Bound to succeed

20th September 1996 at 01:00
The textbook still has a lot going for it says John D Clare, reporting from the Historical Association's conference. The modern history textbook is an easy target for criticism. Participants in a seminar on "the function of the textbook" released the usual accusations at this year's Historical Association Education Conference.

Modern textbooks are too big and become dog-eared in pupil's bags. Many pictures show nothing useful, those that do are often too small. Work exercises can be trite, pointless or obscure. Some sources are too short, and many are inadequately provenanced. There never seems to be enough factual information on the topic you're studying, but there'll be page after wasted page on subjects you will never use. The treatment is too shallow for the more able, yet utterly beyond the less able. Similarly, the reading age is both too high and too low, far too many books try to address too wide a market. Series of textbooks can be too hard at Year 7, yet insultingly simple at Year 9.

The truth about textbooks is that what you want depends on what and how you teach. A modern history lesson is an interaction between pupil, teacher and a number of resources - of which the textbook is only one. Caught in between the particular pedagogy of the teacher, the specific needs of the pupil and the marketing imperative of the publishers, it is hardly surprising that the poor old textbook so often falls foul of requirements.

Has the textbook had its day? Should today's teachers simply cut, paste and turn on the photocopier?

The publishers' exhibition at the conference gave the lie to the seminar. It was busy, and at many of the stands there was an infectious sense of enthusiasm. If teachers are still criticising textbooks, they're still buying them; the new GCSE Modern World History textbook from John Murray is on to its third reprint since it was publishing in July.

New books are coming on to the market all the time. Longman has great hopes for its forthcoming "think through" history books at key stage 3, and its new Advanced History texts look good. Most publishers have new GCSE textbooks, including new topics such as South Africa, Vietnam and Crime and Punishment. Trapped by a key stage 3 national curriculum which is limiting and often boring, I suspect that many teachers may soon become desperate to break out and try something new at GCSE.

A number of publishers are also trying to offer something different from the traditional textbook. John Murray's Special Needs Support Materials remain a market leader. Written in two layers, with suggestions for both "less able" and "least able" pupils, they seem to be just what the hard-pressed classroom teacher needs. Stanley Thornes are courageously producing a subscription series of teaching materials called Practical History. I tend to be wary of such collections of other people's lessons, but the opening piece of the 1996 second series was a wonderful exercise on why William won the Battle of Hastings.

Other publishers, of course, are abandoning the printed word altogether. A company called History in Evidence was offering teachers historical costumes and reproductions of all manner of artefacts, from Greek theatrical masks to Victorian dip pens. SCA (Anglia Multi-media) was showing a particularly interesting series of investigative CD Roms. In the program I saw, the pupil had to "explore" a Roman town, meeting the people and trying to become - for instance - a doctor. The program was a bit slow, but it kept my interest for an extended period. At the moment, the topics are aimed at key stage 2, but the Romans program would transfer to key stage 3, and at Pounds 40, it's within the budget of a normal department.

There are still gaps in resourcing. I saw nothing which tried to bridge the gap between key stage 2 and key stage 3. Neither was there anything on offer of the history teacher who wanted to venture into GNVQ. And there are still a number of textbooks, especially at key stage 3, which could do with a radical revision on the basis of critical comment.

Many history teachers today feel that the subject is under threat. Certainly we need to make our teaching as interesting as possible. This was an excellent exhibition of resources for history which should allow you - whatever your style of teaching, and whatever your pupils are like, to find something that will work in your classroom.

John D Clare is head of Greenfield Comprehensive School in Country Durham. He is author of the Nelson Options in History series.

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