This is why we don’t really want textbooks back…

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.

2 thoughts on “This is why we don’t really want textbooks back…”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this. You will not be surprised that I disagree with it. Here’s why:
    1. I think you are wrong to be so pessimistic about the likelihood of curriculum stability. Prior to recent changes which have, admittedly, been dramatic, History GCSE course were fairly static for years. I think teachers can be fairly confident that textbooks they buy will have a decent shelf life. Ideally, as I have written, I would like to see the specification less rigid, particularly around assessment, so that good books could be used for longer. I do wonder if it would be better, especially in history, if they did not contain so many tasks, as in my experience these are the least used part and date quickly.

    2. I think the point you make about textbooks being the product of evolution is a really strong one. However, I do not think your conclusion that devices are the next step is logical. Your blog also glosses over issues explored in my post about the difficulties we may have reading off a screen compared to off paper. Of course, these may be resolved but until they are I do not think we should ignore them. In addition, as you mention, the track record of implementing this sort of technology has been, frankly, appalling. If (and this is a VERY big if for me) all logistical issues have been resolved then perhaps they’d have a place. Until then, better to go with the product of, as you point out, years of careful and incremental evolution.
    3. The benefits you suggest IWBs could bring are identical to those already provided by textbooks. Even if they did these things well, I don’t think the extra cost makes the investment, especially given the on-costs as bulbs burn out.

    Thank you for being so kind about my boards! However, I think you miss the point. This is a very, very low tech. and traditional teaching style. The tech. element is the camera used to film them and YouTube – they could be used to complement a textbook, sure (companies get in touch!), but won’t replace them.

    4. Your final point is actually the one I take most issue with. I think we have a difference in philosophy. I don’t think schools should look like workplaces (future or otherwise), as their primary purpose is to initiate children into the academic disciplines that are their birthright, not train them for careers that may or may not exist. So to me, what places of work are doing is pretty irrelevant. Schools function like schools.

    Once again, thank you for your thoughtful response. I really appreciate it. Let’s keep this conversation going!

  2. Those poses some good responses to Ben’s blog. I’ll add a couple of comments which I don’t think Ben made in his reply.

    1) I’m also of the view that the constant change we’ve seen in recent time will abate. And there is one reason alone for this: Brexit. Brexit is going to suck the life out of all the civil service. Moreover the government – be it labour or conservative – will need all its political capital to get Brexit legislation through.

    2) While I can see a future where every child is using a device over a textbook to me it seems like driverless cars. Inevitable but a generation away at best. Affordability, (Ben’s issues of screen/book comprehension), viability in difficult classes… If that is the case then it’s worth investing in textbooks for at least the short-medium term.
    Interestingly I was reading an interview with a maths educator from 1992 saying something similar.

    3) I don’t have much to add here. Only a benefit of a textbook over a board means – especially in maths – that you can flick back to an earlier lesson if you’re stuck on something. This is very useful in a linear type subject such as maths.

    4. I think there is a case for this post 16 where there is an essence of work preparation. My uni has certainly moved towards the paperless route whereas the college I work at could be a picture of the 1990s. Pre 16 I would be more interested in what gets the best results.

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