Where did textbooks go?

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Before my five years abroad, textbooks were used extensively in all the schools  I had worked in. With the odd, typically ill-judged creative exception I used them in all KS3 lessons. At KS4 children paid a deposit and were signed out one of their own. One of the irritations early in my career was children forgetting to bring them, and having to provide spares so there was always at least one between two. Another drawback was the annoying attrition, with new textbooks having to be bought each year to replace lost or damaged copies. This was something I thought my Head of Department was comically obsessed by though now, having done the same job, it seems less funny.

Despite the petty logistical issues, there was no debate whatsoever over whether we needed textbooks or not. Indeed, I think we would have said they were self-evidently essential. Without them how could students do homework? How could they catch up on work they had missed? How could they complete work they had not finished in lessons? How could they revise previous topics? If you told my department to teach without them we would have been baffled.

At the international school at which I worked for three years textbooks were even more important. Most of our students were from African backgrounds where education was strikingly traditional and parents, relaxed about many issues, absolutely insisted their children were issued with ‘The Book’ at the beginning of the year. The school was one of the least costly in the city and, in my administrative capacity, one of the most significant challenges was sourcing these. Sometimes I got so stressed about it I half wondered whether the universe was taking cosmic revenge for the pleasure I had taken in the struggles of the poor Head of Department at my first school.

In both contexts teaching was not limited to only the use of textbooks, but it was heavily reliant on them. If a textbook was poor, debate was over what to replace it with and how to afford it, not over whether a textbook should be used at all or not.

When I returned to England and took up a Head of Faculty role, it became quickly clear that things had changed. At the school to which I had been appointed there were no class sets of textbooks. Although there was an dusty store cupboard full of remnants, and in some classrooms there were a few half-sets used for exam classes, the neat stacks (spines all facing in the same direction, please) I was used to were completely absent.

I asked why and was told by those on my team that they used PowerPoint and their own resources instead. A couple seemed concerned about this but most did not, and some seemed positively proud. I trod carefully, aware that things change and that perhaps I was out-of-date. Nonetheless, with the support of SLT, I could not stop myself ordering full class sets for the History Department. The longer I was in the role the more clear it became that resistance to textbooks had become quite widespread, and this got me wondering how such a massive change had happened so abruptly.

Now, with attention back on textbooks following the controversial recent speech in favour of them by Nick Gibb, I would like to suggest some reasons for the decline in their use and the negative consequences of this, before finishing by briefly explaining why I think a move back towards textbooks, so long as they are good ones, should be welcomed.

Differentiation

In many contexts, whether rightly or wrongly, differentiation was interpreted as multiple activities and resources to meet the needs of individual children. As a textbook can only ever be one resource, teachers and school leaders came to believe that using them meant the needs of some learners were not being met. The only way round this was to produce multiple resources. Those that did not were seen as not caring, which contributed towards ‘competitive martyr syndrome’, (a phrase explaining so much of what goes wrong in many schools, coined by @terraglowach), as teachers sought to outdo each other by demonstrating they had spent longer than their colleagues resourcing their lessons.

There is always a very narrow line between providing children with work they can access but still moves them forward, and giving them work they can already do. A good textbook can help teachers avoid this by providing an appropriately challenging anchor point. Without this anchor point it is easy, especially for less experienced teachers, or teachers who aren’t experts in an area of the course, to end up giving children work that is too easy. In the attempt to produce engaging resources for individual children too much attention is often placed on drawing misleading parallels with what they are already interested in. I know this because, to my shame, I have been guilty of it; for example producing a worksheet comparing the succession crisis of 1066 to choosing a new manager for the England football team. This is misguided. It is important to remember that ultimately, the aim of education is to skilfully and incrementally adapt children to allow them to authentically access the subjects they study, not to twist these disciplines into things they are not.

The belief that good teachers produce their own original resources seems to have become a pervasive one and, in some schools, almost a de facto Teacher Standard. Comments on a Twitter poll I ran suggested lots and lots of teachers would feel nervous using a textbook in an observed lesson for this reason. This has resulted in a proliferation of amateur educational publishers, and, for every teacher capable of resourcing originally and well, there are many spending hours making material no better or even inferior to that made commercially by experts. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect teachers to be as skilled at writing resource material as those whose job it is to do it. This is not to say, of course, that everything on the market is of a high standard, but before reinventing wheels we should at least consider the possibility we might not need to.

Teachers who choose to produce all their own resources probably should not complain about being overworked and school leaders who, for whatever reason, forbid or even discourage the use of textbooks should recognise that such policies have enormous workload implications and must drastically reduce load in other areas.

Skills based curriculum.

The extent skills based curriculums were adopted has been robustly debated, and it is important to recognise that not all schools implemented these wholescale. That said, for a while in many places transferrable skills were fashionable. Even today, skills based descriptor success criteria and mark-schemes remain commonplace. For skills based curriculums textbooks can easily appear to be peripheral because they predominantly contain knowledge and the learning of this was often viewed as ‘low order’, and so not a priority. I myself, early in my career, picked up the belief that the actual knowledge we taught children in history was just a vehicle for the teaching of skills and in itself was of lesser importance. For these reasons, textbooks fell further out of fashion.

It is now pretty well understood that the acquisition of broad and deep knowledge is of fundamental importance because without it children are not capable of doing anything much at all. While a lovely idea, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that ‘skills’, if indeed these exist at all, are domain specific, non-transferrable and completely dependent on knowledge. Failing to provide a textbook, which forms a permanent record of what has been studied, makes it tougher for children to retain and reinforce the knowledge on which sophisticated thinking relies. While it could be argued that this information is now readily available on the internet, finding it this way is comparably time-consuming and full of distraction, especially for novices who lack the ability to discern the difference between the wheat and the chaff. It is likely that children from less educationally privileged backgrounds are affected by this more than their more advantaged peers, as they are less likely to have support to help them find the right material at home.

This is not to say that all textbooks are adequate – some are terrible and some schools effectively produce their own. This, however, is not a rejection of textbooks in principle.

Textbooks are boring.

This is quite the silliest justification for not using textbooks. In my experience, those who say this sort of things usually mean that text presented in a formal, academic style is boring and that interactive child-pleasing activities are preferable. This view, in effect a sort of bait and switch, is flawed because trying to engage a child in something by giving them something different to do is plain illogical. Sadly, even some textbooks do this by making embarrassing supposedly child centred references in the misguided belief this will make children interested in what, by association, is assumed not to be interesting. Examples of this in history include comparing the Battle of Hastings to a football match, or in geography this task, which asks children to imagine they are a panda.

A badly written textbook is as depressing as any badly written book, but the solution to this is to get a better textbook, not to abandon them altogether.

Boring, fascinating or plain silly; textbooks can be a lot of things. The issue is not the medium but the quality of the writing and production. Saying textbooks are boring is just as ridiculous as saying novels or poems are.

The arrival of the Interactive Whiteboard.

Interactive whiteboards have changed day-to-day teaching more than any other development in the last twenty years, but not in the way they were originally meant to.

When these first arrived the point was their interactivity; children were supposed to use them as much as their teachers and a whole raft of software was developed to facilitate this. Teachers were sent on whizzy courses and, for a while, there was real buzz around the all the fancy whistles, tricks and bells that these screens could do.

That common sense prevailed and the buzz faded almost as quickly as it arrived was probably a good thing. Most of these screens are now used for nothing more demanding than projecting PowerPoint presentations and showing video clips. While a few teachers have turned their back on it, using PowerPoint has become almost ubiquitous in most schools. This is quite understandable. Interactive whiteboards are very expensive and not using them for anything at all would appear to be a terrible waste of money.

It is difficult to overstate just how much PowerPoint has changed the planning and delivery of lessons. Before projectors and PowerPoint it was only possible to project images or texts overhead via fiddly OHTs, which meant what a teacher wanted students to work on had to be physically present. This created demand for textbooks because, without them, teachers would have to spend time finding or producing lots of standalone sheets or labour intensive transparencies. With the advent of interactive whiteboards teachers, because it was easy to do, began placing more and more on slides and there was a subtle but significant shift; before them children looked down at books whereas after them, children began looking up at big screens. As the importance of PowerPoint grew so too did the perceived importance of being good at making attractive presentations, which further increased workload.

The rise of PowerPoint, uninterrupted aside from the great Prezi bubble of five or so years ago, was not intentional. Interactive Whiteboards were not introduced so teachers could make presentations for their classes. It happened mainly because it was easy to use and preinstalled on school computers, and the fancy new screens obviously had to be used for something. So, the decline of textbook use, at least partially a consequence of this, was not planned either.

The consensus of research, helpfully collated and summarised here by Daniel Willingham, seems to be that, generally, we do not read as well off screens, particularly in comprehension, as we do off paper. While this research is focused on e-readers it seems at least plausible that these findings would hold true of bigger screens too. These findings are supported by this fascinating article from The Scientific American, which makes a convincing case for why reading long pieces of text from a screen may be more difficult than reading the same text from paper.

While PowerPoint, used thoughtfully as written about by Robert Peal here, is probably not in itself a bad thing, the implications of research is worrying for lessons in which content has effectively been typed from a textbook and into a presentation. The shift from textbook to PowerPoint may well have been to the detriment of learning. While we may be showing more information than ever before, the children in our classrooms could well be understanding less of it.

It is also instructive to remember that a PowerPoint presentation, unless it is printed thus negating much of the point, is not available to children outside of a classroom in the same way a textbook should be. This may well have contributed to the fetishisation of the standalone lesson, which caused so many problems in the recent past.

Schools for the Future.

Perhaps the most annoying untrue truism said about schools is that they should be preparing children for  workplaces that do not yet exist, by guessing what these will be and modelling themselves on them.

Back in the mid-2000s this meant going paperless.

Paperless meant no books, which meant no need for cupboards or shelves. This meant when schools did buy textbooks it was difficult to find places to keep them, which helped reinforce the impression that they no longer really had a place in schools. Without proper places to store them, those that were purchased deteriorated far faster than they had before and needed replacing more often, which made them seem more expensive than they had been.

While wise voices like Laura McInerney’s saw the danger and spoke out against it, such concerns were ignored.

Like jetpacks and hover scooters, paperless offices have still not arrived yet we are stuck with schools designed on the understanding everyone would soon be working in them. Many are now not easy places in which to use textbooks, which has made them logistically more unattractive than they were before.

Textbooks seem expensive

While the price of textbooks has not changed much, the range of items on which schools feel compelled to spend money has expanded dramatically. When I began teaching my history department spent money on books, stationary, the odd video or new-fangled DVD, and subsidising trips for children who would not be able to afford them otherwise. Now, in addition, departments can also spend money on, amongst other things, software packages, tablet computers and cameras. This has made textbooks appear less affordable than they used to be and, in addition, in some schools spending on such ‘old fashioned’ resources can feel like it is either implicitly or even explicitly discouraged. Even when textbooks are purchased, their perceived greater expense has made it less common to sign these out to students or to allow them to take them home, which was once typical practice. This is a real shame, as not making these available for children at home is to miss part of the point.

Ironically, day-to-day logistics mean that in many schools paper-based resources are not actually used significantly less than they used to be, which has increased photocopying bills and placed already squeezed budgets under even more pressure. These paper based resources are, inevitably, of varying quality and this is something Ofsted raised as a concern in 2015.

Changing specifications

Of all the reasons for the decline in the use of textbooks this is the one with which I have the most sympathy. Since returning from abroad five years ago, I have had to teach three different GCSE History specifications. Each has required new textbooks and other resources with no extra funding for this provided by government. My school purchased these books centrally, so while it did not affect our departmental budget, this was money that could not be spent elsewhere. I know many departments in other schools have not been so lucky and for these, ordering whole sets of new books every couple of years can understandably seem a very poor economy.

The big problem here is that most textbooks, unavoidably, are actually specification books which contain assessment criteria, mark schemes and sample answers. Not using up-to-date versions or using materials created in house, even if the substantive content is the same, puts children at a real disadvantage unless a lot of work is done producing extra resources to meet the demands of the examiners. As an old RE colleague once said to me, “God may not change but exam boards do.”

There are only really two ways to solve this problem; the first and most realistic, is for government to leave specifications as they are for a while. This, I have reasonable faith, is now quite likely. The uncertainty around 1-9 and the ensuing changes mean any significant alterations in the near future would be, to put it mildly, unwise.

This solution, as much as it will be understandably welcomed by teachers, is a depressingly reductionist one; ideally a good textbook should only go out of date if the content has to be revised because of developments in the scholastic field. The only real reason textbooks have a shelf-life is because of changes to course structures and if it were possible to avoid teaching to tests a good one could, theoretically at least, last forever. Good textbooks should have the potential to become classics used by generation after generation irrespective of changing fashions.

The only way to achieve this would be to, as Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodoulou have advocated, abandon set exam questions altogether and use Comparative Judgement instead of descriptor based mark-schemes. Aside from any impact this might have on the longevity of textbooks, this might well be wise given the unresolved issues around criteria based marking reliability.

In the meantime, while we wait for the arrival of this promised land, avoiding the use of textbooks is not a solution; in many cases, failing to provide them is to do our students a disservice.

Conclusions

Getting to the bottom of the reasons for the decline in textbook use has taken me far more time and words than I had expected when I began. It has been complicated and, just like the rise of target grades, largely unintentional. While the decline has created some winners (mainly ed. tech. companies), no one person, group or agency ever sat down and decided textbooks were A Bad Thing and ordered their elimination.

It is time to grasp the bull by the horns and make well-considered intentional decisions. If schools, departments or teachers really disagree with the points I have made here and decide that textbooks are undesirable in their context then, I suppose, not using them might make sense. If, however, schools are not using them simply because of the unintended consequences of unrelated changes and trends then this is, to me, not good enough.

So while we may well disagree over their content, I am in agreement with Minister Gibb.

More textbooks in schools would be a good thing.

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9 thoughts on “Where did textbooks go?

  1. Brian says:

    Ben

    An interesting post and a valiant defence of the use of textbooks. However, I think the post is more about you personally and your ideology of education that it is about textbooks.

    This debate is nothing to do with classrooms or schools, it is about progress. The debate is around the ways in which technology is changing the ways in which people communicate. I do not believe there is any argument that anyone could put forward for the use of textbooks in all situations, but there is a good argument to be made that textbooks are one of several options in most cases.

    I can understand that textbooks, traditional direct instruction and comparative judgement seem to be an elegant solution, but they are a solution looking for a problem.

    My students all have textbooks available to them as class sets but I do not use them. Students have the option to refer to them but they rarely do. I have graphic organisers, knowledge organisers and summary notes and my students develop scholarly activity by extending the information contained therein.

    I think it unlikely that whatever the syllabus, any teacher is regions of the world where the internet is available has to produce resources from scratch.

    Students really can access information digitally. My students have far more information at their fingertips than would be found in any textbook and once they are skilled at analysis and evaluation they are quite able to choose the resources they prefer for themselves.

    I appreciate that for a traditional teacher, the textbook is a means of control. I remember back in my NQT days when “working from the textbook” used to be a way to control some lively classes but I don’t need to do that any more.

    I have nothing against textbooks per se, I just find they are not the most effective or efficient resource to use in the vast majority of situations.

    As for comparative judgement I would be interested to know quite what the “unresolved issues around criteria based marking reliability” actually are. Easily said but sounds like a work of fiction to me. There are issues with all assessment methods but criteria based assessment is one of the most reliable.

    There was a time, long ago, when messages were passed from one generation to the next by mouth as written language was not invented. Then with written language
    there was less of a need for direct person to person transmission and paintings could be left in caves and then symbols chiselled out of stone. Then we had written text and then the printing press gave us the printed word. Now we have the digital word. This is progress but I appreciate that your average traditional teacher finds progress difficult. It stands out in their writings.

    Textbooks have gone out of fashion not because people are trying to silence traditional teachers and teaching, but because there are better and more effective ways to communicate information in 2017. Your average trad teacher doesn’t like even the idea of 21st century skills and this is likely in many cases because they don’t have any. The future of communication really isn’t the textbook and just as many teachers tried to hang on to the chalk board long after the whiteboard was invented so it happens with textbooks.

    The electronic whiteboard has not bee such a success because it was developed as an answer to a problem that exists in only small parts of the teaching and learning process and most teachers that I know use the smartboard features rarely. Teachers use technology where it works, and for anyone with the necessary skills there are 1001+ alternatives to the textbook with advantages that go way beyond convenience, markup features for students and flexibility.

    Most subjects that I have a passing acquaintance with more are still developing as subjects. I appreciate that History has already happened and therefore it isn’t much of an issue to have a textbook which is current for 50 years with small addenda. Other subjects are developing and the most useful bits are often the new bits. In biology, physics, chemistry, economics etc the curriculum must surely change with the subject body of knowledge.

    The arguments you make above may apply to some extent in History even there I think that is mainly due to the nature of History teachers rather than the nature of textbooks.

    An interesting subject for discussion.

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  2. I think a real issue is the lack of textbooks that are good enough. If a great textbook isn’t available within a couple of years into a new spec all the resources would have been made. What use then?

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  3. Ha. I remember that old ‘technology as the great labour saver’ argument. What a load of total hogwash that turned out to be. At my last school, at one point, the building was particular prone to power cuts, though it was a business-as-usual school, so a loss of electronic gadgetry wasn’t going to stop us from teaching. The remarkable thing was that coming home in the evening knowing that there was no power the next day cut my evening hours massively.
    As for the paperless environment. We are lesspaperless than ever before, what with the differentiated 3-way colour coded resources and the differentiated 3-way colour coded tables and charts to fill in…
    And then the textbooks. In English these really can be dire. We have sets of books with activities that “instruct” – and I use that as loosely as possible – students to “read alternate lines to see how this affects the mood”… So if they didn’t know what was important before they started, they are still non the wiser after this. Absolute waste of money.

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  4. Michael says:

    Although usually your blogs have some interesting points and are backed up with some academic rigour. This seemed like a long winded post about your personal love for textbooks and desire to return to ‘the good old days of teaching.’

    Things move on.

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  5. That was a fascinating read, thank you. I’m not a teacher, just a parent who takes an interest in the educational debate (baffling and adversarial as it occasionally is!) I have often wondered why my children didn’t seem to have as many textbooks as I had had at school, but were relying instead on handouts that often ended up lost, or crumpled at the bottom of school bags, or sharing textbooks in the classroom that no one was allowed to take home. I had put it down to a simple lack of funding, but I see it is both more complex and more ideological than that. Very different from my own eperience at school. I remember my excitement at the end of every summer term on the day we handed in our old text books in exchange for the next year’s lot. Perhaps my (1970s-era) school was unusual in doing that but I have strong memories of taking them home and actually looking at them over the summer! Particularly the English set texts and the languages books. And I liked writing my name inside the front cover, with my new year group, crossing out the one that had gone before, generations of names that had been using the same texts and handing them on. We were allowed to choose one each to keep at the end of Sixth Form. I have mine beside me now, Henderson and Baty’s Progressive Course of Latin Unseens, published in 1928 and still in use in my Northern Irish grammar school in 1981!

    Funnily enough my youngest child’s experience is, now, rather more similar to mine. She missed a large amount of time in school through Years 9-11 because of a nasty and intractable bullying situation. As a result she missed a lot of teaching and we were obliged to fill in the gaps in her education ourselves with the help of tutors and whatever resources the school could provide. The school provided access to powerpoint lesson plans online, which my daughter found incomprehensible because, well, they were lesson plans, designed to help teachers pilot a class of thirty through the necessary content, not stand alone learning aids for students. One way or another we got her through, and now she is in her first year of Sixth Form in a small independent school, where she has a number of textbooks for each subject on loan exclusively to her for the length of the course, and which she will return for the next cohort at the end. It is a revelation to her. It has opened her eyes to the breadth of learning available to her, and created an independent learner, who is now hungry to read ahead and indeed supplement the textbooks with trips to the library. It’s A level of course, and that is in any case a different paradigm from what has gone before, but the twin benefits of rigorous and engaged teaching and her own set of textbooks has freed her to learn, and helped to give her a framework for learning now and in the future.

    Thank you for your blog. I do appreciate your insights.

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  6. mc says:

    When I was being taught in an Australian secondary school 25 years ago, only the maths classes used textbooks (and then only at the early levels), except for one subject I did by distance education. There were no text books in my university course, though there were many “books of readings” (compiled by lecturers from myriad sources). I remember hearing that students from third-world countries used textbooks and wanted to know where they were when they came to study in Australia.

    But I agree that they are unfairly maligned. For a sufficiently literate and motivated student, a good textbook is an excellent replacement for a poor or average teacher. If the student has to share the teacher with many students (especially students with a diverse range of needs), a good textbook may even be superior to a good teacher.

    PowerPoint presentations can be an excellent teaching tool. But if a teacher is going to use them, they need to be able to communicate well visually. The same is true if they draw diagrams and pictures on blackboards.

    Teaching should not be thought of as a primarily vocal profession. That limits it greatly.

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  7. Pingback: Solving the history textbook conundrum: a five-point manifesto – Clio et cetera

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