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

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