20 June 2018
Education experts and government representatives from 16 countries consulted on the importance of high quality textbooks at a summit last week jointly hosted by Cambridge Assessment, England's Department for Education and the Royal Society. Delegates heard case studies and analysed strong evidence showing how textbooks reduce teacher workload, retain curriculum coherence and ensure all children have equal access to learning.
If we had a drug which had so many beneficial outcomes and no adverse side-effects we would prescribe it to everyone, so why, when the benefits of textbooks are well-known, with no side-effects yet established over decades of trials, is their use declining?"
Addressing the international audience, Tim Oates CBE, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, asked: “If we had a drug which had so many beneficial outcomes and no adverse side-effects we would prescribe it to everyone, so why, when the benefits of textbooks are well-known, with no side-effects yet established over decades of trials, is their use declining?” Tim posited that a reason for the decline in the use of textbooks in UK schools is because they are seen as a “highly traditional instrument” and “somehow retrograde”, to which School Standards Minister Nick Gibb, also in attendance, agreed that they had become “worryingly unfashionable,” revealing that he rarely sees a textbook on a desk when visiting UK schools but does see teachers arriving early to miss queues at the photocopier, a practice he warned is costing schools “vast sums of money.” In reasserting the vital role of textbooks in system improvement, curriculum coherence and support for teachers, Tim Oates was keen to make clear that "we are not claiming that they should be the sole materials used in schools. A balanced ecosystem can include textbooks, linked on-line resources, and teacher-designed tasks and materials. What we are saying is that the well-evidenced assets of high-quality textbooks remain clear and proven in some settings and have been neglected in others, to the detriment of equity, attainment and teacher workload.
Moving on to the economic benefits of textbooks and considering the argument that school budgets don’t allow for their purchase, Mr Gibb pointed to data from the Publishers Association calculating that textbooks only need to save teachers 4.5 minutes a day to be good value for money, a revelation which led audience member and Head of Education and Social Reform at Policy Exchange John Blake to call for the sector-wide debunking of the myth that teacher-created resources save schools money, arguing that, in fact, “teacher-made resources are not free, we pay for their time.”
Textbooks only need to save teachers 4.5 minutes a day to be good value for money."
But when so much value is placed on bespoke teacher-made resources, the fear is that using a textbook will be viewed as passive or dispassionate. Curriculum consultant Emma Lennard shared with the audience her own experience of being shown a dusty cupboard of obviously unused textbooks when she asked where her resources were as a new primary school teacher; she then discovered their value but felt the need to hide the fact she was using textbook content in her lessons and decided to pretend she was creating her own resources from scratch to avoid being “seen as a lazy teacher.”
Also keen to disparage this concept was Debbie Morgan, National Director of Primary Mathematics at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, who explained that teachers shouldn’t feel their professional creativity and ability to inspire a classroom is stifled by using a textbook, much like a “well-written play doesn’t take away from an actor’s performance or creativity but will rather stimulate and inspire it.”
No teacher, no matter how passionate, has the stamina to teach an entire year’s curriculum, mark, then go home and prepare lessons for the next day every night."
The summit then heard from an international delegate declaring “no teacher, no matter how passionate, has the stamina to teach an entire year’s curriculum, mark, then go home and prepare lessons for the next day, every night"; a workload issue they believed can be overcome by introducing textbooks as a supporting resource in the classroom. This sentiment was echoed by Sweden’s Rikard Vinde who warned that the lack of textbooks has “undermined the professional status of teachers” and contributed to the major shortage of teachers that is, in his opinion, the “largest problem facing schools in Sweden.”
Observations and insights from Finland, Iceland, the USA, and Mexico, among others, were then shared and debated before Mr Gibb closed proceedings on the promise that we’re witnessing an “emerging grassroots revolution against the negative textbook ethos among education professionals” before urging international guests to watch the UK for a “sea change”.