Should school textbooks follow the curriculum order or devise their own?
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
I remember that a teacher friend of mine once looked at me aghast – in fact, horrified – when I suggested that the content in school textbooks should follow the order set out in the curriculum. He was adamant that teachers should choose the best way to deliver the course content and not blindly follow what has been set down by the publisher or exam board.
Yet so many educational publishers now aim to follow the curriculum order in their books. So there must be some benefits to this, surely? In this post, I’m going to weigh up the pros and cons.
What is a specification?
Curriculum documents, or specifications to give them their proper name, are created by exam boards as a guide for teachers and students on what students need to know by the end of a particular course.
For some subjects, such as Science or Geography, the specification will include a detailed breakdown of each item of knowledge a student must learn. A Biology qualification might require students to ‘Recall the characteristics shared by living organisms’. These specifications are prescriptive, providing teachers with a clear scope for the content they must teach their students.
Other subjects – notably English Literature – are far less detailed. Usually an English specification will focus more on skills that students need to learn. These could include understanding how writers create effects in their work. Teachers of these courses have a lot more free rein to decide what examples they will use to help students learn these skills.
How is the curriculum order decided on?
The order of the content in the specification – and which learning points make the cut – is decided by a team of examiners at the exam board. This team is made up of highly experienced teachers who know the curriculum in depth.
Exam boards regularly revise their specifications to keep them up to date. When a specification is up for revision, some exam boards have a formal consultation with teachers about what they would like to see change. Other exam boards rely on feedback they have received from teachers over the life of the course.
The team of examiners takes this feedback into account when they are revising the course content. They also study student performance over the life of the course. This might lead them to conclude that a particular topic is too challenging and needs to be removed. Alternatively, new topics might be added where the study of the subject has evolved.
Order and coherence…
In light of this, it is easy to see why the curriculum order is so reliable. It’s been decided on by experts in the field, in consultation with teachers teaching the course, and taking into account students’ performance. The order of the specification should by no means be disregarded.
The rigorous processes used to develop a curriculum specification ensure that teachers can rely on its quality and coherence. This can provide much-needed confidence for new teachers just starting to teach the course for the first time. These new teachers can also feel reassured when purchasing textbooks if they can see that the book content matches the specification order. It makes it easy for any teacher to check that everything they will need to teach the course is covered.
…And personal preference
However, teachers and publishers shouldn’t feel bound by the order laid out in the specification.
The specification is written as detailed guidance on the course content – it isn’t usually meant as a guide to the teaching order. I have lost count of the number of times an author has told me they can’t understand why a particular topic appears in a particular section, when it should clearly be in another. And sometimes those authors disagree with one another.
Teachers – especially experienced teachers – have very different personal preferences on how they feel their subject should be taught.
That’s why publishers shouldn’t be too concerned about following the curriculum order to the letter. Most teachers won’t pick up a textbook and teach Chapter One in lesson one. Most teachers pick and choose the sections they want to use in class, in the order they want to use them. Whether the order in the book matches the specification is irrelevant to them.
For teachers who want to know how the book maps to the course content, the publisher can create a curriculum mapping document to show them.
Diverging from the curriculum order also empowers authors to make their own decisions about the best placement of the content. Authors themselves are always experienced teachers, with a wealth of subject knowledge. Their input on the content order is often invaluable.
The perfect blend of order and chaos
Having said that, if it’s true that all teachers will teach from the textbook in their own chosen order, then that order might as well follow the curriculum. It makes it easy for teachers and students to see that all topics are covered and reassures them that they have everything they need to study for the exams. It’s also useful for parents teaching students at home, or students conducting their own learning, which has become so much more prevalent this year.
I think a balanced approach is sensible. Following the curriculum order has enormous benefits, but this standard doesn’t have to be rigidly applied. Sometimes an author makes a compelling case for moving a topic. That this topic can’t be taught until another topic – knowledge of which, this topic relies on – has been covered. In those cases, publishers would do well to take their authors’ advice.