Why ditching textbooks would be to the detriment of learning

by Tim Oates, 27 April 2016
This blog originally appeared on TES.com 

Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, says those calling for the end of textbooks need to brush up on their knowledge of education research 

Last year, Richard Culatta – an adviser to President Obama at the time – stated that textbooks should be scrapped in England in the next five years. His comments were echoed by the new master of Wellington College, Julian Thomas, who said in TES that “a textbook is not dynamic at all” (4 September 2015). 

This all sounds very credible and up-to-date, except that it is blind to the evidence from a whole range of sources. 

Not least of those is from the heart of the IT industry itself: Abigail Sellen, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has stated that "the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realised”. 

This leads us straight to important evidence from educational research, focused on the psychology of perception. This research tells us that recall and comprehension differ when reading from paper compared with on-screen, with comprehension in particular still significantly superior when pupils are reading from paper materials. Consistent with this, pupils are accessing more materials online at university but retaining less information. 

The case for print 

Digging into the research in detail throws up some very interesting issues: 

  • Research on visual perception and cognitive loading suggests that screen flicker, scrolling and navigation all load up the brain so that comprehension suffers; 
  • Navigation in a book is straightforward; pupils can look back at old material and forward to new with great ease. Not so on the sprawling websites which aim to replace books; 
  • An evaluation in Singapore led to new electronic versions of very well-designed paper textbooks being abandoned after they failed to deliver the same learning processes and outcomes; 
  • The tactile and physical experience of reading a book can embed memories of the content more securely; 
  • And in terms of focusing attention, textbooks do not wait to receive that next email or tweet. 

We currently think that there are a set of interacting factors and processes that reduce the enduring learning gained from digital materials, not least a view of "…I can always look it up again”. With this attitude, reading a digital source becomes a passing experience rather than a learning experience. 

Research around the world on well-designed textbooks shows that they are used flexibly by teachers – they are not the straitjacket implied by Culatta’s analysis. Shanghai textbooks are built from the very best lessons on specific topics – they are then available to all teachers. 

And Culatta’s view neglects the key role that exquisitely designed paper textbooks have had during periods of impressive reform of education systems in settings as diverse as Shanghai, Massachusetts and Finland. 

Of course, well-designed digital resources can do things that paper materials cannot – such as simulations. But it’s contrary to the evidence to adopt a naive position that "all paper is wrong and all digital is perfect". Using the strengths of each is apparent in some of the latest generation of textbooks in England; those informed by international comparisons of the best around the world. 

We ignore the research at our peril; let’s move forward through science, not misleading rhetoric. 

Tim Oates CBE is Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. On 28 April he will launch the ‘Cambridge Approach to Textbooks’ at a seminar in London. Tim, who led the government’s review of the national curriculum in England, will be joined by leading experts in the field, including TES chief education adviser Lord Knight, to help depict how the role of textbooks and allied learning resources has developed here in the UK and internationally. To register to watch live, click here

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