Teaching to the text: Textbooks or technology? —Why it is not one or the other

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I was delighted to be invited to take part in a panel discussion at this year’s Battle of Ideas titled Teaching to the text: Teaching or technology?, which took place earlier today. Speakers were asked to introduce their position for five minutes before opening the discussion. Below are my opening words:

Good morning. I find myself in a peculiar position. I am speaking in panel about textbooks or technology even though I disagree wholeheartedly with the premise of the discussion – that it has to be textbooks or technology.

Let me paint a picture for you. I teach in an excellent, forward looking school where all teachers and students use, among other things, a tablet to help them teach and learn. Despite this appearance of twentyfirstcenturyness, at heart we are a school with very traditional values about what makes great teaching and learning.

In my school there would be outrage among our staff and children if we were to tell them that they had to choose between textbooks or technology. Why? Because both are useful. Both facilitate learning. So, on their desks, students will refer to their tablets for some resources; to printed textbooks if they are being used for others; to exercise books; and, sometimes, even to lever-arch folders. They’re all still there, alongside pens, pencils and pencil sharpeners. From our perspective, it is not print or digital, nor should it be.

While it can undoubtedly be very useful to debate opposing topics – the very word debate derives from the Latin for to battle the opposite, and so here we are, having a “Battle of Ideas” – we must be careful not to frame the discussion in such a way that the resulting polarisation makes its relevance increasingly moot.

Does a textbook need to be in print form? Can it not be in digital form? Can it be accessible both digitally and in print? If not why not? Why can’t we just print what we require for a particular topic of study, in the knowledge that all the other topics can be easily accessed, downloaded and printed, if necessary, at any time?

When you listen to people’s reasons as to why they say they prefer print over digital – these may range from “they are easier to issue” (easier than a tap on a screen or a click of a mouse?), to “easier to refer back to” (have they not heard of hyperlinking?), or even “I enjoy the smell of paper” – you realise that digital resources are dismissed often for the wrong reasons by people who really don’t have a sufficiently good understanding of how these digital resources are actually used in practice.

And yes, I know, there are also studies and surveys that show that “students prefer print”. Leaving aside the fact that students – like all of us – prefer what they are used to and that these preferences will change over time, we must remember as teachers that what students prefer may not always be what’s best for them. So I remain fairly sceptical about this claim.

The reason why I am sceptical is because I know that practices that have been shown to improve teaching and learning – such as spacing study, interleaving topics or frequent low-stakes testing – often don’t come naturally to the learner. In fact, what learners prefer to do often goes against what cognitive psychology tells us is best for learning.

And it so happens that well-designed digital resources can support these more successful pedagogical practices and others – such as paring text with interactive graphics to aid conceptualisation, featuring sound or video recordings or modelling solved problems to encourage metacognition – much more easily and pedagogically effectively than a paper textbook ever could.

But there will be good and bad textbooks. And there will be good and bad digital resources. In many respects it’s how they are used and in what context that matters. Proclaiming that one is inherently better than the other and that we must make that choice today is not helpful and, ultimately, won’t contribute to improving the education children receive. So let’s not polarise, and let’s agree that resources — of any kind — play a hugely important role in great teaching and learning and focus instead on how we can make these resources better.

Below is a recording of this debate:

Many thanks to Susanna Goldschmidt (Discovery Education), Colin Hughes (Collins Learning), Tim Oates (Cambridge Assessment), David Perks (East London Science School) for a very stimulating conversation and to Harley Richardson (Discovery Education) for inviting me in the first place and being an excellent chair.

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