and the result was errors. Thankfully nothing major in ours! 
  4. AOs / exam boards do not have the capacity to support in the way teachers believe they should. This is, in some way expected, due to the relatively small number of staff needed in-between reforms when question writing and examining are the main focus. Many of their senior examiners are also full time teachers. Like with textbook writers, this seems to make sense. I think biggest problems have been with exam boards who made lots of promises, and then failed to deliver, especially when those promises were made as people were selecting their new specs.  
  5. The education world has changed incredibly since the last reforms. Schools are under far more pressure to get results, even in a non-Ebacc subject like Religious Studies stakes are high - for some their risk losing their place on the timetable if results are not good enough. Teachers are far more results driven, and schools more exam focused. With high accountability, comes high levels of stress. For RS, many issues lie with lack of curriculum time, or non-specialists. Textbooks were/are needed, and they weren't there (See point 3).
  6. No-one know what the full range of student answers will look like yet. This makes writing model answers really hard. Most teachers were good at writing them for the old spec, as they knew approximately, what a top level answer was. Pitching model answers in a textbook, without seeing a full range of answers is really hard. I would imagine that some model answers created at this stage, will be 'beyond' full marks. This can't be helped. 
  7. We don't know exam boundaries; we don't know what a 'Grade 9 answer' will look like. Nor do any of the exam boards. They will know August 2018, when we all will. Textbooks may need to be reviewed after this. 
  8. Writing exam questions that are reasonable, answerable, and in keeping with the spec is really, really hard. I have far greater respect for exam writers now; it is much more of a skill than I first realised. Doing these in bulk to try and cover every eventuality has been one of the trickiest parts of the revision guide. Time will only tell if I have succeeded! 
  9. People always point out things you could have added... without suggesting what you could have dropped, or having any appreciation for the strict word/page limits. Everyone knows a good teacher goes beyond the spec, and beyond the textbook. No one wanted a book full of my anecdotes, funny stories and asides did they? It is incredibly easy to criticise books and resources and say "Well I would have done it like this instead..." - I am always looking for helpful and constructive criticism - yet often it is neither of these things! 
  10. The pressure you feel as a writer is incredible; people will literally hang off your every word. Being on social media is great promotion for the book, but it means you are very accessible and people expect you to have all the answers. It is great to work with other teachers, and this has always felt like a vocation, a call to provide a resource to the Catholic community, but at times incredibly tough. 
Hopefully this provides a bit of an insight into the life of a textbook writer. No doubt there will be a follow up to this when I get a barrage of abuse... 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

CoRE: Interim Report (2) - Building a Knowledge Curriculum

Recently, I wrote a first response to the Commission on RE Interim Report (see <here>). My final paragraph was this:
I would love to see the Commissioners sit down, with all their expertise, experience, knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, and set out a knowledge based curriculum, that teachers then help develop into Key Stage standards of attainment. I honestly think this is the best thing we could do for the students in our care. 
I have also written about ED Hirsch before in a series of blogs (see <here>), and it seemed like perfect timing when a video appeared online of him discussing how to develop a list of core knowledge. This is what I believe the RE community needs to do.

Hirsch begins by explaining that within society, there exists a cultural, competency and language gap - and that if this is not addressed, it is reinforced through the education system. This is true in RE, evidenced frequently in the media - many people simply do not posses even basic religious knowledge. 

In many of Hirsch's books, he sets out lists of knowledge that need to be learnt at different ages. He explains in these books that an initial list was created, studying current culture and trends - what do students need to know to engage with the culture that surrounds them? These books were created in the 1980's, but have since been reviewed. Hirsch acknowledged that the knowledge required for 'cultural literacy' does change.

In this video, he explains further how a consensus was found. His initial, researched, lists were then taken to conferences of between 150 and 200 teachers and other involved in education. The delegates were then able to allocate knowledge to different age groups, and (perhaps crucially) substitute content if they felt it was appropriate to do so. The delegates needed to feel fully engaged with the process. It was also important to have the antagonists involved in this process, Hirsch makes clear. 

He explains that it was important people realised there was no "political axe to grind", and he said people did so quite quickly. It is natural for people to want to equalise educational opportunity... everyone believes in this, but this was an attempt to actually do something in a concerted way. People bought in.

One interesting thing that he makes clear is that he wanted to focus his knowledge based curriculum in elementary (primary) schools. Students can then arrive in high (secondary) school, with a vast amount of knowledge and 'cultural literacy'. Imagine the possibilities. 

Implications for RE / CoRE

Someone has got to start this job off. Someone, or a group of people, need to come up with a body of knowledge that they believe is useful in RE, matched to different Key Stage or year group expectations.

This may well include provisional knowledge, which we know is an over simplification (but appropriate for certain age groups), it might include contested knowledge, it might not include everything we would ideally want for a 'religiously literate' person. Some religious people may not fully agree with what is included about their faith, those with particular interests such as history, religion and art, sociology, philosophy etc may not get everything they feel should be included. I think that's okay.

I quite like the subject content document that the DfE published for the new Religious Studies GCSEs (see <here>). It was initially published, put out for consultation, and refined. It may not be perfect, but it is the closest we have to a list of core knowledge for RE.

Huge thanks to Laura McInerney‏ for asking the question; I hope the Commission take on board this idea for the RE community.

Watch the video (8 mins) here: