Educational Fad: The Silver Bullet Of Textbooks

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Are you a fan of using textbooks?

Schools minsiter Nick Gibb loves textbooks. In fact, he is so obsessed with textbooks being used more widely by teachers in classroom, he has railed against an “anti-textbook ethos” in the profession. Forget the fact that heavy textbooks can cause chronic back-pain in children, they are “critical” for raising standards.

It isn’t just back strain we need worry about. There is another problem with being a textbook-lover. They are expensive and for schools bled-dry of money, wallet strain means textbooks are like caviar – a luxury. They go from being a must-have to a nice-to-have and slip right down the priority list.

Reducing workload – and budgets!

Yes, textbooks are great for curriculum content, sequencing learning and reducing teacher workload, but according to last year’s joint survey, ‘Schools Cuts – Harming Education‘ by the NUT and ATL, 73 per cent said their school has cut spending on books and equipment (73% in secondary schools and 74% in primaries). Even the tiny per cent of schools that have cash to splash on swanky new books don’t want to be spending champagne prices. They become notoriously out of date very quickly too!

One of the most egregious practices in the publishing industry is to republish a ‘new edition’ even before the ink has dried on the present version. Some have also been accused of gender bias which clearly doesn’t help.

Go Digital

If schools had the money to spend on textbooks and they were well-priced, why would you want them when digital versions offer so much more potential?

Not only do they fuel self-assessment, students can learn and share through Google documents, discussion forums or chat groups. Hyperlinks can offer immediate support to students and help scaffold their learning. Digital textbooks are increasingly more affordable and crucially, more frequently updated; accessed at home and in school; weigh less and are a fraction of the price!

On top of this, artificially intelligent software is reshaping how we do things. Textbooks can also be brought to life with the use of augmented reality – and transport students to Egypt rather than just reading about it. They offer an immersive experience that printed versions just can’t match. These include dynamic and interactive formats, feedback tools and connections with online communities.


Ross (2015) notes, that new materials have pedagogical advances. Traditional textbooks are old school because everyone receives the same menu. “Now, artificial intelligence means that the material itself can actually study a student’s learning habits and adjust in real time.”

But there are infrastructure and technological know-how issues associated with digital textbooks. Xie and Luthy (2017) note, “Most teachers rarely get the opportunity to learn how to evaluate, select and integrate digital resources into their classrooms.”

Antiquated And Outdated

In the US, the Office of Educational Technology says that open education resources “increase equity, save money, keep content relevant and empower teachers.”

Perhaps it is time we develop a philosophy of teaching and learning that transcends textbooks, adopt open source platforms and eschew textbooks entirely. It’s a collaborative culture we need driven by teachers and students, not one driven by publishers. Paper-based textbooks often are old, worn and outdated. Get rid!

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

One thought on “Educational Fad: The Silver Bullet Of Textbooks

  1. Fad? Useful for centuries and you call them a fad?

    Antiquated? Not requiring batteries or electricity and you call them antiquated (as humans become increasingly desperate in the hunt for sources of sustainable energy).

    Look; if there is one thing to go for it’s their size: doorsteps rather than booklets: Bibles rather than books.

    Pin that down. Imagine a twenty-chapter twenty-pounds-sterling mathematics textbook broken down into twenty separate one-pound-sterling booklets. Imagine a class set of 16 of those booklets.

    Now imagine a class working through them at their own pace. Not every “legal minor” (/child) would be using the same booklet at the same time. Hence there would, in fact, be more booklet available per child.

    And those children would be taught to choose the correct booklet for themselves. Independent learning. Independent self-selecting differentiation. Humans taught to be at least as intelligent as Artificial Intelligence.

    For, surely, we all have a job there: us teaching (and children learning) to be able to learn without the assistance of Artificial Intelligence.

    Pause. Perhaps the one-pound-sterling booklets could be further split into five, separate, twenty-pence booklets: each at a different grade level.

    Moving on from booklet to booklet would then visibly show progress.

    A physical, tangible, kinaesthetic, less-overwhelming version of things than a doorstep textbook or facing the menu systems of the whole of MyMaths or MathsWatch.

    Booklets. In boxes. In shelves. Amazing.

    And exactly what my state primary school and state comprehensive school “1st and 2nd year” (read year 7 and year 8) classrooms had back in the mid-1980s.

    And I want it. I want it as a teacher for my own pupils.

    It was better than what we have now.

    And it worked when the wi-fi failed.

    And it worked when the projector bulb broke and the budget to replace it was spent.

    And it worked when the internet went down.

    And replacing one twenty-pence booklet was… one percent of the price of replacing an entire twenty-pound-sterling doorstep textbook…

    What were they called? The Schools Mathematics Project (SMP) boxes. Not the books. The boxes.

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