Why Ditching Textbooks Would Be To the Detriment of Learning (Tim Oates)

Tim Oates CBE (A royal award called Commander of the British Empire for service to education) is group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. On 28 April, he launched the ‘Cambridge Approach to Textbooks’ at a seminar in London. This op-ed appeared April 18, 2016.

Last year, Richard Culatta – an adviser to President Obama at the time – stated that textbooks should be scrapped in England in the next five years. His comments were echoed by the new master of Wellington College, Julian Thomas, who said in TES that “a textbook is not dynamic at all” (4 September 2015).

This all sounds very credible and up-to-date, except that it is blind to the evidence from a whole range of sources.

Not least of those is from the heart of the IT industry itself: Abigail Sellen, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has stated that “the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realised”.

This leads us straight to important evidence from educational research, focused on the psychology of perception. This research tells us that recall and comprehension differ when reading from paper compared with on-screen, with comprehension in particular still significantly superior when pupils are reading from paper materials. Consistent with this, pupils are accessing more materials online at university but retaining less information.

The case for print

Digging into the research in detail throws up some very interesting issues:

  • Research on visual perception and cognitive loading suggests that screen flicker, scrolling and navigation all load up the brain so that comprehension suffers;
  • Navigation in a book is straightforward; pupils can look back at old material and forward to new with great ease. Not so on the sprawling websites which aim to replace books;
  • An evaluation in Singapore led to new electronic versions of very well-designed paper textbooks being abandoned after they failed to deliver the same learning processes and outcomes;
  • The tactile and physical experience of reading a book can embed memories of the content more securely;
  • And in terms of focusing attention, textbooks do not wait to receive that next email or tweet.

We currently think that there are a set of interacting factors and processes that reduce the enduring learning gained from digital materials, not least a view of “…I can always look it up again”. With this attitude, reading a digital source becomes a passing experience rather than a learning experience.

Research around the world on well-designed textbooks shows that they are used flexibly by teachers – they are not the straitjacket implied by Culatta’s analysis. Shanghai textbooks are built from the very best lessons on specific topics – they are then available to all teachers.

And Culatta’s view neglects the key role that exquisitely designed paper textbooks have had during periods of impressive reform of education systems in settings as diverse as Shanghai, Massachusetts and Finland.

Of course, well-designed digital resources can do things that paper materials cannot – such as simulations. But it’s contrary to the evidence to adopt a naive position that “all paper is wrong and all digital is perfect”. Using the strengths of each is apparent in some of the latest generation of textbooks in England; those informed by international comparisons of the best around the world.

We ignore the research at our peril; let’s move forward through science, not misleading rhetoric.


For a teacher’s reasons why he “ditched his textbook” listen to Vickie Davis (Cool Cat Teacher Blog) interview (six minutes long) Matt Miller, an Indiana high school  Spanish teacher. Although Oates is very clear about the strong advantages for well-designed texts, he does point out it is not an either-or-choice.  Matt Miller underscores his flexible use of texts combined with online and other classroom resources. I note that most of the teachers I have observed over the past three decade do use texts selectively, that is, a classroom set is available for reference for reading particular pages, answering certain questions, etc.


Filed under how teachers teach

16 responses to “Why Ditching Textbooks Would Be To the Detriment of Learning (Tim Oates)

  1. The key here is for resources to be ‘well-designed’. Tim mentions the importance of this in relation to both books and digital resources. The UX of printed books has been fine-tuned over decades if not centuries to maximise their effectiveness as physical, handheld, pageturners. It’s not surprising that they’re not as effective when converted to ebooks especially if those ebooks are little more than glorified pdfs. The digital equivalent of print books isn’t ebooks. It’s digital learning solutions which are designed from scratch for digital contexts. The major publishers are all scared about becoming “Kodak companies” because we know deep down that we’re still print-first in too many of our digital offerings. Many people are claiming that UX is now king. They’re missing the point – it always has been.

  2. David

    Hi Larry–thanks for passing along Tim Oates’s op-ed. I would love to see the article references he cites. I would also add with regards to print over digital that multiple surveys of students (Common Sense Media, Naomi Baron) have found that students prefer print. Also, with the digital textbooks I have reviewed, there are so many bells and whistles (multi-media embedded in the textual content, hyperlinks, etc.) that a distracted student (much less one with ADD/ADHD) is going to struggle staying on point.

    Sadly, I think many publishers feel that “enhanced content” adds to the reader’s experience, hence one doesn’t just have Shakespeare, but must also have links embeddded throughout to explain or expand on the text. Maybe some would argue this is no different from the critical apparatus prnted at the bottom of the page or end of the play, but I would suggest that it is much more likely to distract the reader.

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  4. I can only talk from experience not based on extensive research. I tried giving my Python programming class a digital textbook. That is how the book I use for the class comes. (I printed a hard copy for my self but I am old and like paper.) I figured the kids would be comfortable with a digital copy. Nope. The digital thing was to difficult to use as a reference. The paper lends itself to sticky note markers, note in the margin, and fast thumbing. Every format has limitations and knowing them is important. I have heard of schools that have gone paperless and had success. I would like to know what the teachers, not the administrators, think about that success.

  5. JoeN

    As long ago as 2000, a teaching colleague who led a school science department told me she had bought a new online “textbook” for her A level students. It was published by the most innovative educational publisher in the UK at the time. Her verdict then. “It’s just like any other textbook: only more difficult to use.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. By the way, did you recommend the Tim Oates piece to me? If so, thanks.

      • JoeN

        Yes, and my pleasure. It deserves a much wider readership, especially amongst busy classroom teachers who are trying to develop children as skilful readers every day, and need all the help they can get.

  6. Continuing to equate OER with traditional textbooks vastly constrains the power of OER and open education. How about helping students develop the skills and use the tools to work with digital media in much more powerful ways than is possible with paper? How about inviting students to participate in the knowledge creation process rather than being passive consumers of content? We have to move past the idea of the “textbook” and begin to unleash the potential that “Open” affords.

  7. I am not sure what “more powerful ways than is possible with paper” actually means. I am all in favor of experimenting with multiple tools to support learning and scholarship, but I think it’s good also to do some research on what works, for whom, under what conditions. The comments here are good in that they identify hunches, feelings, or empirical data (“anecdotes”) which have value for others insofar as they are seen as conjectures or hypotheses to be verified (and probably elaborated) in further inquiry.
    Is it the case that the use of textbooks is “passive,” for example? I suspect that the purposefulness or intentionality of the reader makes a big difference in this — my reading of a textbook (just as my reading of a blog) is rarely “passive.” It is conversational.

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