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Textbooks work

By: Barnaby Lenon, ISC's Chairman

Posted on: 01 Jul 2014
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

In England 10% of 10-year olds are issued textbooks; in South Korea – 99%. In secondary science 8% of pupils in England are issued with textbooks compared to 88% in South Korea, 92% in Taiwan.

Why are English schools not using textbooks? Cost is a factor, but as important is the growing use of copied worksheets and handouts. Handouts have certain advantages (bespoke to the class, pupils have to focus on that one piece of paper) but some disadvantages (easily lost, rarely organised in the file). Textbooks are dying out because more materials are now available online. And the emphasis in schools on differentiated learning has discouraged the notion of ‘one resource for all.’

The demise of textbooks is a downward spiral – if schools don’t buy textbooks, publishers cannot afford to produce them. In the past a small number of outstanding teachers earned a good living producing wonderful, captivating textbooks and these people are now being lost to the system.

So what’s so good about textbooks? In my experience textbooks are better than online resources or paper handouts in several ways:

  1. They are easier to issue (two minutes at the start of the year) and much easier to refer back to (‘let’s return to page 45 which we did last October’).
  2. They are a big part of the solution for the child who joins a course late or who misses a large piece of work.
  3. They are a resource which parents can use to help their children.
  4. The best textbooks contain exercises, questions and worked examples – perfect for setting homework.
  5. For sixth formers especially, learning to make notes from texts is a vital skill they will need at university. With the advent of handouts, fewer and fewer students are learning to make notes.
  6. Textbooks are FAR better for revision than handouts (many of which will have been lost).
  7. Textbooks CAN be used for differentiated learning – all pupils use the same book but work through it at different rates.

If you ask people aged 40+ if they can remember textbooks they used at school the answer is usually ‘yes’. But more that just the title of the book, they can remember individual pages and diagrams in the text. Will today’s children be able to say the same of handouts?

Textbooks of the past had a huge impact on education. They not only reflected exam board syllabuses, they influenced them. The best textbooks were the curriculum. They determined the level to which the better students worked.


About Barnaby Lenon

Chairman at ISC