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Textbooks have a huge impact on education

Posted on: 15 Jul 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

By Barnaby Lenon, Chairman, Independent Schools Council

A top education adviser to US President, Barack Obama, has suggested textbooks should be scrapped in British schools within the next five years.

Richard Culatta, of the US Department for Education, said the many digital resources available will soon make textbooks obsolete. He said that while textbooks are outdated as soon as they are printed, apps and websites can be constantly updated.

The intervention comes after Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, warned that an ‘anti-textbook’ culture in English schools was leaving pupils lagging behind peers in top performing nations.

So should our schools be using textbooks or not? What are the facts?

In England, 10 per cent of 10-year olds are issued textbooks. In South Korea, the figure is 99 per cent. In secondary science, 8 per cent of pupils in England are issued with textbooks compared to 88 per cent in South Korea and 92 per cent in Taiwan.

These Asian countries are among the highest performing in the world, according to the OECD’s latest PISA survey, which evaluates the knowledge and skills of the world’s 15-year-olds. So why are English schools not using textbooks, when other education systems use them to great effect?

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 into a file).

Will today’s children be able to remember ‘materials’ on their computer screens?

Textbooks are dying out because more materials are now available digitally. And the emphasis on differentiated learning (different children in one class being taught at different rates) 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. 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’).

They are a big part of the solution for the child who joins a course late or who misses a large piece of work. They are a resource which parents can use to help their children.

For sixth formers especially, learning to make notes from texts is a vital skill they will need at university; with the advent of digital materials, fewer and fewer students are learning to make notes. Textbooks are fare better for revision than handouts (many of which will have been lost).

"For sixth formers especially, learning to make notes from texts is a vital skill they will need at university"

If you ask people aged 40+ if they can remember textbooks they used at school the answer is usually ‘yes’. But more than 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 the ‘materials’ on their computer screens?

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.

Given what we know about the success and failure of educational systems, we would be better off listening to teachers from South Korea and Taiwan than advisers from the USA.


About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is Chairman of ISC.