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Narrow horizons of books geared solely to exams

Do you use textbooks in your lessons? Of course you do. But how important are they to your teaching? The answer depends who you ask: publishers, teachers, students.

Textbooks will continue to play a role in the classroom, but in terms of their role and potential we know very little. We rely on custom and practice, and the workings of a competitive market. There is virtually no research evidence on their effective use. People are already calling for research into the classroom use of ICT - but we've been using textbooks much longer.

When I read on the cover of a recent AS-level book that it "matches the requirements" of exams, I feel uneasy because this could signal the beginning of a slippery slope.

For a publisher to "badge" a book in such a way obviously makes good commercial sense. Authors are unlikely to object, and neither are students and parents: presumably, the official text is the route to a secure preparation for exams. Furthermore, it would be a courageous teacher who rejected a title that purports to "match the requirements" of the exam.

But a thoughtful teacher might ask: Is this the best on the market? Does it suit my teaching methods? It is here that research would help.

Bill Marsden recently wrote about a long-standing "anti-textbook culture" which is variously manifest in this country. Meanwhile, state schools remain under-resourced with books. Often, pupils share books and cannot take them home. It is a worrying situation that is usually accepted as normal.

The anti-textbook culture may be reinforced by teacher trainers who suggest that creative teaching doesn't depend on textbooks. Some students interpret this message as a denigration of textbooks, which is absurd.

Some teachers have said they feel guilty when, to save time, they plan courses based on a text What is interesting about the emergence of exam board-endorsed books is that they may be causing a shift in how textbooks are perceived, especially now that test outcomes form the basis of how teachers are valued.

If this shift is raising the profile of textbooks, fine. But it is worth keeping the big questions in mind. In 1867, Matthew Arnold said that "school examinations are ... a game of mechanical contrivance... The teacher is... led to think not about teaching his subject but about hitting the requirements..."

Wouldn't it be more honest and straightfoward for publishers to produce "crambooks" for specific syllabuses and then find and encourage the next inspirational author with ambition to test the explanatory potential of textbooks?

David Lambert

The author is reader ineducation at the University of London Institute of Education

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