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:
- it was just normal that students had a decent textbook for each of their subjects – as appropriate to the discipline – at home and
- 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.
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.
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