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'Imperfect textbooks may be, but as a starting point for learning, we could do far worse'

David Ashton, a teacher and education blogger at thegoldencalfre.wordpress.com, writes:

“The reading of books, what is it but conversing with the wisest men of all ages and all countries, who thereby communicate to us their most deliberate thoughts, choicest notions, and best intentions, couched in good expression, and digested in exact method”  – Isaac Barrow

Alex Quigley recently wrote a thought-provoking blog, in which he gave ten reasons why he does not use textbooks. This was partly a response to a speech given by former education minister Liz Truss earlier this year titled In defence of the textbook. The title of Truss’ speech is indicative of a growing feeling among teachers that the use of textbooks is something that they need to apologise for. It reflects an educational culture where textbooks are only sneaked out of the classroom cupboard when the door is firmly shut and no one will walk in on such an embarrassing secret. Their marginalisation has undoubtedly been driven in part by Ofsted’s demands for differentiation, ‘buzz’ and generally greater levels of entertainment for their inspectors than watching children read. However, disregarding textbooks has not only been to the detriment of teachers’ well being and performance, but also to the development of pupils’ knowledge and skills.

In recent years, the textbook has fallen from grace to become a dirty word, a pejorative term. This partly results from a recent history of weak textbooks that have served teachers poorly. In RE there are Key Stage 3 textbooks that make the instructions for assembling an Ikea shelf look detailed. Their pages are comprised of “thinking points”, “discussion questions” and “suggested activities” – all of which are to be inspired by roughly four lines of writing and an oversized image of some prayer beads. Those sorts of textbooks – quite rightly – barely demand the attention of the recycle bin. However, it is the potential of what textbooks can be, not the worst of what they have been, that should drive our discussion. For all the potential limitations noted by Quigley, a layered, content-rich textbook offering a comprehensive coverage in a systematic way of what a religiously informed young person should learn about each year is of great value.

Prior to beginning teaching, my tutor warned me that “the first year is always the hardest, because you have to make everything from scratch”. She was right. The sight of seven tabs of TES on my laptop became a nightly occurrence as I frantically scoured the internet for information, worksheets and PowerPoint presentations that could structure and support my planning. While part of me enjoyed having ownership over my resources, I also knew that late nights formatting worksheets and early mornings spent queuing at the photocopier were unsustainable and inefficient. Teachers should not be teachers by day, publishers by night/weekend. It is a reflection on the quality of textbooks, not the ideal of them, if tired teachers can produce something better from online resources the night before a lesson.

Using a textbook is commonly seen as the epitome of weak, lazy, unimaginative teaching. However, there is no reason why the existence and considered use of good textbooks should necessitate unimaginative or unskilled teaching. On the contrary, it is the lost hours gathering and presenting information that prevents teachers thinking about how they can best to communicate that content to pupils. An informative textbook does not impose limits, it gives control and freedom to the teacher; it provides a basis for creativity, rather than tying them to the arduous nightly duty of synthesising random resources.

Quigley repeatedly returns to the issue of cost. However, photocopying is a false economy. Over time, the cost of photocopying sheets every lesson accompanied by bulky revision guides, which inevitably disappear, exceeds the cost of books. Quigley also notes that curriculums regularly change with new governments. While English may have felt the effects of this strongly in recent times, the extent to which the core knowledge of other subjects changes should not be overstressed. Regardless of who wins the next election, Guru Nanak will still have been the founder of Sikhism. Mary will still have been the mother of Jesus. Pupils will still need to learn both these things in RE.

Yes, a textbook may not always be pitched perfectly, but it is likely to be more appropriate than an arbitrary assortment of websites. Furthermore, the argument that language is not pitched appropriately can veer perilously close to dumbing down. We would not suggest entirely rewriting Shakespeare’s plays or a newspaper article because the language is tricky. Grappling with challenging texts is an important part of learning, and the opportunity to improve pupils’ literacy skills and vocabulary should be welcomed. Rigorous, content-rich textbooks are a gift to the teacher, but even more so to the pupil.

Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education demonstrates the difficulty of pupils gaining understanding through Google alone. Any teacher who has set a writing homework based on internet research will have experienced this first-hand. A textbook targeted at pupils is perhaps the most empowering physical gift we can give them, especially for pupils with less cultural capital or exposure to books and learning at home. An informative textbook provides structure and content for pupils to learn independently. Textbooks allow pupils to immerse themselves in other worlds, to broaden their horizons, to understand themselves and others better, to stretch their imagination, to ignite curiosity and create a love for a subject. Imperfect they may be, but as a starting point for learning, we could do far worse.

It is easier to make arguments about technology and cost being obstacles when textbooks do not appear to have value worth arguing for. However, the financial cost of textbooks (although an unconvincing argument) is incomparable to the educational cost to pupils and workload cost to teachers. A well-written textbook is a powerful addition to any teacher’s armoury and can be a game-changer for pupils. Whatever form they come in, when made well, their value will outweigh the cost. Like all strategies in education, they are not perfect and Quigley documents their potential limitations well. But it’s not time to shut down the printing press yet. 

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