Why should teachers write textbooks?

Text books and study guides have a bad press in British schools.  Teachers – especially in my subject (English) – often claim that using them in class shows a certain lack of originality.  In my experience, those who teach science, or languages, as well as History and Geography, are more open to using them, but after inspecting quite a few independent schools I still come across homemade resources in class, or badly photocopied Teacher Toolkit stuff, rather than an enthusiastic and extensive use of textbooks.  It’s not unusual to see a stack of expensively-bought, up-to-date textbooks, sitting on the side of a classroom, unused and unloved.  The great shame is that, very often, these books are better researched, better written, more differentiated, and simply more interesting, than some of the pages being circulated by the teacher.

Why is this? Does it spring from a deep-seated sense of insecurity on the teacher’s part? Do some teachers feel threatened by textbooks?  Or is it something else? Do teachers think that what they produce is inherently more bespoke for their students?  More personal? Do they think they are simply better?

What I do know is that many teachers spend hours every week creating new resources, and adapting old ones, for their classes.  I once had a meeting with some senior ministers who were staggered that this continued to be the case in so many schools: they saw this constant writing of resources as a waste of time – time that could be better spent teaching and marking.  The teachers at that meeting defended their practice saying that they preferred to write their own resources for their students, rather than import them.

Now a confession: I write textbooks and have edited two Shakespeare texts, and I’m proud of what I produce. Arrogant though it sounds, I view the work I am currently doing on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ as something creative.

I believe that writing textbooks is some of the best professional development there is for teachers.  Why?

Firstly, it makes me a better teacher because writing forces me to think about the text itself, and to get to know it intimately.  I can now teach this Sixth Form set text next year very well as I have had to analyse it for months. I have spent a lot of time reading very good writing about the novel, such as this by John Updike, or this  by Daniel Zalewski.I have also had to approach it as an author and teacher, writing tasks which will (I hope) engage students and extend their knowledge and understanding of the text.  I have had to get to know the new specifications (I learned, to my dismay, that AL students will be able to study a Ben Elton novel if they wish).  All this is excellent professional development.

Secondly, it makes me a better student.  Being edited is an experience that I think all teachers should experience because it returns you to being at the receiving end of (at times) some pretty frank criticism.  When I hand back marked essays to my students and see their faces drop I show them what has just been done to my work by editors and readers: favourite phrases deleted, questions raised about clarity of argument, suggestions for development…and so it goes on. You very quickly have to develop a thick skin if you’re going to publish something that is promoted by a publisher and bought by the public. I tell my students that in order to get better you have to accept criticism, and that to be good at writing you have to write, and then re-write, and re-write…until it’s good enough.  Writing is not some precious art, and perfect, polished prose does not flow from the pen straight to the page.  It takes work, it can be tough.  Importantly, they begin to see that getting better is a collaborative process.

I use textbooks all the time now, building them into my planning, and I think my lessons are better as a result.  And if using such books can free up my planning time to do some writing myself, or to spend it reading, marking, or even not working…then so much the better for me – and the students I teach.

 

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4 thoughts on “Why should teachers write textbooks?

  1. J May 30, 2015 / 2:32 pm

    I liked your blog on textbooks and writing.
    I find it curious that teachers reinvent the wheel so often and haven’t looked at this area for managing workload. I think writing a textbook or in-house course materials seems a more constructive use of creativity if where a materials review is needed or a gap exists.

    For pupils textbooks allow the pupil to hold the knowledge in their own hands as well as being taught it. It helps with pupils working at different paces. When they forget something they can easily look back (yesterday’s whiteboard no longer holds the information, worksheets much easier to lose and identifying quality materials relies on a skilled teacher – perhaps?)

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    • drdavidajames May 30, 2015 / 3:05 pm

      Thank you for your comments. I do think that some subjects are more open to using textbooks than others, but that might change, especially with the new AL and GCSE specifications.

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  2. Mark June 8, 2015 / 7:46 pm

    My experience with using textbooks was coloured in the first year or two that I started teaching. You were considered lazy by colleagues, students tended to find them dull (especially the books targeted at KS3/4) and if you dared use one in an observed lesson… that was a guaranteed ticking-off. GCSE textbooks also tend to lack the level of detail required for A/A* grades which, in grammar schools and independent schools, is obviously an issue.
    The current issue in geography, and especially at A level, is that exam boards increasingly want students to study contemporary issues and apprise themselves of the latest events and developments. Obviously, textbooks are very quickly out of date, often a year or two out of date by the time they are published. So, we are being implored to guide students to learn how to find, analyse and critically evaluate data and views from reliable websites, databases, news sites etc.. As you say, preparing these sorts of lessons is time-consuming but ultimately highly beneficial for teachers in terms of their understanding and personal development. It should be a win-win situation; teachers model the ‘studying’ behaviour, keep up-to-date and produce (hopefully) interesting resources for their students.
    I read an article somewhere recently (TES?) that suggested that teachers shouldn’t do this, comparing them to racing drivers – stating that, as Lewis Hamilton didn’t build his own car, so teachers shouldn’t make their own resources. Whilst very flattering to teachers, a flawed analogy in my view, as he will have driven that car for many hours in testing sessions and practise (the preparation) in order to perform well in the races (lessons).

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    • drdavidajames June 8, 2015 / 7:59 pm

      Thank you for this. I’m not sure I agree that textbooks do date quite so quickly: publishers are careful to follow the cycle of government (or other, including IB) changes to curricula. They don’t tend to go in for planned obsolescence because they are very aware of school budgets. Indeed, I think there was probably a (apolitical) sigh of relief when the Conservatives won the election because publishers could proceed to plan for new GCSE and AL without the fear of further changes. I agree with you about the trend towards contemporary issues in the humanities, which is often reductive, but this might be rectified with the new specifications which, after reading some of them for the books I’m writing, take a longer view of literature. That said, I looked in vain for ‘Middlemarch’. The point I’m trying to make in the blog is that the additional rigour – the creative process underpinned by objective evaluation – is a rewarding one for teachers, but it doesn’t have to have an ISBN number stuck at the end of it. But many textbooks are better than home-produced materials and can free teachers up for planning, assessment, and talking to the students. By the way, you can find Kris’s article here: https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-views/why-teachers-should-become-consumers-curricula-and-lessons-planned

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