In defence of textbooks


For a brief moment, our headteacher diarist found himself in agreement with a Conservative education minister, until normal service resumed...

Odd snippets of news attract me and take me away from my daily Gove-inspired rants or despair of all things Worcester Warriors RFC.

This week, I noticed for the first time Elizabeth Truss, a Conservative politician who is undersecretary of state for education, deputy to the Dark Lord – which is not exactly the best gig in town.

What I came across was actually a speech she delivered in December. She was speaking on a topic dear to my heart – “In defence of textbooks.”

Perhaps a little cynically, the speech was delivered to an audience of publishers and was focused on textbooks and materials for the new curriculum, so it was hardly a hostile audience.

In fact, I imagine the industry is positively salivating at the latest government initiatives, which will see more profits, more schools buying in the latest GCSE must-have fixes, and more textbooks to support yet more new exams.

Nevertheless, the gist of Ms Truss’s speech resonated with me. There is clearly a place in the brave new world for the humble textbook.

This perhaps is not a sexy message, or one that would go down well with those heads of departments whose improvement plans often seem to be a gadget freak’s delight to all things technological (“I cannot teach without a whiteboard, an iPad, 15 computers, a ‘visualiser’, and – as the Christmas carol says – five gold rings”).

A back-to-basics approach to teaching will not be a “sexy” innovative departmental plan, but my often-stated message to heads of department is to look after your textbooks.

Now this is not a nostalgic look back at my days with the French textbook Tricolore backed with Doncaster Rovers FC wallpaper (the abject performances of the football team of the early 1980s were only matched by the standard of my French school work).

Yes, there is a place for the textbook and I feel if used carefully it should be a guide or support tool, an exemplary set of materials that can provide accurate information for the learner.

My hypothesis that they have fallen out of fashion is proven by Ms Truss’s comparison of international maths and science teaching. 

In the analysis of use of materials which she presented to her audience from one of the OECD studies, she explained that 75 per cent of teachers regularly use textbooks as the basis for instruction.

She broke the figures down further: In Poland it’s 78 per cent, in Sweden 89 per cent, in Korea 99 per cent, and in Germany 86 per cent. This compares to 10 per cent when it comes to their English counterparts.

And remember, the Germans don’t get it wrong – just look at their penalty shoot-out record or (if you must) the widely quoted PISA league tables.

Ms Truss told her audience: “It’s no surprise that these high-performing countries are creating great textbooks. Children will only flourish if they understand essential concepts and knowledge.”

Sadly, she then went off into political claptrap about how all other countries’ education systems are good, and ours is terrible, and so on. I accordingly went off on a rant about investment and the world resumed its natural state.

But I do agree that there is a place for the textbook in modern teaching. In fact, there is a place for textbooks in both students’ and teachers’ education. 

I for one buy each head of department a remarkable textbook, the Differentiation Pocketbook by Peter Anstee, a guide and support tool that could and should make a difference!

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.



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