A Textbook Problem

The Japanese word for ‘business suit’ is sebiro. A truncated version of “Savile Row”, the word itself is a nod to the London area famous for tailoring, and the ability to have a garment made bespoke to your precise measurements, tastes and style for a considerable fee. We know that bespoke, made to measure (which apparently are not the same) and perfectly tailored are the aspirational standard. We also know that that standard takes quality, craftsmanship, materials and money. Many of us – sadly, me included – will never own a Savile Row suit.

So what?

A similar approach can be described when it comes to making and providing resources for our lessons in teaching – with the idealised bespoke, made to measure or personally tailored to our context, class and settings held up as the gold standard – and “off the peg” resources somehow considered to be lesser and certainly holding some implicit comment on our worth as a teacher, or our commitment to our class.

In particular, and in particular subjects, it seems like bespoke booklets are increasingly used, while the humble textbook is declining.

I’d like to think about why.

I believe that the way to sniff out a Geographer of a certain vintage is to ask them how they pronounce the word “Waugh”, and see how their eyes light up. David Waugh’s “Geography: An Integrated Approach” was the textbook that I had for my A level. When I taught in classrooms, over twenty years later, a bank of them were still in the bookcase at the back of my room, and certain topics could still definitively be looked up in Waugh’s classic book. It wasn’t bespoke – it didn’t get designed for a particular specification, or for a certain style of exam – it was good Geography, and that’s all that mattered.

We want our textbooks to be:

  • Based on good Geography
  • Clear in their use of technical language, diagrams and explanation, so that
  • Processes, theories and models can be crystal clear for students
  • Exemplified through case studies or place examples
  • Offer reflection and questions which can check for student understanding
  • Pragmatically, as a HoD or a SBM, they need to offer value for money. Either this means that they are cheap enough to buy for multiple class sets (you realistically need 2.5 x your cohort size at any given time if you want students to have one each, because you’re going to have one year group, a second year group at KS4 or KS5 and then some spares for class work or to cover wastage), *or* they need to be imbued with longevity that a one off purchase order will definitively last you for ten years or more.

Waugh’s book hit all of these boxes. They were never cheap to buy, but they lasted the test of time. They were really well written, expertly designed, and beautifully illustrated – even now, the diagrams are some of the best I’ve ever used. I can’t imagine teaching desert landforms without that page from Waugh of the various forms of sand dune, for instance.

Perhaps the only complaint – and indeed, this reflects the nature of a number of subjects (Geography, Economics, Business among many) was that the case studies could rapidly become out of date at best, and really grotesquely out of date at worst.

So you’d have to update the case studies. And then we get into the slippery slope of the modern textbook versus booklet debate, and some of the challenges that face the use of textbooks by schools today. 

  • Textbooks get out of date so quickly. If you are going to have to update case studies, then you’re going to have to produce material. Wouldn’t it be easier to write your own, and print it? It might be. It depends on your Department’s expertise, capacity and specific skill sets, I guess. I think this is much more of a problem for fast moving, or case study-based subjects. A Maths textbook doesn’t date anywhere near as quickly as a Geography one can: an old colleague of mine had a bunch of resources from the 1950s in his classroom, that still offered value to some particular problems and themes.
  • “Textbook case studies” are also an interesting problem from an examiners’ mindset, too. Teachers are aware of this. Where the case study in the textbook is excellent, and well-used, it is very likely that an examiner will see a lot of answers based upon it. To stand out, you’re either going to need to go beyond the textbook (in which case, someone’s going to have to work on detail), or you’ll need to write better than the majority of other candidates. You also have to get the details absolutely spot-on – it’s far more likely that an examiner will know them. It’s simpler to “stand out” by choosing a different case study: it’ll be novel for the examiner to read, and less likely to be one of twenty seven essays on the Haiti earthquake that they’ve read that day.
  • Wouldn’t it be cheaper to make a booklet?” In many cases, it’s possible that the answer is not clearly value-driven in the same way. We don’t have a metric for recording teacher time, and assigning it a value, so we don’t see the very hidden costs of the hours and labour. Doing it once is highly expensive, in teacher time. If we use the same booklets across multiple years, schools or a Trust, it could be worth it. But it’s a very different calculation, and a far harder one to see.
  • Look, we don’t even use half of these chapters. Isn’t that a waste?” Specifications offer much choice – usually at school level, rather than for students in the exam. If Section A is 2 from 3, Section B is 2 from 3, and Section C is 1 from 3 – that’s lovely as an experience for teachers and schools, but it does mean you’ve only used 5/9 chapters of the textbook. What are you paying for the other four for? What’s the point? Wouldn’t you be better just printing your own booklets for those units only? It’s a fair point. Either specs need to increase their compulsory content (not popular) or textbooks need to become modular (not likely from printing perspectives).
  • We’ve only just bought these ones for a new specification, and they’re already out of date”. This is a combination of “bespoke” to a specification or a syllabus, and the change that the exam boards make in response to requirements and wider context. If you write good Geography, like Waugh did, you’re not sensitive to the market change – but you are equally making content that might not fit some syllabuses, and we’ll see the same waste issues as before.

A series of these points all speak to ‘value for money’ for syllabus-related textbooks, and the eternal challenge of the balance between visible costs (textbooks) versus invisible costs (production of booklet, printing, time and energy etc. of teachers which is all unquantified) with some very real issues. For many publishers, the key response has been to drive down the cost of textbooks by cutting some corners – and this has created a number of other issues. When we started teaching a newly-refreshed specification, the first print run of textbooks contained over fifty errors within the first few chapters we looked at. I’m not talking minor things: but diagrams labelled wrong (constructive/destructive waves), or key concepts not accurately explained. The publishers and board were superb, and accepted the return, and published a new book fairly speedily – but that kind of error wouldn’t have happened to Waugh, I reckon.

Fast specification changes, the desire for bespoke to syllabus, and a rapidly changing market mean that it’s almost impossible to produce a long-lasting textbook which is simultaneously cheap enough to appeal to all. At high quality. With really nice examples. And good exam questions.

Of course, there’s an unaddressed market for textbooks here – which is their use for Key Stage 3. A number of excellent books operate for KS3 – the Progress in Geography series, or the Geography 11-14 series offer progression, development and well thought out models. An ‘off the peg’ curriculum could be really well delivered, and superbly resourced – but I’d be really curious to see how OFSTED would reflect on intent and implementation if they were asked to comment on it.

Some people, instead, might build their own modular approach – and again, we see a number of examples of specific topic books, which resource a topic, lessons and activities, and you can choose your way through the different topics in favour of your own curriculum design. We do, also, increasingly, see a range of ‘ebooks’ and downloadable PDFs for significantly lower cost (e.g. a browse through the GA’s shop) which address some of these issues and approaches.

I think people still struggle to justify the value-for-money element as Heads of Geography Department, given how frequently our content changes – and I can imagine that the pressure in disadvantaged schools is even higher to produce “your own” resources connected to a desire to absorb those hidden costs. Every Department will have to have their own discussion and evaluation of what constitutes good value and the right choice for them, and even in the same school and faculty, I think the subject variance will be significant. While the Geographical Association offers more publication and support than perhaps other subject associations do, we as a subject have far more rapidly changing content than others may – and that balance will depend not just on the discipline, but also the individual topic you’ve chosen. I could still teach the vast majority of an Arid Environments topic from Waugh’s classic work, even if it’s the 1990 or 2000 version, for example – I’d want to add some management examples at the end, but the core of desert formation, landforms and landscapes would stand the test of time. I couldn’t approach a human topic – least of all the rapidly changing globalisation, or economic world themes – in the same way.

All of these things have combined to create a perception of textbooks, and the use of textbooks, in a number of spaces. Undoubtedly, there are some reduced quality textbooks, or problems with their uncritical use in the classroom. I don’t think anyone would claim that one textbook can replace a thoughtful and adaptive teacher.

But I feel that there’s still a perception (or indeed, even a stigma) about the “bespoke” versus “off the peg” resource that is really interesting in terms of what it says about the teacher that uses the textbooks. Using someone else’s resources still can hold a faintly uncertain feeling for teachers – and there’s a culture shift needed around the streamlining of effort, and the recognition of where the ‘best bets’ and ‘best value’ approach lies. Are we better off spending enormous amounts of time rewriting a textbook, or being able to give really meaningful feedback to our students? Are we better off re-presenting an excellent piece of work, or resting, so that we’re able to engage, think and enjoy the classroom questioning and discussion the next day? Are we afraid of an external judgement (e.g. OFSTED) about the use of a non-bespoke curriculum resource? Or are we our own worst enemies – constantly demanding bespoke perfection? If and where good resources exist, why shouldn’t we encourage their development and use?

We may all want the bespoke Savile Row suit. Bespoke, precise, exactly for needs – it’s a wonderful aspiration, and it’s also the gold standard of what tailoring can be, if you can afford it.

But I don’t think anyone would look down on, or be snobby about a teacher who decided that off the rack in M&S or Charles Tyrwhitt was the way to go. We don’t have an infinite amount of time; we don’t have the luxury of multiple fittings and the disposable hours and unseen income that it would take to have everything bespoke.

Think about it, for a moment – if a teacher rocked up in a Savile Row suit, or a bespoke handmade dress to work – how would you react?

Now compare that with how you’d feel about a teacher using a textbook rather than their own handmade booklets. Same reaction? Different?

Sometimes, we need more sebiro than Savile Row – a recognition that our best version might be less bespoke, and more utilitarian. We should embrace that – allow people to choose their best versions for their context, and understand that supporting sustainability in teaching might be about more than bespoke.

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