Why are English schools not using textbooks? By Professor 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. Worksheets 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 some 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? 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 and for testing understanding.

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.

8) The best textbooks, like those used for maths in Singapore and Shanghai, lead the pupil and teacher through the syllabus in ways which are extremely effective. They save the teacher hours of lesson preparation time as all the essential materials have been written for you by experienced teachers.

9) Paper text is more effective for learning than screens: see Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman and Salmeron, Educational Research Review September 2018:  Don’t throw away your printed books: a meta-analysis on the effect of reading media on reading comprehension. This review looked at 54 studies with 171,000 participants and concluded that paper-based reading let to better learning than digital text.

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 online screen displays?

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. Especially at A-level, the materials put out by exam boards do not pin down exactly what a child has to know – the level of detail and depth.  It is textbooks that do that.

School libraries and school textbooks should be regarded as a vital resource in all schools.   Good books go into depth, they elaborate on and clarify what has been taught in schools. They lodge in your mind.

By Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

2 thoughts on “Why are English schools not using textbooks? By Professor Barnaby Lenon

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  1. I agree, I returned to teaching in primary school after a long break and was confused as to why the children had no mathematical text books, just pieces of paper that often got in a muddle. Extension activites also had to printed off, the waste of paper and the amount of time it took daily for the teacher to prepare, let alone mark was incredible. On supply I would have to work out the answers too as they were never provided.
    During my earlier days of teaching, two text books plus my own extra resources for extension activities for the more able and a portable whiteboard for those that struggled with concepts so helpful. Arnold Maths, it was great. Why re-create the wheel when great teachers and more able people at maths than myself have done the work, know the progress, know that children need differentiation and have done most of the preparation for me.
    I often used to wish that we had more text books designed by outstanding teachers in their field as at primary we are not all great at everything and a good base to follow would be very helpful for some teaches. There is a National Curriculum so why are teachers spending hours and hours planning content for lessons? Let them focus on good quality marking and making that content come alive with resources that the school provide (rather than me spending so much money on science materials…but that’s another story.)
    I do feel that sometimes new people come into jobs/education and decide that this is the new “thing.” When I was younger it was removing a desk for a teacher and double backing every single piece of work that they did.
    Now it appears it is removing great text books from people that are outstanding teachers in their field and making teachers face a huge amount of extra work each evening.
    Needless to say, after working all holidays planning, working until 7pm most workdays and working weekends, I am now out of teaching. I did love it so much too. 🙁

  2. When I first began working in primary schools in London (back in 2010) I was puzzled by the absence of textbooks. Basically in the UK children cannot learn how to study. For centuries people (both “normal” people and scholars) have studied on books; how can you learn those essential skills (skimming through pages, summarising, repeating facts possibly out loud to consolidate your learning, creating diagrams etc…) if you don’t have textbooks and are not taught how to use one? History, geography and science lessons are taught quite badly: basically it’s all about grasping concepts, but that’s not enough, children also need to read interesting facts, look at pictures and maps (good textbooks have got them) and must revise what they did in class at home before a test. Yes, it’s called studying, something that is wrongly considered old-fashioned. It’s so weird that pupils in the UK have to do history, geography and science tests without being told to revise and study, as if memorising a few facts was dangerous to their intellectual development. Yes, I’ve met so many European kids whose intellectual development was slowed down by these mad teachers who asked them to spend 10 minutes a day (at home) to revise what they have learnt at school in lessons. Memorising a few interesting facts or key words is very healthy and children who are disadvantaged (poor families, badly educated parents, neglected etc…) should have textbooks paid by the government for them to read and become more curious about the world (that’s what happens in several European countries). Can we really teach with short clips, games and random handouts? No, those things should be on top of a good text book. Well, maybe, if you destroy the whole of the Amazon forest to basically replicate what you could easily find in a textbook, then yes, you would not need a textbook. Unfortunately most primary teachers are so ignorant that they would never be able to create reliable text books… their job is to create activities, challenges, teach skills etc… not to be historians, scientists and poets. Some people (wrongly) believe that spending 20 minutes reading a good textbook as part of a lesson is not good teaching. Again, they are completely wrong: reading is important, facts are interesting, and children who are used to reading and studying will find it easier to cope with the demands of secondary school. As a teacher you can still differentiate and find ways to support weaker students and push more able ones, a textbook does not prevent you from teaching great lessons at all.

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