Textbooks and Kognity: resources for a new Economics Curriculum

A new IB Economics curriculum for August 2020 has prompted a flurry of discussion in our office about the new changes; what are the implications of new topics, what do the changes to assessments mean but also more pragmatic questions about resources and textbooks. I will try write a bit more about the curriculum changes over coming weeks but I thought I will provide an overview of the textbook resources our team has looked at so far to help inform other Head of Departments thinking. This includes popular books from Oxford Press, Pearson and a new online competitor Kognity.

Is it time to question the role of the textbook?

Our collective hunch was that our students didn’t actually use our textbooks as much as we might have hoped or dreamed of. Economics is a very theoretical and content heavy course, so the textbook provides students with an essential overview of the topics and ideas and highlights the depth of understanding they can aim for. Idealistically you hope that students would be reading ahead and using textbooks frequently to support their learning. Turns out that when you provide students with physical copies of textbooks and they have a laptop and the internet at their finger tips, the convenience of a quick Google search trumps the quality of the textbook.

A poll of two Higher Level classes brought this point home. Our school Learning Platform (Teamie) was used frequently, but three quarters of students used the textbook on average once per month or less. When you are managing a tight budget you quickly start to wonder if there is a better use of our money.

Despite considerable growth in the number of students enrolled in IB Economics globally (from 13,000 in 2010 sessions to 27,000 in 2019) I imagine this is still a small market for any textbook publisher. The reminder of this post will outline what limited options are currently available. The IB was incredibly late publishing the official curriculum so publishers like Pearson have already said that their text will not be available till next years cohort of students.

Oxford IB Course Companion

Oxford University Press seems to be one publisher who has gained a massive leap on the market in publishing its book the Economics Course Companion months ahead of its competitors. The authors Jocelyn Blink and Ian Dorton were evidently involved int he curriculum writing and also wrote the very popular textbook for the previous edition of the curriculum. The newest edition has had a considerable makeover and managed to add an extra hundred pages of explanations, examples and visuals. Compared to previous editions it now has more liberal use of colour, clear chapter introductions and lots of pictures.

I think most teachers would be hard pressed to look past this option and will be pressed to buy something before the course begins. It has been developed in cooperation with the International Baccalaureate which seems like an unfair advantage to give to one publisher and not others but regardless, it will undoubtedly be a popular choice. It is available in both print and digital copies through the Oxford Portal – see sample here.

Each chapter feels nicely laid out, with clear learning objectives at the beginning and use of colour to distinguish from the SL and HL content. In newer areas such as Behavioural Economics, or Evolution of Economic Thinking it will provide teachers with good support material and guidance. For other topics there are a greater range of contemporary articles and questions for students to practice with. The new economics concepts have been tagged throughout the book to highlight points of relevance but it will still require the teacher to unpack and teach these connections. With the new Paper 3 in Economics focusing on real world issues and presumable a case study approach, I would have hoped to see more of these in-depth style resources of explorations included in some of the relevant chapters but these may be available in the teacher support books.

Given it is getting towards the end of the academic year and we now need to place orders textbooks it is hard to find previews of anything else. I have done a bit of research, looking at what was in popular in the past and a new comer called Kognity in the online textbook space to help inform your thinking.

Economics for the IB Diploma – Cambridge

The Cambridge text is a comprehensive resource which has been updated for the new curriculum. At written by Ellie Tragakes it has always followed previous syllabus very carefully. Ellie was a Chief Examiner for IB Economics during the period 2007-2009 and the book has the academic rigor required by many top students. It includes excellent evaluations of concepts and Ellie has included good graphs and diagrams throughout the text to support students learning. Earlier versions were hefty at over 600 pages, which is a little daunting for new pupils and students who need ESL support. You can see a sample chapter here and its presentation is still very text heavy, and some pagers could do with some images, diagrams or examples to break up the theory.

Pearson Baccalaureate Economics

First written for the previous curriculum update it remains in my opinion the premium and most comprehensive text available. It is written by two practicing Economics teachers, Jason Welker and Sean Maley and managed to meld comprehensive explanations of the concepts with a huge range examples and real world data. Jason also has a very popular YouTube channel which incidentally complements the textbook nicely. It covered every aspect of the curriculum in incredible depth. Compared to earlier Cambridge and Oxford texts it felt like it was published with more polish, liberal use of colour, pictures, graphs and a little more white space to break up longer passages. The result is that it was a big text for some students especially some SL students, but for many aspiring for top grades it was always an incredibly good resource. At the moment (May 2020) I have yet to see much more than a sample table of contents from Pearson which is disappointing and due to the late publication of syllabus from the IB, Pearson has said it will not be available until August 2021.

Kognity – online resource

Kognity is a digital publisher which has carved out a niche in the market for bespoke online resources. They originally began as a company called Lanterna and have had a long association with International School of Geneva. The texts have been specifically developed for the IB, but they now also have resources for GCSE. Similar to the other publishers there is a panel of teachers who write and edit the course material for each subject.

We have been running a trial of Kognity over the last few months including our recent period of school closure in Singapore to assess how this compared to our traditional textbook offerings and what kind of feedback students would have. With all of the other textbooks available static PDFs online the biggest differentiators for Kognity are the following three points.

Key differentiators

  1. Tracking – when students read the chapter or if you assign a chapter to them to read for an assignment you can see if they have read it by looking at your class statistics. For teachers trying to encourage a bit of pre-reading or blended instruction this is a useful tool. Of course it doesn’t mean they have actually understood it but there are questions at the end of each section to test students understanding.
  2. Interactivity – As with an online text you would expect more multimedia elements. When I saw the demonstration of the Biology or Chemistry course I was impressed by the embedded interactive diagrams and sliders and videos. The current version of the Economics text didn’t have the same range of resources so I was a little underwhelmed. The newer version of the text looks to have had a significant revamp and they have promised to produce both more interactive diagrams and also questions. The preview chapter they have shared on Price Elasticity of Supply looks a lot more interesting and informative than the original version.
  3. Quizzes and Assessments – alongside each chapter Kognity has developed a pretty broad range of one word or multiple choice questions. In topics such as Theory of the Firm there are currently 65 questions, or in Fiscal Policies 56. Along with assigning readings this has been one of my most used features of Kognity. It is easy to pick questions (although they could be more precisely tagged to subtopics) and to then see how students performed. There are lot so other quiz tools online but to have the questions pre-made and tagged against the curriculum is invaluable.
Quiz creation interface in Kognity

This is sounding expensive?

Yes you are right. Kognity’s pricing works best if you can coerce your fellow Heads of Departments to also subscribe. It is not available in every subject but students could conceivably use Kognity in 3-4 subjects and this would make the costs more manageable. In my High School we have around 1,500 students and with each subject at a different stages of curriculum cycle and with existing texts they are really happy with, any wholesale change is tricky.

If you do the rough maths, one traditional textbook is now about $45 SGD, which of course I can reuse for perhaps 4-5 years. If I budget 10% for replacements every year my annual costs of the text is about $15 per student, per year.

If we proceed and subscribe to Kognity as a single subject, I will be paying about $45 SGD for each student for every year. For several reasons this is a hard proposition to put forward to your Principal but I feel I can nearly justify the spend if I think a bit creatively.

Is it fair to compare ‘value’ against physical textbooks?Well if they the dont even pick up the regular text any gain is positive, but how much additional learning or value I can attribute to one resources is impossible to quantify.
Will teachers commit to integrating and sustained use of Kognity?Often we buy something new with bells and whistles that excites people but quickly practices regress back to an old normal. How could you sustain interest and support teachers with professional learning around flipped classroom or formative assessment.
What is the additional value of the quizzes and research tasks ?The production and curation of some materials is best left to teachers who have a passion and skills in doing this. Some of the sample Real World Inquiry tasks. and I would happily outsource and pay someone to develop online quizzes.
How does the depth and breath of the explanations compare to Oxford or Pearson?In our office this is a more philosophical question. On the one hand perhaps the Pearson or Cambridge text has too much elaboration and detail so that most students loose the essential of the idea or spend too much time understanding the nuances and lose the big picture. Others suggest lighter texts or even some of the study guides are perfectly ok to complement their teaching. I would say the older version of Kognity was between Oxford and Pearson but in some areas it was very slim and had some over simplifications.

Looking at the sample chapter of Kognity for the next textbook I suspect there will be some more depth but perhaps not to the level of Pearson text, and this might be just right for lots of students. You can see a side by side comparison of one topic below with Pearson on the left and Kognity on the right.

Making a decision

In a regular year with no curriculum changes we might be perhaps less willing to make a change if everything is going smoothly, or indeed it is the time to take a risk. With lots of changes to curriculum and need to a new spend on textbooks it might be the time make the jump to something new or even resource like Kognity. For our school I am tempted to make the leap to Kognity as this aligns with our ideas about blended learning, using data to inform practice and leveraging technology. That said with the changes to the curriculum perhaps the safest bet is to stick with the most recent and trusted textbooks which you have tried in the past.

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