'Ten reasons why I never use textbooks'

26th September 2014 at 13:29

Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School, York, author of Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher and blogger at , writes:

Over the past year and more, there have been repeated calls for a return to textbooks. Most notably, Liz Truss, formerly of the Department of Education, heralded the potential of an application of textbooks in the classroom to raise standards. The argument goes that Asian schools and the like owe something of their rigour and success to great textbooks.

In over a decade of English teaching, I’ve never used them, so I admit my personal bias (more about that later) at the outset. If I were a mathematics teacher, then perhaps I would have a differing opinion, but I am not – so I don’t! Here are ten reasons – some distinctly personal but most systematic, on why textbooks haven’t worked for me:

1.      Textbooks are expensive

In our so-called “age of austerity”, every penny counts. Buying them at scale for 250 students per year group is, frankly, a budget killer. Compared to creating your own scheme of learning, the opportunity cost weighs in favour of doing it yourself. I have developed my practice in an internet age where resources are a search away and mostly freely available. Though some good textbooks have existed, the financial choice has become a de facto position of making your own.

2.      The curriculum is a moveable feast

With the entire curriculum being changed at least once every electoral cycle (well, we need new labels for stuff, don’t we?), these relatively expensive textbooks become simply impractical purchases. Before we have sampled and tested the textbook in practice, it becomes outdated and sometimes wholly obsolete. Perhaps in subjects like mathematics where there is a core knowledge that transcends curriculum change this is less marked, but in my experience as an English teacher, the goalposts are uprooted and the entire pitch is shipped out before the textbook has got its boots on.

3.      The lack of personalisation

I admit that “personalisation” has a whiff of lazy jargon in education circles – almost to the point of being dangerously meaningless. I’m not even sure what it means in broader circles, but for me it means well-adapted resources tailored to my classes in my school, based on their prior knowledge and experiences. Each year group is different than before. Each class is different too. A textbook, even used as a touchstone, too often lacks the flexibility to adapt and be shaped to the needs of my students.

4.      Technology integration…isn’t there yet

You can see the emerging synchronising of new technology and old school textbooks. The problem is that the shelf-life of such technology programs is incredibly short. Any specific program can become defunct within eighteen months. A change in the hardware at school can itself cause all kinds of issues. When a textbook is bound to specific hardware, or even software, it becomes beholden to updates and persistent snags. Really effective SMART textbooks, ones that integrate technology somewhat seamlessly, need to be flexible, reliable and easy to use. They aren’t near that point yet.

5.      Some subjects are messy

Subjects such as English language and English literature often lack the linear model of learning you can better apply to mathematics or other subject domains. Grammar drills and some aspects of knowledge related to literary texts can be captured in a chapter-by-chapter format, but there is no notion of an agreed corpus of knowledge or texts. Textbooks become specialist and focus on one skill area, such as grammar, or provide models for writing. Due to this narrow specialisation, trying to dance away from the limitations created by changing curricula, no singular textbook has met the mark for me. If the textbook isn’t multi-functional and cannot be used very regularly, it is no longer value for money when the budget comes biting.

6.      Control

Given English teaching and learning is messy, given there is no agreed corpus of knowledge, given textbooks – even with technological accompaniments – still lack personalisation…I want to build schemes of learning and curricula myself. My experience of English teachers is that they want to control exactly what they do in the classroom too. Even with a given scheme of learning, there is a great deal of adaptation to be had. One teacher’s ideal textbook is their colleagues’ bête noire. As one size doesn’t fit all, once more, the textbooks lack value. Basically, teachers want to write their own textbook, but they don’t have time, defeating the point of using textbooks.

7.      Collaborative curriculum building

Great teachers hunt in packs. Some of my best professional experiences are lovingly crafting new schemes of learning with colleagues, such as finding the ideal resource, or striking upon a startlingly good lesson sequence (exciting, I know!). By going straight to textbooks, we lose this power of collaboration, as well as the learning and – dare I say – the team-building opportunities that working together to create a scheme of work brings.

8.      The straitjacket effect 

I know a good teacher can adapt a textbook sequence and cherry-pick from it, but there is something I find constrictive about following a textbook. The instinct is to follow the plan and sequence of the book, therefore creative tangents, those moments when learning takes an intriguing turn, feel like they are lost. Is there a gain clawed back by uniformity and the skill development of drilling a sound sequence of questions? Yes – undoubtedly. But the textbook can strike at our innate instinct to juxtapose unique ideas and insights of our own choosing. It feels like an issue of creative control.

9.      Quality control

There is always the tricky task of pitching a textbook at the right level. With issues of sentence-length complexity and text complexity proving tricky to match in any given class or school, many publishers have to aim for the middle in terms of the challenge and the quality presented in textbooks. I have yet to find a textbook that accounts for literary texts without using bite-size snippets that force me to search for the passage in its entirety or simply use the original text instead. With that being the case, cost once more rears its ugly head.

10.  Choice of text/literature/sources

Put a group of English teachers in a room and ask them to agree on a selection of literature for a given age range. It is like feeding time at the zoo, only with an intellectual sheen. Teachers develop a bank of their favourites that sync with their personal knowledge (which breeds confidence in their application) and, regardless of changes to the curriculum, we mould our practice to suit our personal preferences. We may preach open-mindedness, but our human nature falls back upon the comfortable pleasures of habit. The teacher, as captain of their classroom, can reject the limiting of choice.

I say I have “never” used textbooks to any sustained degree in the title of this post, but, in truth, they have never worked for me yet. Many of the issues I cite in this post are not insurmountable.

I imagine edu-publishers have a wave of SMART textbooks within reach that could be genuinely personalised, adaptable, collaborative and more. Beyond my issue of wanting complete control over content (is it just me?), I do keep an open mind. They could yet become a potent tool in the teacher armoury.

If textbooks become so effective as to save teachers time – this is massive for me in terms of teacher well being – while matching the quality and degree of personalisation required for individual schools and teachers, then I can see them playing a more significant role in teacher practice in the coming years. Perhaps Liz Truss will become a prognosticator of note. We appear to be a long way away from that in the English domain, but, still, I write about why have I have not yet used textbooks, not that I will not in future.

This blog has been reposted, with permission, from an original blog written on .


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