This blog post looks at the much maligned textbook from the child’s perspective. Rightly, we tend to analyse the benefits or disadvantages of x, y or z educational practice or resource in terms of its effect on learning and we will look for those added months of progression or increased retention of knowledge, but how often do we put ourselves in the shoes of your typical child and imagine what they’re thinking and feeling? I’m not saying we should concede all ground to pupil voice, but it does seem to me that we place far too much emphasis on what and how the teacher teaches and tend to ignore what I think of as ‘bonus’ learning that happens because of certain systems, practices and resources. The textbook is one such resource that I believe offers up extra learning that goes beyond the provision of worked examples, curriculum progression and saving of the teacher’s time and energy – I’m talking about the textbook being a kind of psychological anchor for the child, much like a family album that triggers all sorts of memories and feelings. Have we, in our drive to improve the quality of teaching and curriculum content, forgotten about how the humble textbook adds to learning because of how it makes children feel and how the extra layers of emotion (both good and bad) actually help with retention of knowledge? Let me give you a few examples.
I grew up with textbooks and I remember enjoying the feeling of progress as each lesson moved through the textbook in a systematic way, even though I may not have liked the subject at the time. In fact, even negative emotion seemed to help with the retention knowledge as I flicked through the history textbook to find the page the teacher was referring too. I would be inadvertently treated to reminders of both enjoyable and (what I thought were) horrible lessons. For example, as a typically obstreperous, tired, grumpy and opinionated teenager I particularly detested the entire Victorian era. This was because I felt the teacher seemed to be preaching to us all about how terrible life was for poor children when, at the time, I really objected to being forced to get all emotional about kids scrambling up chimneys or having their arms ripped off by cotton mill machinery. I would have much rather learned about ships named ‘Devastation’ and ‘Invincible’. Even so, the anchoring effect of the textbook kept me working hard, attempting all the questions and the sense of ‘thank god we’ve finished that chapter’ was both motivational and helped me to remember a lot of the content. Upon finishing all those questions before others had, I’d then treat myself to some surreptitious retrieval practice and extra learning/reading by trying to find some part of the textbook the teacher had glossed over because she hadn’t deemed it politically correct enough, fond memories of groans and rollings-of-eyeballs flooding back as I’d happen upon those pictures of workhouses and orphanages. Good times. Of course, I’d also look ahead at what was coming up – today’s pupils have been denied all this extra learning in the name of personalisation when in fact flappy bits of paper provided by harassed teachers are anything but personal because there is no extra layer of feelings about progression or content.
Then there are standards. Children like to know exactly what is expected of the ‘average’ child – and then they compare themselves. It’s in our nature to compare and compete and the textbook provides a standard of quality and quantity of work to be done within each lesson. Getting to the end of all those questions – very satisfying indeed.
Further, there is also that anxiety-reducing effect of always having a trusty textbook about your person to quickly refer to before a lesson, test or exam, particularly if you struggled with a subject like I did with French and were worried about getting told off by a nun (I was taught by them) for not remembering the translation of ‘Chips with mayonnaise, please!’ Oh yes, you would say that today’s pupils can simply look at their notes, but it’s not the same, is it? Their notes don’t come with an index, contents page or some pictures to laugh at. And where are the opportunities for a good old swot-fest with friends in the common room when all anyone has is a random collection of dog-eared worksheets and spider diagrams?
Finally, the worked example. It is way up there as being massively helpful for children who didn’t quite get what the teacher was saying at the time and needed a little more time to ponder the method. What a relief to see how to do something – I actually preferred this because, as a child, I sometimes found the teacher talk confused me (possibly cognitive overload with all that sensory input). This is why a good maths textbook does wonders.
Although there are probably plenty of other points around the subject of curiosity and happiness that comes from looking ahead at ‘illegal’ learning, I’d like to finish this blog by saying that when you are a tired, grumpy and obstreperous child, nothing quite beats the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards and then moving up to a textbook with the word ‘advanced’ on it (or even just the next year group number), then looking back at old textbooks and laughing about how ‘easy’ they were/are. Currently, my own teenage sons don’t have that joy and that is a real shame!
Perhaps we could work towards bringing back proper textbooks?
Who’s with me?