A lot has been said recently on textbooks, the benefits they have and the bad press they get. This has had me thinking a lot about them, and their use in lessons. I rarely use them, certainly not the way they were used in my own schooling, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t think they have their uses.
Why do they have such a bad press?
I think they bad press comes from bad use of textbooks. I remember when I was at school lugging a ridiculously heavy bag around all day every day because there was a huge textbook for each lessons. I remember many lessons which began “Turn to page 6, Stephen (or whoever) can you begin reading.” then after the page was read the class would attempt the exercise. I remember a biology teacher who read the book to us, she’d fire questions off if she thought you weren’t listening. I sat next to Liam, and we’d sussed that you could answer the questions if you had the textbook on the correct page. One time the lesson was on organs, and the question was thrown at Anthony, who sat on the next table along. Liam and I often gave him answers. This time the question was “what’s the largest organ in the body”, I whispered “pipe organ”, which he then shouted out. It was hilarious.
I could go on, but I’m sure you all had your share of uninspiring textbook lessons. I’ve seen them as a professional. I witnessed an A Level lesson where the teacher sat at the front and read the textbook to the class verbatim. It struck me as rather pointless, as they all could have read it themselves. I’ve seen a KS4 teacher, when I was an Nqt, hand out textbooks with the instruction “look at the example on page ten, then attempt the questions”.
All these examples are uninspiring, and not conducive to good learning. But I think it’s unfair to lay the blame on the textbooks themselves.
How can textbooks be used then?
During lessons, there will be a point when you want the students to do some work. Practicing a skill or solving a problem. Using textbook exercises isn’t necessarily worse than a worksheet or questions on the board. In fact, it could be argued it’s better. It’s a greener and cheaper long term alternative to a ton of printed worksheets. The right textbooks have extension work built in, or offer a selection of exercises of differing difficulties. They also usually have plenty of examples, so learners can use them if they’re struggling, then can request help if they still need it.
My favourites of the ones I have are probably these for KS3/4:
And these for KS5:
Within all these books there are some great things, but none of them are what I would call ideal. Each has plenty of flaws. I find that having access to all these, and many more, textbooks allows me to use ideas, examples and exercises from them as and when required. I sometimes think I should write one, it would be great!
So you think the right textbook would be fine?
Not on their own, no. The recent Sutton Trust report showed that a teacher with strong pedagogical subject knowledge is extremely important to the learning of a class. The right textbooks could aid these teachers, not become a band aid to cover for poor teaching or teachers with shallow subject knowledge. I also wouldn’t like to see them used in isolation. There are many other activities that can aid learning. Things that are quick and easy to check pupils have correct without the need to check each bit, resources such as Mathsloops and Tarzia or activities on mini-whiteboards. All these have a place in lessons, and all would be complimentary to the perfect textbook, which would aid, not replace, good teaching. Examples would be additional to the lesson and offer help learners who are still struggling.
Here is the BBC report into the comments by Education Minister Nick Gibb on textbooks.
Here is a nice article from the inside classroom project entitled “Why textbooks matter”.