• Clara Maria Fiorentini

Let's Talk Textbooks...

Textbooks, textbooks, textbooks. I am asked about these a lot, so as we approach booklist season, here are my thoughts:

Choice. It's a wonderful element of the teaching role. A privilege in fact. It comes into everything we do. Choice in approaches, routines, practices, resources. When we reflect on choices around resources, we are never too far away from textbook territory.

It's a contentious topic at present and often used as a snarky means to pitch teachers against teachers, schools against schools, approaches against approaches; which is unfortunate, unhelpful and unnecessary. Many schools have successfully moved away from overuse of textbooks, some removing them completely. Which, I have to admit, is hugely admirable and obviously brings with it, its own logistics and arrangements. Many other schools still utilise a traditional booklist system because that is what works for their setting, and that in itself, is the beauty of choice!

FAQ: What are your thoughts on textbooks?

Let's get one thing clear, as a teacher, I used textbooks. Loosely. Some great, some not so great. I dipped in and out of texts here and there to supplement learning - particularly for Literacy and Numeracy. I did however, relish the choice of using some and flying without the constraints of others. Hello, choice!

If I was still in the classroom today, yes, I believe I probably would still use *some* textbooks. (Let's not forget, I am a co-author of a phonics programme, which itself has pupil books...which obviously falls under the territory of textbooks too.) I always found my own experiences in school influenced the teacher I wanted to become. I didn't particularly love when the History and Geography texts were divvied out as a pupil, so it's not something I leaned towards in my own teaching. The more comfortable I became in the classroom, the more confident I grew in striking books off yearly booklists. Children's literature was and is my chosen avenue for invitations to learning, so much of my instruction was supplemented with novels, non-fiction and picturebooks as opposed to textbooks for every subject. That is still what I continuously promote.

In my first year teaching I recall being overwhelmed with the fear of sending home workbooks unfinished. Which on reflection was silly, because unfinished decontextualised spelling and Religion workbooks did not reflect my teaching in the slightest. Which brings us to an important factor - many teachers find themselves in rooms where the books and texts have been chosen by someone else. Booklists repeated for several years because an investment has been made and that's that. We need greater flexibility than that. Booklist season falls in May / June, but funnily enough bookshops and educational suppliers are open year round; adding to or subtracting from a list come September / October really won't cause the world to stop spinning. In fact, having undergone the experience of living and teaching through a pandemic, we need to be evermore responsive to the needs of a class and maybe choosing everything for the year ahead before you have even met or worked with the children may not always be the best route... or even necessary.

Professional responsibility

Do we need textbooks for every curricular area? Certainly not.

Ultimately, it is about being mindful of the needs of the children, their learning styles and their overall educational development. If teachers choose to use textbooks - fine! But like anything, quality over quantity and a balance in how and when they are used. Textbooks have never been meant to replace active, dialogic learning - but often they are blamed. Inevitably, sometimes textbooks are allowed to become almost a shield between the children and teacher, a barrier to language rich, lively learning experiences.

An educator I hugely admire and respect once said 'any programme, any textbook, can be a useful resource in the hands of a knowledgeable teacher'...and really, that's what it comes down to. Using your professional knowledge to strike a balance in what (if any) texts you use, continuously reflecting on why you are using them and how you use them. We do however, have a professional responsibility to stay in touch with developments in research and CPD surrounding 'what works' for our young learners. As they saying goes, when we know better, we do better!

Textbook Trivia - the flick test?

Unfortunately many textbooks and resources are still chosen and decided on by the infamous 'flick test'. Which, quite simply, is a quick flick through a text - resulting in a decision made in matter of moments. If pages look to have plenty of 'work' that keeps the children occupied, then it's generally a winner. Books that do well in flick tests have minimal 'blank space' (i.e. spaces for creativity / having a go / independent practice). Funnily enough, publishers play a big role in ensuring pages are crammed to help win the flick test. That role unfortunately sometimes bypasses the pedagogy, the preferences of the author and ultimately plays into the 'busy work' category. The more busy work, the less teaching; less teaching, less learning; less learning.... well, what's the point when the learning is removed? We need to be critical, reflective and conscientious in our textbook choices.

Points to consider:

  • A high quality textbook informs, involves and interacts with the learner. So when choosing, consider whether this textbook going to result in active learning; or is it going to result in passive experiences?

  • The textbook is not the teacher - you are. "Turn to page 153, read the passage and answer the questions" doesn't quite cut the mustard anymore. The textbook does not steer learning. It's merely a launchpad.

  • It's 2021. Do the textbooks you are using reflect the diversity of the class before you? We speak a lot about diversifying our classroom libraries and ensuring our children's literature is inclusive, representative and respectful of everyone in the classroom. Can you say the same for your textbooks?

If you enjoy using textbooks to support your teaching, then I do recommend a few points to consider to help ensure you are choosing high quality textbooks:

  • What did the class teacher use the year before? Find out. We must ensure content is appropriately engaging and motivating. Are your choices this year potentially repetitive?

  • Do the texts provide lots of opportunities for high quality reading? Regardless of the curricular area, a high quality text (be it for infants or 6th) will have subtle opportunities for reading embedded within the pages.

  • Do the texts cater for multi-sensory learning? The senses are the pathway to the brain. The more senses engaged during a learning experience, the greater the learning. Texts with high quality images and illustrations are important motivating factors for young learners. Not judging a book or a page by its appearance is the age-old message, but we humans are visually oriented, we're naturally drawn to the visuals!

  • Do the texts provide potential for cross curricular learning? The NCCA's Primary Developments will bring with them a much greater emphasis on thematic learning and integration.

Does using textbooks contradict playful pedagogy?

If children are sitting from 9am to 2.30pm in seat-based, textbook-based learning, then yes. This completely contradicts playful pedagogy and any fundamental research, theory or pedagogy that supports how children learn best. There are often discussions around pitching play against seat-based learning, and that's not what it needs to be about. It's about balance. Children (infants to 6th) are active, busy little beings. Play is how they make sense of the world. Play is how they practice and consolidate what has been learned. Playful learning can still happen in a classroom that uses textbooks. The themes can be connected, the learning can be transferred from one to the other. Even if you are basing your instruction around textbooks, the Primary Language Curriculum requires that in infants to second, the learning happens "through appropriately playful learning experiences" (NCCA, 2019). Play isn't a trend, it's a must. The 'we can't play all day' narrative is ill-informed, tiresome and quite frankly, redundant.

"I want to use less books but I'm worried about the photocopying."

Again, this is another narrative,I don't really buy into anymore. There are lots of ways we can use printables or photocopiable materials without being overly wasteful. Firstly, not every lesson needs a worksheet. We are still strangely preoccupied with paper and having something to 'prove' our teaching. Reflect on your approach and the rationale.

Mini whiteboards, blank copybooks, dry erase sleeves, decal spots - there are plenty of ways to work around unnecessary photocopying of worksheets.

Drywipe Reusable Wipe-Clean Pockets

ABC School Supplies - not affiliated!

Decal Spots - All Things Primary

Choosing your words

'You do you', 'do your own thing' ' and 'suit yourself' are all well and good, but at the end of the day, the choices we make as teachers ultimately filter down to the children before us. So, if you want to choose textbooks, great! Choose well. If you don't choose textbooks, great too! Once you are confident in the rationale for your chosen approaches, they are curriculum and pedagogy aligned, then that's fine. Just remember that your choices are for the benefit of the learners before you - not a positioning tool to compare or critique the methods, approaches or choices of others. Choose what works, not sides.

All isn't as it seems...

Tread carefully with recommendations. As we swerve into booklist season it's hard not to be swayed into thinking we need more than we actually do. Also, it's always worth looking a little more closely at reviews and recommendations. At the end of the day, there's a big difference in something that's been tried and tested in a classroom and something that was given the *flick test* for an affiliated fee on Instagram.