A review of Robert Peal’s textbook series
I have seen some glowing reviews on Twitter and some strong criticism of Robert Peal’s ‘knowing history’ series of textbooks. I have used these books to plug a few gaps in my teaching, since attending the West London Free School history conference. However, it was when planning a series of lessons, namely on the causes of the English Civil War, that I felt genuinely motivated to write up my experiences of using his books. They have their strengths, and I think they do a job well. Criticism needs to be recalibrated, and more properly set against their strengths. I aim to address the quality of the books in this blog post, and will follow up with how my views are enhanced when they are put in the context of Peal’s schemes of work before finally considering gaps within this bigger picture.
My initial reaction to the books was, and remains, that they are excellent. I have been looking for a solid textbook that offers me a ‘lump of text’ to work with for quite some time. My deputy head, and fellow history teacher, even took a tour in our 1970s archive to find materials that offered us a knowledge-rich source of information to base our lessons off of. For this, they must be applauded. Too many textbooks lack this. They are crowded with sources, which are impossible to weave into the text and certainly do not enhance students’ understanding of history as a discipline. I am thinking, in particular here, of the various SHP books such as Contrasts and Connections.
My reservations about the books echo some of Alex Ford’s concerns. The language is ambitious. Too ambitious. I agree that it should be ambitious, and pitched high. However, I teach in a grammar school and, in places, the students are needing to refer to the knowledge organiser and a dictionary too often and it distracts from the overall narrative.
I imagine Peal might counter with the suggestion that students can still grasp the true narrative and the core of events whilst reading aloud. While this might help students to navigate the trickier language, I’m not a fan of reading aloud. I’ve never been convinced that it helps students to internalise the narrative, and to think about it. David Didau has explained that getting students to follow along with a text, while it is read aloud, can be problematic. While Didau argues that reading aloud does aid comprehension for students with weaker literacy, once can’t help but suspect they would be overwhelmed with the difficulty of these texts. It would be interesting to see some research on this, and how much unfamiliar vocabulary can be navigated within a piece of text before students’ working memories are overloaded.
One of my other reservations was the interpretations that are offered within the text. As suggested above, I was teaching a series of lessons on the causes of the English Civil War. There isn’t any context on how Charles I’s problems with parliament can be traced back to James I’s relationship. In fact, James I only gets a mention in the book as part of the Gunpowder Plot. This disappointed me, and still left me needing to supplement the materials in the book with my own resources.
This isn’t a problem. But, where teachers are claiming that they can plan very quickly, and the books are being advertised as knowing history, the fact that we’re not getting the full story or a sense that it is just that, an interpretation which lays most of the problems at Charles I’s door, this is slightly problematic. The problem here lay more with the teachers claiming to use the book. I feel that the books have a lot to offer, if they’re used in a critical way, with teachers who don’t outsource their planning. Their value is only enhanced by Peal’s generous contribution of resources on his website, which I shall address in my next post.
My other issue relates to the ‘comprehension questions’. Asking five comprehension questions at the end of a large block of text is no indication of how far students are able to comprehend the information presented. Nor will it aid memory retention. I’m tempted to start recalling Willingham’s mantra that “memory is the residue of thought” and the questions on each double page spread do not encourage any thought. What I have done, is I have asked students to do a variety of things with the text. The following three are somewhat typical of my practice:
- Asking students to “reduce” each paragraph to a one sentence summary. This can elicit whether students have understood the most important part of the text.
- Asking students to “transform” the text into an image, leaning on the idea of “dual coding”.
- Asking students to “prioritise” the most useful sentence for understanding a particular idea.
I believe this is better than asking comprehension questions, which do not encourage students to actively use the information. Look at this task which shows how easy it is to extract information and answer comprehension questions without having to assemble meaning.
In my next post I shall address how this can be taken further, in light of Robert Peal’s schemes of work.