Opinion: 'Online resources are great, but, nonetheless, long live the textbook!'

11th July 2015 at 12:19
Sats results
Teacher-made resources have an important role to play, writes one deputy head, but textbooks are essential too

At the recent Education Reform Summit, Richard Culatta, director of educational technology at the US Department of Education announced that textbooks were "out of date the second they get printed". 

For those of us involved in education, these grand statements, usually coming from tech evangelists such as Culatta, are familiar. But they should not go unchallenged because the end result of such thinking could be costly to schools (in financial terms) and also damaging to the academic progress of ours students.

First of all, I must declare some self-interest: I have written textbooks for A-level, IB, GCSE and key stage 3. I begin work on my fifth book (a study guide to An Inspector Calls) next month.

Culatta argued that 'open resources', often written collaboratively and capable of being constantly revised in real time, were intrinsically superior to textbooks. For him, schools paying for textbooks "might as well just take the money and throw it away". For all those teachers who have seen their schools spend endless funds at new technology, only to see it collect dust in store cupboards, such a statement will be met some sense of irony. Meanwhile, the trusty textbooks, well-thumbed, and probably annotated too, are recycled year after year by teachers who like and value them. 

Textbooks have a rigour that teacher-generated resources sometimes lack. To give you an example, it took two years for me to write a textbook for Cambridge University Press on English literature, and it has taken me the best part of a year to complete a study guide on Ian McEwan.  

During this process, I read as much as I could about the specifications, and the authors; furthermore, each word written is questioned at every stage, being edited, sub-edited, proofed, and reviewed. It is an exhausting process, but as I argue here, an inherently healthy one for author and (I hope) the students who use them.  

There are other advantages of textbooks over technology: they don't crash, they are more durable in different contexts (try risking 30 iPads in a chemistry lab with a bunch of Year 7 students), and, crucially, they are quicker and safer to use (no firewalls, no checking that the students have gone off-task when they go online). It is also a fallacy to say that because they are published on boring old paper they are immediately redundant: I don't think the main facts of the Second World War need to be changed every ten minutes. Textbooks endure because they remain relevant.

But I dislike orthodoxies. I use online resources from the TES regularly, and they are very good; they have provided a huge range of ideas on numerous occasions. I also work collaboratively with students and teachers using online platforms such as Google Docs. Again, they bring an extra dimension to my planning and teaching.  But I reject the 'solutionism' that Calutta and others like him think will act as a silver bullet for all school problems. And as soon as they start talking about "personalised learning for all", I know they don't work in schools, and have no real experience of teaching subjects with public exams and targets to meet, and all within a limited budget.

Long after the sleek, pricey iPads are stacked up next to the once-indispensable overhead projectors, textbooks will still be being used, and will still be helping students develop a deep and lasting love of their subjects.

Dr David James is deputy head, academic, at Bryanston school. He tweets as @drdavidajames


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