The strange death of the English textbook

The strange death of the English textbook

Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, looks ahead to the launch of the 'Cambridge Approach to Textbooks' with an overview of the research at the heart of the campaign to restore the primacy of textbooks in our education system and the background to their demise.

The traditional textbook is under threat as a result of an explosion in the amount of free digital content now available on the internet. The educational impact of this migration to digital will figure in the seminar Cambridge Assessment is organising next week to launch the ‘Cambridge Approach to Textbooks’.

At the heart of this is research we have undertaken that compares the use of textbooks in different jurisdictions and their role in system improvement and in promoting high quality teaching and learning. This identifies much lower levels of textbook usage in schools in England than in jurisdictions such as Singapore or Finland.

What is behind that? It partly reflects the shift in educational focus during the last twenty years from a whole curriculum approach to a more instrumental emphasis on assessment, something that has taken place in response both to fierce accountability pressures and the rise of credentialism more generally. There is a cultural "The traditional textbook is under threat as the result of an explosion of free digital content now available on the internet"

dimension too. Textbooks have been caricatured as subversive of the individual teacher's autonomy and criticised for enshrining a subject-centred, rather than child-centred, approach to learning. And there is the further factor that there is also no tradition in England of state approval for textbooks, not least because of legitimate fastidiousness about politicisation of the curriculum, a problem well-illustrated in an Asian context by recurrent rows between Japan and its neighbours over official Japanese history textbooks, which gloss over controversial aspects of that country's wartime past.

This has all contributed to a context in which educators have been only too ready to mine teaching material from the rich commons of what is now available online. A lot of this is high quality and also has the benefit of supporting a flexible approach to how a subject or topic is taught. However, unless firmly situated in a coherent curriculum context, it can lead to atomisation of subject knowledge and paradoxically, in the name of accessibility, make it more difficult for learners to achieve "Textbooks have been caricatured as subversive of the individual teacher's autonomy..."

appropriate levels of subject mastery given an absence of that structured progression through subject content that the best textbooks offer. It is also a more labour intensive way for teachers to prepare lesson material - important at a time of mounting concern about teacher workload. There is, furthermore, extensive evidence to suggest that material is more readily retained when it is read on paper.

The upshot of this revolution is that the traditional business model for textbook publishers is now under threat, and our seminar next week (which you can also register to watch live online HERE) will try to analyse the consequences and map out how a mixed economy of digital resources and traditional textbooks can most effectively promote good quality learning, focusing especially on maths and geography, and will also examine different models for state endorsement and quality assurance of textbooks.

One place where life without textbooks was comprehensively trialled was China, during the Cultural Revolution, when schools and universities were for a while closed, and traditional textbooks banned. When I was in Shanghai last autumn I visited the Museum of Revolutionary Propaganda where they had a selection of some of the Cultural Revolution textbooks that were introduced as replacements. I was able to buy a primary school English language primer as a souvenir (pictured) and you can get a flavour of the approach from a practice drill in one of the lessons, titled ‘Learn English for the Revolution’ which runs as follows:

Worker: Do you learn English?
Pupils: Yes we do
Worker: What do you learn English for?
Pupil A: We learn English for the Chinese revolution and the world revolution. With English as a tool, we propagate Mao Tsetung Thought among the people of the world.
Pupil B: With English as a weapon, we fight against the imperialists, revisionists and all reactionaries.
Pupil C: With English as a tool, we exchange experience in the revolutionary struggle with the people of the world.
Worker: That's right. Marx said, “A foreign language is a weapon in the struggle of life”. So you must learn it hard for the revolution.

It is ironic to reflect that less than fifty years later Shanghai would come top in the 2012 OECD PISA rankings, its success driven in part by the close linkage between textbooks and pedagogy that is such an important institutional feature of its education system.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

Learn more about the Cambridge Approach to Textbooks