A century apart? The chasm between 'Flipped Learning' research and Nick Gibb's textbook campaign  

The review of research, Literature Review on Textbook Use and Links to Educational Standards (AlphaPlus), commissioned by the Publishers Association (PA) and the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) was pretty unequivocal: following its search for evidence linking high-quality textbooks with improved outcomes for students -- weak at best. Most effective were the interventions that change practice.

But that didn't satisfy education minister and textbook crusader Nick Gibb MP, the keynote speaker at their joint annual event, "Raising the Quality Bar".

He had discovered a report in the US, "The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform" from the Center for American Progress, recording the positive effect of textbooks. (Its findings, however, have been queried by the National Education Policy Center.) England's unapologetically analogue schools minister, railing against a digital world, took great pains to not refer to the digital domain even once. Which was remarkable for a keynote address to an industry where virtually all material is now created digitally before the decision is even made for output - paper or screen or both.

No mention of 'skills' - key words 'knowledge' and 'mastery'

Just as ideological was the absence of any reference to skills. Nothing. What came through was a repeated insistence on "knowledge" and "mastery". And when children were mentioned they had to be grammar school students - doing maths the Chinese way. Some terms out of favour are only included with a heavy inflection of disapproval bordering on contempt – like "child-centred learning". It's easy to understand how this narrow line of thinking could kill off GCSE and A-level ICT without sufficient regard for the fact that it would leave students who wanted to follow a technology route with ony one GCSE - the very technical Computer Science. And it doesn't leave much hope for the 6,000-odd teachers who have signed a petition asking the minister to reconsider.

The good news for the PA and Besa was that the minister appeared to have accepted that co-operation, rather than bullying, was his best way forward (see "Teachers must do it by the book - Nick Gibb's"), especially as he had been delighted to see the emergence of Chinese-style maths textbooks. Peace had broken out, and he promised a period of curriculum stability, a feature identified as a prerequisite to producing high-quality materials for learning.

That, of course, is the consistent, ultimate aim of the members of PA and Besa, and why they had commissioned "Textbook Use and its Impact on Education: A Literature Review". If this was a textbook it would be a very thin one because former researcher for NFER (the organisation that partnered the research trawl) Sarah Maughan, now with the AlphaPlus Consultancy, found very little to say about a direct link between textbooks and student outcomes. Yes, good learning and teaching is best supported by high-quality resources, including textbooks, but a direct link is not possible because of the complexity on contexts, culture for example (for full findings see Literature Review on Textbook Use and Links to Educational Standards (AlphaPlus)).

The event was also the launchpad for the organisations' Guidance for the Publishing of Educational Teaching Resources. It was with a certain irony that Niel Mclean introduced the Guidance for the Publishing of Computing Teaching Resources at a panel session. He warned that those making materials for the Computing curriculum should be aware that it is far more than just computer science and coding. He should know; he was there at the birth of the ICT curriculum and, with the BCS and Nick Gibb, for the axing of the ICT GCSE and A-level.

Call for classic books for schools but no mention of Project Gutenberg

The guidelines' recommendations were reinforced by the comments from the teachers in attendance (customer feedback is integral to this annual event). Unsurprisingly, they didn't appear to share the minister's almost religious fervour for textbooks, but at the same time showed no signs of the "anti-textbook ethos" which is one of the windmills of his QuixotIc campaign. Their views, along with the research findings (there were positive ones too) feed back into the  design of new curriculum materials and books.

As well as extending his peace gesture, the minister also called on publishers to create affordable copies of the classic novels for schools. However, there was no mention that these have already been available for years among the more than 50,000 out-of-copyright titles freely downloadable from the Project Gutenberg website. Similarly, they can be downloaded for free from the Amazon site to be read on any digital device equipped with the free Kindle reader software.

If you think of those radio shows where contestants have to avoid the use of certain words you get a sense of the enormity of Nick Gibb's challenge. Thankfully, a veneer of politeness concealed the publishers' and teachers' disbelief and dismay. And panel feedback from teachers and schools provided their antidote.  

Across the divide – Nesta's Flipped Learning show

Oliver QuinlanOliver Quinlan: leaving NestaTeachers had also proved a a dynamic touchstone the previous evening at research outfit Nesta's launch of its new Flipped Learning publications (research report with two handbooks for schools and teachers). The departing programme manager for its digital education projects, Oliver Quinlan hosted the event which marked the completion of a research project across schools in England and Scotland. He also set out its context in an education climate where coverage of education's investment in ICT ranged from evangelism to criticism based on the apparent lack of links to improved performance.

The Flipped Learning Project is one of three Nesta digital education projects – the other two investigate remote tutoring (tutors support learners online) and the use of subtitles in the classroom (teachers' contributions are subtitled over video recordings for further reflection on practice). The schools involved in the Flipped Learning Project provided learners with video resources for homework (common to all was the Khan Academy) which introduced them to topics which would then be developed further in lesson time. At the heart of the approach is freeing up teacher time from introductions of topics so that they can help all the children gain a deeper understanding of, and confidence in, the subject matter.

The response by all involved was broadly positive and the findings are well represented in the helpful reports which are available from the Nesta website as free downloads. Just as interesting are the prerequisites for work of this kind, particularly CPD (continuing professional development) for the teachers and straightforward home access to the materials by the learners. 

Teachers bring the research to life

However, the evening really came alight with the presentations from teachers already heavily involved in flipped learning. Their insights chimed with the Nesta feedback but took things much further, with clear evidence of student engagement – and improved outcomes too. Kirsty Tonks and Jen Devaney, from Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick, are at the heart of the MathsFlip research project they are conducting with Year 5 and 6 pupils in local partner primary schools for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), funded by the Nominet Trust and evaluated by the University of York.

Kirsty TonksShireland's Kirsty TonksFlipped learning is not just a technique at Shireland; it has been embedded in the teaching and learning for a number of years and is also a feature of the teacher education that goes on at this Teaching School (see Shireland Teaching School Alliance). It's in the DNA of everything they do, as Kirsty Tonks puts it. Shireland bid for partnership in this ambitious research programme because it is determined to prove that a secondary school can indeed help primary schools improve the performance in maths in Years 5 and 6, particularly at the upper levels, through the use of flipped learning.

Shireland has been at the forefront of using technology for learning for many years, so it is very experienced at ensuring that technology provision is appropriate for the learning tasks. Kirsty Tonks was at pains to make clear that this work is not about having devices that go home from school – that is not necessary. And it's not just about learners watching videos at home: "It's about what they do with it afterwards. And maybe it’s not video, maybe its a website or writing the next part of a story. It is about interacting with content."

That could be for a lesson, or a series of lessons, or a learning journey for any subject. And it's not just about knowledge but also comprehension too. The most important thing was that the learners should interact in some way, she added.

MathsFlip required a great deal of commitment, training the teachers involved for the project and for the changes to the curriculum too (which flipped learning worked out very useful for). Jen Devaney even organised assemblies for parents and carers so that whole communities were in the loop and parental support was maximised. The feedback had been very positive, she reported, with parents telling her that their child, who had not been very forthcoming in lessons, was now teaching them maths!

EEF report due in January but other primaries feedback shows success

While the EEF report, and the data, are not due out until January, it's no secret that primary schools already working with Shireland have enjoyed success from the relationship. Kirsty Tonks gave some examples. At one school "the percentage of pupils over a three-year period at level 4 in maths rose from 89 per cent to 100 per cent, level 5s from 21 per cent to 67 per cent and they had never achieved any level 6s, and in the 2015 SATs they achieved 18 per cent. They put most of that down to adopting flipped learning." Another school "saw level 5 rise from 57 per cent to 77 per cent".

Understandably, the EEF report promises some very interesting insights. Kirsty Tonks' feeling about the experience Shireland has enjoyed indicates that with flipped learning it's possible to cover more of the maths curriculum than previously, and faster. "It is accelerating the learning and deepening it," she added, and the technology enables assessment for learning and differentiation in ways that teachers could not previously achieve. Shireland will share its full findings at the two-day FlipCon UK conference it will host with The TES and Discovery Education (March 23-24, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details).

Descriptions of Colin Hegarty invite superlatives – he is a force of nature. He teaches maths at Preston Manor School, Wembley and in 2014, won a Pearson Teacher of The Year award  for his use of technology (he founded the incredibly popular HegartyMaths website) – "it’s had five million hits and 300,000 users have logged on to the site in two years". You get the impression that there's not much he's not prepared to do to engage his students with their learning, guided by his favourite formula: "If you have belief in what you are doing, you have belief and confidence in yourself, you are prepared to work hard and you have the right type of support in school and at home, you can be successful in maths as in anything in life."

YouTube videos covered 60% of A-level and 59% of GCSE maths

Support is where he comes in. His mission is to provide (and create) consistently excellent resources to help learners gain the understanding and skills they need for all aspects of their maths. Spurred by the plight of an A-level student who was going to be absent for three months because of his father's terminal illness, he developed a programmed approach to putting video support materials for the syllabus online at YouTube (initially about 60 per cent of the A-level course and 59 per cent of the GCSE). It was a success and his student went on to study engineering at university, but the flipped learning had dramatic effects on results.

Colin HegartyColin Hegarty: force of natureThere were four As for maths in his sixth form that year, with one A star. What happened next? "We got 14 A stars that year at A2. Some of the kids were sitting on a C from AS but they moved up to A star in the course of a year." The previous highest number of A stars for GCSE maths had been 12 – that went up to 36. He believes that was due to flipped learning and is happy to leave the evidence to the researchers.

What impressed the Nesta visitors along with his focus, love of learning and sheer energy was his 'computational thinking' approach to the work, breaking things down to resolvable elements. For example, the 'number' strand in maths (one of six) is made up of 150 skills students should learn. He showed a graphic to demonstrate how they are linked, and how one of the most important is the times tables – "if you don’t help children learn their times tables it’s cruel". He's currently working with a programmer and former student to ensure that his site has the resources to cover all this learning, which begs the question – when does he sleep?

He echoed the questions of the Nesta and the Shireland research. How do you know they have seen the materials? How do you know they have understood them? Like them, he is working on practical answers. Access can be organied by the school and technology can provide analytics that can tell the teacher about students' viewing and understanding before the lesson even starts (even allow for a little remedial work).

This is just a slice of the thinking behind the new development of the HegartyMaths website, so it's a good idea for anyone working in secondary school mathematics to go and sign up ready. While they're at it they might want to sign up for Shireland's FlipCon UK too.

The geographical distance between the Nesta and PA/Besa events was around a mile, but the intellectual distance between Nick Gibb's keynote and the truly exciting feedback from teachers represented a chasm, which is a real concern for those interested in policymaking. Could cutting-edge practice be any further away from senior politicians?

There was no "anti-textbook ethos" evident at Nesta; in fact flipped learning work could easily align to text books if desired by schools. But it's hard to think of flipped learning, and its technology factor, emerging on to Nick Gibb's horizon any time soon, or of publishers not being interested in playing a part in supporting schools and families with the consistently brilliant resources that teachers like Colin Hegarty and his Shirelands colleagues seek.

While Nick Gibb's 19th-century approach to learning and teaching is capable of, single-handedly, generating some of the very things he despises, particularly an "anti-textbook ethos" (because it feels more like coercion than cooperation), it's clear that his evidence base is remarkably selective and narrow. A quick delve in a free Kindle download of The Iliad from Amazon, promptly demonstrates why.

Granted that its introduction was added many years later, it drops a pearl from the Rev Theodore Alois Buckley that could have been fertilised specifically for Nick Gibb:

"Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire." Perhaps that's why they call them the Classics, all freely downloadable for any digital device.

More information 

Literature Review on Textbook Use and Links to Educational Standards (AlphaPlus)  
Nick Gibb speech to PA/Besa 
"The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform" 
Review of "Hidden Value" by National Education Policy Center  
Guidance for the Publishing of Educational Teaching Resources      
Guidance for the Publishing of Computing Teaching Resources    
Nesta Flipped Learning publications  
Oliver Quinlan
Shirelands Collegiate Academy
Hegarty Maths
Twitter: Oliver Quinlan, Kirsty Tonks, Shireland, Jen Devaney, Maths Flip, Colin Hegarty  
Education Endowment Foundation on Fkipped Learning