The next edu-revolution*: Textbooks!

Each time I post something positive on twitter about textbooks, I get a strongly positive response.  Now more than ever, with people talking about studying at home and the  very real challenges and impact of the digital divide, it seems such a desperate and unnecessary state of affairs that textbooks have seen such a decline in status.   I can’t help but imagine how much better and easier things would be for teachers and students if, right now:

  1. it was just normal that students had a decent textbook for each of their subjects – as appropriate to the discipline – at home and
  2. that, through practice and training, they were confident using them.

The benefits of having a decent textbook are countless.  I will list some but, first, some necessary caveats:

  • I have to say ‘decent textbook’ – because someone always pipes up that ‘most textbooks are crap’ – as if that is, was and always has to be true.  Nobody is advocating using low quality books.
  • I have to say ‘as appropriate to the discipline’ because some folk can’t see beyond a generalisation and will say ‘you don’t need a textbook for dance’ or something, as if that kills the discussion.  (I actually can imagine some textbooks being useful for parts of nearly every subject, but that’s me!).
  • I am openly intensely biased in favour of textbooks because in my experience as a student and teacher – in sciences, maths, RE, geography – life has been much easier and more successful where I have had a textbook for the course – and I’ve generally had excellent experiences of using them.
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Some classic texts from my own education

I honestly can’t imagine teaching a course very well without a textbook.  All that re-inventing the wheel!  I am not one of those people who suffers the delusion that their powerpoints and worksheets must be intrinsically superior to a professionally-produced, expertly-crafted textbook.   It’s never ever felt like a straitjacket; it’s a platform you can spring off from whenever you need, giving everyone involved a secure and shared understanding of key concepts and the breadth and depth of the discipline.

I’ve even had my own extended remote learning experience as a child – we spent several months home-schooled after returning from living abroad in 1974 in the middle of a county-wide school reorganisation.  I remember working through the Alpha and Beta maths books quite contentedly, at my own pace, checking my answers and practising as the book directed.

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Classic maths textbooks from the 70s. 

The features of good textbooks include:

A broad overview of the subject: preferably not limited to one exam board (see below). The text is about the subject as a priority, not the exam – even if ‘exam style questions’ are useful.   This big picture view is so helpful for schema-building; something as simple as looking at the contents page and flicking through the book tells you a lot about what you’ve covered and what is still left to do.  Plus it gives you a sense of progression as you work through it. (And no, you don’t have to do it in the same chapter order!)

Explanatory text and diagrams:  It should be possible to read a textbook and, thereby, to learn things! Obviously.   What’s the point of learning to read if we don’t then expect and facilitate learning things by reading about them!  A good text book provides good worked examples, narratives , summaries and explanations so that, with or without a teacher, it is possible to gain an understanding of the concepts at least at an introductory level.  This then frees up lessons to deal with problems, questions and checking for understanding. With a good textbook, students can support their exam revision and their general knowledge about the subject.

Reading material:  As I report in this post (7 Variables Between/Within Schools: Where are you on each scale?) there’s a significant range in the extent to which teachers or schools deliver embedded reading across the curriculum.  Partly this is because there no standard, high quality subject-relevant materials to hand.  However, where good textbooks are on hand, this is immediately solved.  In using textbooks in lessons, teachers are also modelling how they can be used for home study.   Of course students need to be able to read the books to learn from them – BUT how do you get better at reading a textbook if you don’t have to use one?  You certainly don’t learn more by not having a textbook.

High quality visuals:  A major benefit of textbooks is that every student can see good quality visuals in front of them close-up.  Diagrams, maps, photographs…. on your own desk.  Even if a teacher goes to the trouble of finding good quality sources for their powerpoints, it is often quite hard to engage with from the back of the class.  With a good textbook, it not only saves time for the teacher – but the students have a better experience.  Plus, there’s a level of quality control… some of the last-minute internet grabs I see are tragic; it makes me sad.  Seriously *this* is what you’ve chosen to introduce this amazing topic to these kids??

Questions and answers.  Often the quality of the question sections is the biggest factor in selecting a textbook.  Good textbooks have lots and lots of questions – more than you need. They step up in terms of difficulty with plenty of practice at each stage; they require thinking – not just blind gap fill.  ( ie of the sort: Text: An ibble is worth two obbles.  Qu:  An ibble is worth _____ ______ ). The answers are available for self-checking.  One of my favourite textbooks for Physics came with a separate practice book – just tons and tons of questions.  That was a good combination.

What went wrong? And what needs to change.

The reasons for a decline in the status of textbooks are multiple. Here’s some contributing factors, each of which would need to change if we’re going to get this re-revolution started:

Chop and change in the curriculum:  This is a killer. It takes time to write a book, get it known about and for it to gain a standing within a subject community. That requires some confidence on the part of publishers that the demand will be sustained. For too many years, exam syllabuses changed constantly and people lost confidence.  Solution: Stabilise the curriculum.  One reason that IB textbooks are good is that they only change the curriculum every 10 years.

Too much emphasis on exam-connectedness.  In line with a raft of other accountability-driven perversions, textbooks became too tightly aligned to specific exam boards and specifications. This means that the books become redundant once the exam spec changes.  Solution:  Write textbooks for a subject, not an exam spec. Make them broader or a series of thinner booklets for flexibility.

Costs.  Linked to chop and change and the undisputed decline in school funding, textbooks are associated with being unaffordable; ‘a hole in the budget’.  It’s utterly appalling to sit in meetings about school finance where you have so little capacity to spend money on core resources for every student; textbook investments are significant  – to the point that a textbook has be THE ULTIMATE TEXTBOOK to be justifiable.  Solution: Spend proper money on education to the point that textbooks for all is seen as a starting point not a luxury.  

The CGP effect.  Linked to the costs and the exam effect, lots of schools have invested in revision guides. I love revision guides – they’re so helpful.  But they are NOT textbooks. They don’t take the time and space to fully explain things, they don’t have extended reading and they don’t have enough questions – unless you also buy the workbooks.  I’ve met teachers who are so disconnected from textbooks (of the high quality kind) that they don’t even know the difference between a revision guide and a textbooks. The truth is that, if students had textbooks, then revision guides wouldn’t really be needed; they’re the fast-food alternative to a rich, healthy balanced diet.  Solutions: see above

The edtech effect.  Again, linked to costs, the availability of online versions of books has been seen as a way to avoid the full cost of the hard copies. Of course there are some intrinsic benefits such as the use of embedded video, interactive questions and so on – but, as we’re all finding in this shutdown – there’s a huge gulf between making something available and ensuring everyone has access.  In so many ways, unless you read on a full computer screen, online reading of a textbook via a reader or smartphone, is a very poor experience compared to reading a textbook.  Online text books create the illusion of a solution; they are not in themselves a solution to providing quality resources for home study for all students.  Solutions: Regard tech products as enhancements, not the core offer. It’s never going to be a level playing field otherwise.  Or – just keep widening those gaps!

Leadership Attitudes.  There are a couple of issues here. One is linked to costs.  Where books are seen as luxury items, at best, there are sets of books in the classroom but the default assumption is that it is wasteful to issue them to students: because they will lose them!  I find this depressing.  It’s not beyond the wit of humankind to develop systems for issuing and tracking books so that they are returned.  And, even if there is some year on year attrition of the book stock, that’s just life. It’s still absolutely worth it – compared to the cheapskate worksheet alternative.

The other is related to teaching and learning.  One teacher I met last year was teaching via some pretty dodgy self-made powerpoints when he had a really good set of textbooks piled up at the back of the class.  I asked why he didn’t use them.  Firstly, he indicated that he just preferred to use his own stuff – which led me to compare the quality of the material.  He had to admit that it would definitely have been better to have used the spread in the textbook – which had clearer diagrams and some nice photos putting the ideas into context and better questions!  However his main concern was but what if SLT came in? They’d think I was being lazy!  How the hell have we reached a point where a teacher feels that?   The idea that textbooks = lazy as a general rule is madness – (I could write a whole thing just on how and why that thinking comes into being and what is wrong with it, but not just now!)   Solutions: Focus on the five features of good textbooks above and consider how else those things are delivered.  Train teachers to use textbooks well, to link a curriculum plan to good texts and give the books the funding prioritisation they deserve.

Viva the Textbook Revolution*

  • Invest properly in schools so that textbooks are not seen as a luxury.
  • Keep the curriculum stable. Let’s have our own 10-year rule.
  • Incentivise the production of excellent textbooks, in consultation with subject associations, that deliver the full national curriculum and more in glorious style.
  • Establish some quality standards for textbooks so they all deliver the five features to a high standard.
  • Control textbook costs so that they are widely available and accessible.
  • Decouple textbooks from specific exam boards so they last longer and become less niche in their focus.
  • Develop curriculum thinking with curriculum reading at the core – thereby giving maximum value to good quality textbooks.
  • Take disadvantage seriously and provide all students with what they need and can access in a low-tech or no-tech environment.
  • Focus on learning rather than teacher performance when observing lessons; if your teachers are scared to use a textbook because of what you might say, that’s down to you.

* It’s not a revolution. That’s a joke.

And here’s a short rant I recorded a couple of years ago



  1. Textbooks-good ones -cannot be beaten. Other factors [you outline] have affected some books but good ones are bullet proof for students. BULLET PROOF.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Tom.
    As a GTP a mentor told me that they created their sow and lessons from a text book. Apparently she (Science teacher at the time) was given a book and left to get on with it! I remember thinking that was a bit odd.
    Now as a HOD I have inherited quite a few ‘out of date?’ text books but we use them to provide really quick and useful cover lessons when needed and for any students on long-term sickness/absence.
    We definitely have enough for each student if we needed them and yes, we need to remember that so that we don’t reinvent the wheel.
    I still have and use in class some lovely go to lessons in the English Framework series for year 9 from SATs days.
    I have a vague idea that using text books for lessons was considered boring for students rather than lazy of the teacher…
    Thanks for the reminder and food for thought.
    Kind regards
    Niki Senington

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The kids used to get frustrated with me when I asked them to do the questions in a different order. Textbooks are a starting point for good learning and teaching and need to be used as a tool by both the learners and teachers. Everything in moderation and used with purpose!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such an interesting debate. Most of the schools I worked at use textbooks. They were not perfect but it served a purpose to give you a good idea of how to elaborate your schemes of work even if you would implement but still give you a structure and definitely helpful if you are sharing year groups with another teacher. In my latest school, there were not textbooks, the head of department did not believe in them, This created a great deal of problems. Firstly, there was not SoW that made any sense to follow. Second, it was complicated to build up one as teachers did not seem to agree to what they were supposed to cover. Teachers came from total different backgrounds with different approaches to teaching and learning and at the end, teachers were not covering the same things. It was difficult to follow up for progression. Finally, the amount of work that went on searching for and creating resources was just beyond believe. Some of these issues probably would have been avoided if school had invested in textbooks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It also sounds like some of these issues could have been resolved if the HoD had been an effective leader!

      We don’t use text books in KS3 (original decision stemming from budget issues, now a conscious choice) I feel that as HoD this has freed me up to be creative and design a curriculum which is more relevant to our students, and prepares them well for the challenges of GCSE. It has been a lot of hard work, but in MFL, the costs of text books for KS3 put weights the benefits they bring, as none are perfect.


  5. A very well covered topic. A most relevant one for enacting when we finally get education back in the hands of professionals and out of the lacklustre clutches of academy chains/schools and run proper initial teacher training with extensive CPD to follow-up. Some old dinosaurs may have to be put out to grass. The future is not theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In an ideal world, the ‘perfect’ text book for each subject would be great. I use text books all the time, but for MFL, I dip in and out of various books, because no one text book has ever provided everything I need, especially at KS3. Some have too much content, some too little, and each one is based on a different political agenda of what my subject should look like. In the current educational climate, this just shows how difficult it is to identify the one perfect text book!

    So much would have to change in education before the idea of the one text book per subject were possible. We can’t even narrow GCSEs down to one exam board. To do this with text books in the current ‘marketised’ world of education would be virtually impossible. Publishers and authors will continue to vie for attention, and we will always have multiple options to choose from. How does a school decide which is ‘the best’? Funding is another huge issue, and this has to include not just the costs of the books themselves, but simple things like the availability or space for lockers for students to be able to manage carrying textbooks for every subjects. Every student having a text book for every subject also assumes that every student has space to store them at home, and a place to study when using them at home. This just not the case for many disadvantaged students.

    You also talk about text books being linked to the national curriculum. Sadly, the National curriculum in many subjects has been pared back to the extent where is is just a collection of ideas on one side of A4 (see MFL for example). Any text books based on what is currently the KS3 national curriculum for MFL would be one author’s interpretation of those ideas – once you have a national curriculum which is one to interpretation, you are then in danger of different authors and publishers making their own decisions as to what this means and how it looks. The curriculum content would need to be centrally defined, and very prescribed for a ‘good’ text book to be able to cover everything.

    On balance, whilst I agree in principle on the value of text books & that teachers should not be be reinventing a wheel which has already been invented by specialist authors, I think the idea of one ‘good’ text book per subject is a pipe dream based on the way education was organised and managed in a bygone age, not how it is today. Although your last comment was tongue in cheek, I think it really would require a revolution for text books to work as well as they could.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree in part with your comments, but there are some excellent text books out there for MFL which in my experience cover everything that’s needed (and if not, there are plenty of supplementary resources online that we can dip into and adapt – note the use of the word ‘supplementary’ to denote the fact that the textbook covers everything but plenty of teachers adapt and personalise as they see fit).


  7. Yes! I’ve been working on this for a while, if you’re willing to stretch the idea of what a textbook is. E.g., many exercises, with an integrated formative feedback system, as part of the textbook-like-thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting and timely – in English there are some reasonable text books but invariably you might use a chapter or segment as the whole is not fit for purpose. Where we need a ‘once and for all’ tome is for the teaching of grammar, as the French have the Bescherelle series. There is still the sense of very much ‘reinventing the wheel’; starting from (head) scratch. Perhaps a solid English textbook series could also go some way to making sense of Key Stage 3 as something more than steady, stealthy induction into the narrow pain of GCSE.


  9. This is an excellent article; a good textbook is a valuable investment and gives all students access to high quality materials.
    It certainly is not a sign of laziness if a teacher uses one with intelligence and flair.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Big issue with recent Maths text books has been size. Far too big and heavy and far too much guff. On a recent trip to Finland, I witnessed cupboards full of excellent slim volumes filled with suitable differentiated/progressive exercises. Well used, long-lasting, good value. But quite an investment at the outset.


  11. Hi Tom

    Professionally I always loved a text book. I still have a few from my first classes taught. I think there three main issues why they went out of vogue. The first two are the reason I stopped.
    1. Exam boards pushing ’their’ textbook which were ok but clearly narrow in their outlook. This was then joined by their ’ks3’ curriculum and/or text book to help the students towards their GCSE.
    2. The cost! At £30 per book they became too expensive to update. Those that bought one connected to a GCSE would find that the school wouldn’t allow updated sets as we began the’change GCSE’ subjects every year. Anyone remember 2000 century science? I think I saw those text books gathering dust in every science department I visited. Too expensive to throw away…almost useless for future cohorts.
    3. Final reason was the time when we moved to discovery learning (although I never knew why as a text book is bloody good for independent reading for a set of questions which are also in the text book!!!). I didn’t see too much of this but assumed by the outrage of some people on Twitter they were publicly whipped if dared use a text book in an observed lesson.

    So professionally I love a text book. Imagine if we hadn’t been hoodwinked by IWBs and blew all possible budgets on…but ultimately it is budgets that will stop their full return.


  12. Hi Tom,
    A really interesting read, thank you. I work in primary and wonder if you think text books could be as much use in primary education. I’m constantly reading and digesting a lot of educational debate such as this which is almost always secondary focussed. Everyone I follow on Twitter is secondary focused and I am constantly trying to translate ideas – which I find myself completely agreeing with – to my primary setting. This is now the new one! So, thanks for that!


  13. Many of the great textbooks that you have used in your illustrations avoid one of the problems that many modern textbooks fall into. Paragraph the idea that a lesson must be covered on a two page spread.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Any advice on how we should deal with students who cannot access the relevant subject textbooks because of a low reading age?


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