This is a response to Ben Newmark’s blog Where did the textbooks go?
Back when I taught I used textbooks and published scheme resources fairly extensively. There was some textbook scepticism but, particularly after doing supply, I learnt that this was a pretty easy way to keeping on top of planning and deliver a decent standard of lesson without working myself into the ground. As a Science teacher, following schemes also helped greatly with logistics such as equipment ordering and risk assessment.
So, why am I writing a response to Newmark’s blog? Why would I deny the teachers of today the convenience I enjoyed? Here’s why:
- Constant change is the future
- Technology moves on: It’s book vs device
- Boards are not the problem
- The world is moving on
Constant change is the future (whatever the apparent short-term outlook)
A big factor in textbooks becoming unpopular was the rate at which curricula/ specifications change. Ben notes that this might be going to abate. Without wanting to be pessimistic, I think we can all be confident that change will continue. But nevertheless, I don’t see any reason why this might improve the textbook situation. Publishers will not be investing more at this point. They update titles to match specifications at release, then they become just sales and delivery operations.
The ‘spec-book’ format may seem like a cynical planned redundancy but it is actually optimised based on customer demand. Given the choice of a book that aligns to the modules you are teaching and one that doesn’t, are you really going to create work for yourself? No, you can let a professional resource writer / compiler / graphic designer and editor collect together the bits you need and take things forward from there.
The real issue that they create is that you bind yourself to a specification for the years that you hope the books to last. What would be infinitely preferable would be subscriptions to quality resources that can switched year-to-year.
An aside: I once proposed to Nelson Thornes flipping the emphasis of their books: they seemed to put all the good stuff in side panels whilst the main text was a regurgitation of the spec. It was early days of iPad and we didn’t get beyond proof-of-concept, but I still believe there’s mileage in this idea.
Technology moves on: It’s book vs device
When we talk about textbooks as if they are some perfect formulation we forget how much they have changed in recent decades. Publishers have continually introduced new printing technology to improve textbooks: with picture inserts, inline pictures, monochrome, colour printing, 2-sided colour printing. They have also evolved the formats from ‘ultra-dry’ text to the double-page spreads (with exercises).
It’s fairly obvious that devices should be the next step here. There are countless useful ways in which a screen can present information more clearly. I’m concerned and disappointed by the evidence against personal devices in the classroom. I’m convinced the detrimental factors (whether distraction, display quality or something else) will be overcome so that, eventually, pupils carry one light, robust personal device rather than having crates/bags of textbooks.
The killer reason for devices, however, is not replacing textbooks, it is replacing workbooks. So much teacher marking is menial – the exercises pupils complete could be machine marked and recorded. The benefits are huge: feedback can be instant (or optimised for whatever point has most learning effect), teacher workload is reduced, the response data is live – you could literally watch how far each pupil had progressed through their classwork.
Boards are not the problem
There’s a suggestion that boards have been used as a substitute for textbooks. It seems a bit of a stretch – boards, even with projectors, seem to me to be used for the same purposes boards have always been used for. The truth is sadder – pupils simply haven’t been expected to read very much.
Ben makes fair criticism of the IWB roll-out. As delivered, they don’t really deliver benefits and have driven workload up. It’s a big shame because there are obvious improvements they could drive:
- Providing reference material for classes
- Saving for re-use year on year
- Sharing with others
- Professionally produced board resources
The roll-out of IWB coincided with a (government agency driven) view of how teachers should plan, resource and teach. ‘Good’ whiteboard use was taken to be using prepared gimmicks rather than the rather simpler idea of just using it to save boards.
I do find it slightly ironic that Ben, who produces such beautiful whiteboards for his videos, dismisses the value of savable front-of-class resources and the potential of sharing/reuse.
I should add, I’m from the OHP/T generation. I had printable transparencies that saved my classes from the horror of my handwriting. Although my teaching career was short, many of these did also get reused (I’m good at filing).
The world of work is genuinely moving on from paper
I find the ‘just google it’ crowd as annoying as anyone else. But this particular fallacy does not extend to the whole internet as a vehicle. I visit a lot of workplaces. Paper is almost unthinkable for most business functions such as transmission and collection of information. Yes people use whiteboards, notebooks and sticky-notes too, but these are secondary. Anything that needs storing is photographed.
How different should schools be? Certainly, I would want pupils to get plenty of practise at handwriting and I would want them to be able to access diverse books in a library. But if, in ten years time, schools are still ploughing funds into paper textbooks, I fear we will have missed out on a huge opportunity to do things better and smarter. Why is this a problem? Because another part of the world will crack it first, and we will end up subscribing to their model and be railroaded into imitating someone else’s education system.