Teaching to the text: textbooks or technology?

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle for Education

In Association With:

Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Textbooks are rarely seen in English classrooms today outside of the dreaded cover lesson. But in recent years a number of academics, government ministers and commentators have suggested the time has come for the textbook to make a comeback. In an influential policy paper drawn up by Cambridge Assessment, Why Textbooks Count, it is argued that even as they have become obsolete in the UK, traditional teaching materials have played a crucial role in the success of education systems in Hong Kong, Singapore and Finland. While education in such countries flourishes, Schools Minister Nick Gibbs has claimed that an ‘anti-textbook ethos’ has become entrenched in teacher training institutions, resulting in an ‘astounding gap’ in standards between England and high performing countries overseas.

Critics suggest textbook enthusiasts are guilty of nostalgia and sometimes naked self-interest. Not only are they ‘out of date the second they’re printed’, but a ‘rigged textbook economy’ now profits only the industry that publishes endless new editions, rendering last year’s outdated. In contrast, advances in software and digital resources are said to hold great promise, with innovators suggesting that they hold the key to complete ‘individualised learning’. Maths software such as ALEKS, now widely used in US schools, has the capability to adapt to the needs of individual students and to instantly assess the individual capabilities of an entire class at a rate almost impossible for a classroom teacher. Meanwhile, online resources can be updated to reflect new discoveries and are claimed to be cheaper and more convenient to access.  So are advocates of print guilty of fetishising the form? Is the debate around textbooks actually a discussion about content?  If, as Dan Rowson, education policy officer at the Society of Biology, claims, ‘textbooks are a physical manifestation of the education system and the structure of knowledge itself’, does the proliferation of worksheets and lesson plans, or digital versus physical resources, reflect confusion within the teaching profession about the content of subjects?

Is it possible for teachers to have autonomy and freedom over what they teach while working with prescribed texts? Is a reliance on educational resources (whether on the page or on screen) the mark of a weak teacher? Has anyone asked teachers what resources they want?