Collated Discourses, or what the CD format might tell us about textbooks.


Compact disc: image from

Like I suspect a lot of schools, my place has a conflicted attitude towards textbooks.  We spend a fortune on the things, and more than a few of them go home with pupils, even when they aren’t meant to.  Despite this, we don’t really use them; not as a go-to resource for planning lessons.  Some of that is because of the standard teacher-guilt that says that a textbook lesson is, by definition, boring and shows that we don’t love our classes enough.  However, we all do make quite a bit of use of the other parts of the bought-in scheme of work; the worksheets which have to be downloaded, printed, copied and then somehow attached to pupils’ books.  Put like that, it’s all rather odd.

In some ways, it’s the right response to the current situation; as Tim Oates has pointed out, market failure has led to a situation where many textbooks published for UK use aren’t all that good.

Although there’s a lot to be said about the content of textbooks, I suspect that part of the problem is that schools and publishers have boxed themselves in with the design of the modern UK textbook as an object.  I’d like to suggest that a story about the development of the compact disc might be helpful.

The tale goes that, having developed the basic data format of the compact disc, Sony and Philips had to decide on the size of the disc.  Sony president Norio Ohga is said to have specified a disc which would be able to store all of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, whilst being able to fit in a jacket pocket.  It’s a fantastic story, showing how engineers can turn practical constraints into a well-defined product.  The evidence for the details is unfortunately patchy, but even doesn’t debunk it entirely.

So, channeling my inner Norio Ohga, what specifications might I want textbooks to have to make them useful?  I can think of three…

1.  Students should have their own physical copy of the textbook, for the duration of the course.

I want students to have access to the text, so they can revise from it and explore it.  Symbolically, I want them to have the feeling of “owning” the content.  I also want them to experience the responsibility of that ownership, and bringing the book to lessons.  Whilst digital models can give access to the information, the lack of permanence (and the accessibility for poorer families) means that the emotional and practical interactions aren’t the same.

We can’t do this at the moment; the books are too expensive to afford 1 book per child.  On top of that, they are often too flimsy; some of our new GCSE books already looking a bit sad after 1 year’s occasional use in classrooms.

2.  The text should be rich enough and self-contained enough to be a viable cover lesson or catch up for students who miss a lesson.

This isn’t really about cover lessons as such; hopefully, they will stay infrequent enough to not be a defining issue for schools.  I’m trying to mark the point where a book has enough detail.  Ideally, this text would contain the community wisdom of the teachers of a subject; the ideas, models and phrases which make subjects clear to learners.  (I still remember being told that the point of static electricity was that it was static– it couldn’t move).  Good books are packed with this sort of thing.


3.  If possible, the content of the text should serve for different exam boards and specifications.

Partly, this is to work around the market failure problem; a lot of the issues with modern textbooks happen because the only real question for schools to consider is “does this book precisely and accurately match our exam board’s specification?”. Schools have got trapped in a cycle of replacing textbooks very frequently, to keep up with changing exam models.  I’ve only been teaching in schools for about a decade, and I’m already on my fourth version of GCSE science and third version of A levels.  There’s more to it than that, though.

A lot of the really classic textbooks have lasted, evolved, improved and become classics because they haven’t been too closely tied to changing exams.  There’s also something appealing about the idea of a book that says to learners “The things you need for the exam- they’re not everything.  There are other things to know about your subject“.

Some possible consequences

Some things follow about the design of books.   If schools are going to afford 1 book per child, they need to be cheaper.  The simplest way of reducing the price of books is to simplify the design and print- probably by moving back to mainly black-and white.

Extending the useful life of books will help, which implies stronger binding and covering than most books have right now.  On my bookshelf, I have got copies of the A level maths textbooks by L Bostock and S Chandler (you know, the ones with the concentric circles on the front cover).  They are getting on for 30 years old, and are still in reasonable condition.  I doubt that the books my sixth formers get will last anything like as long.

If a textbook is really going to richly contain whole lessons, we need to move away from the one-spread-per-lesson model which seems ubiquitous.  Sometimes, a double page will be too much; sometimes it will be too little.  (Actually, many resource packs get round this by stealth; the book contains some material, but any overspill is put on a worksheet which needs to be separately downloaded and copied.  Maybe “doesn’t require daily trips to the reprographics centre” should be another design criterion.

The final point- decoupling textbooks from exam specifications- might be the hardest of all, because it means changing minds, which are the hardest things of all to change.  For all the modern textbook-as-a-glossy-version-of-the-exam-spec model saddens me, I understand why schools do it.  Even if it doesn’t make that much difference to results, it shows schools are doing their best to prepare pupils, and aren’t taking risks with them.  In a fearful culture, it makes sense to be cautious.  I hope that culture is beginning to change.

A more interesting type of textbook for a more interesting type of education- what else should it have?