Use of textbooks

Published July 9, 2022
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

SOMEONE once said, “The best thing about books is that sometimes they have pictures.” While this may not be a clever way to judge a textbook, it represents the need for a child-friendly layout — a learning package that creates interest rather than resistance.

No matter what the curriculum, a textbook is a tool that requires mediation by the teacher. The skill never lies in the tool, but in the person using it. A hammer is useless if not in the hands of a competent carpenter. Textbooks are meant to be used for content and to chase targets which enable us to assess pupils in examinations, but they cannot be used without the expertise of an educator who can bring far more into the classroom experience than simply the content of the textbook.

Teachers who leave an imprint on students’ memory and enrich their school experience are those who know far more than the textbook can offer. They are subject specialists able to use the textbook like a board game, going back and forth strategically, keeping in view the holistic aims of the curriculum. They are also able to answer ‘out-of-the-box’ questions, challenge students way beyond the immediate requirements of a checklist, and set expectations that drive motivation and talent to nurture excellence.

Skilled teachers do not depend on the textbook: they use it as a tool like so many other resources we have today. Yet, textbooks were always at the centre of teaching and learning and will remain so. No matter how fast our digital resources evolve, it will take decades before they can become accessible to every child in every classroom, like a textbook is. The value of digital resources, as things stand today, pales in comparison to the use of textbooks in the classroom. However, digital resources can provide a wealth of knowledge and direction to teachers, particularly those who do not have a formal background in education and can use digital media to supplement the subject knowledge provided by textbooks.

The skill never lies in the tool but the person using it.

Cleverly designed textbooks can cater to mixed abilities through tasks with varying levels of difficulty; provide optional challenges and choices to students to stretch their capabilities; assess at regular intervals rather than pile on a bulk of chapters for biannual examinations; and help teachers overcome students’ difficulties by using teaching guides to plan their work. Children like to make meaning from the text that they see in front of them. If they are able to relate to what they learn, retention and assessment become easier. That is where the role of the teacher is paramount. When a child asks what is the use of Pythagoras’ theorem, can we help them make meaningful connections to real-life phenomena?

Teachers may want to consider enabling children to process the content and respond to it, discuss, summarise and frame questions for themselves. If teachers go above and beyond the text to broaden ways of thinking around the text — find key words that provide clues to answers rather than giving the answers — students get involved at a deeper level. Unfortunately, we have an ‘answer key’ and ‘model answers’ culture that provides a shortcut to learning, but skips the important steps of unlocking potential in children.

Teachers may see considerable progress if students are given air-time to talk about the text, teach other and test each other. Communication, creativity and critical thinking stem from free discussions and free writing based on textbook content, not from paraphrasing text, which is a shortcut that quickens the process of teaching but compromises on the deeper impact and meaning derived from learning.

Textbooks have become a physical and emotional burden, mainly due to the changing attitudes towards learning and the pressure of cramming content and delivering results in high-stakes exams. Teachers can mitigate some of these challenges by identifying skills that help students navigate the content and work towards their individually set targets. Awareness of prioritising goals, selecting key information, and working swiftly through content without unnecessary repetition can save time and prevent tedium in mixed ability classes where not all students are enthusiastic about learning. Most textbooks have revisit and review options for those who wish to spend more time on the topic.

Learning how to use a textbook effectively is like being a skilled craftsman, with the aim of producing creative results, not just hammering in the details. A critical question would be to ask if your students can make their own notes after reading a chapter, rather than taking notes mindlessly as the teacher speaks. As Virginia Voeks said, “How often you read something is immaterial; how you read it is crucial.”

The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan, and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
neda.mulji@gmail.com Twitter: @nedamulji

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2022

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