Kristy Turner explores the utility of a very old education technology

102729877 300tb[1]

As many UK-based teachers will know, the English curriculum is about to undergo (yet another) rewrite at both GCSE (students aged 14–16) and A-level (students aged 16–18). With a new curriculum comes the need to purchase new resources, or at least reappraise what you already have in stock. So this week my mind has been on textbooks.

Textbooks seem a very outdated technology in the digital world, where answers are only a ‘Google’ away and someone on YouTube can teach you anything you would like to know about advanced quantum mechanics or how to fix your dishwasher.

The use of textbooks in routine classwork has been out of fashion for quite a while in the UK. I know I rarely use them except for cover work or when truly exhausted! But I have taught with colleagues who used them more widely, including one who would merely dictate from the course book while students copied this into their notes. Their assessment results were no different to those of teachers who would never use textbooks in lessons, and in some cases were better.

A recent paper published by Tim Oates and Cambridge Assessment as part of the government review of the National Curriculum suggested that routinely teaching with textbooks declined in the 1970s and compared this with countries, such as Singapore, where it is still a common practice.

A bit too specific

This trend has continued despite the increased production of textbooks that are specific to a particular syllabus. Oates says, ‘In Key Stage 4 [UK students aged 14–16], teachers have been conditioned by performance tables into highly instrumental approaches to learning, oriented towards obtaining specific examination grades. This myopic focus has conditioned the market such that publishers are efficiently supplying the textbooks and materials that teachers are demanding.’

I remember some recent discussion in the media about syllabus-specific books being banned by the government in favour of more general texts. But having seen the advertised partnerships of publishers with examination boards in the most recent syllabus information, I can assume this came to nothing.

What is it good for?

So if textbooks are not being used routinely in class, what is their role in learning?

In universities in the UK it has almost always been the case that textbooks are there to support the lecture course, to provide additional examples and be a mechanism for students to consolidate their learning when they haven’t got an expert in the room. This is certainly the role of a textbook in my classes, and I suspect this probably represents most teachers.

I remember one of the academics when I was at university who bemoaned the introduction of electronic journals. The beauty, he said, in printed volumes was that you set out to look up a particular paper and there was always the possibility of a paper either side of it catching your eye. Maybe that is also the hope of us teachers as well?

Text in context

Textbooks are also within the comfort zone of most parents. In parent–teacher meetings it is common for parents to ask which books they can buy and whether it is important that the textbook is specific to the examination syllabus. Any parent searching the internet will be overwhelmed with choice when it comes to textbooks for perhaps a GCSE course, while students will always argue that there’s nothing in a textbook that you can’t find on YouTube. I think the biggest advantages of textbooks, as far as parents are concerned, is that if your child is sat at the dining room table with a textbook then at least you can be sure they’re concentrating and not checking Facebook or improving their score on Candy Crush.

So, there are number of things for those of us in the chemical education community to think about. Will there ever come a time when there are no textbooks? Parents like them, but do students? What do we use them for and what do we think we will use them for in the future?

I look forward to hearing your views from across the education spectrum, from different types of institution and from around the world. I’ll hold off on the purchase order for now!