The High Cost of Textbooks is Not Just the Price

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, has expressed concern about the price of school textbooks and is proposing four practical changes to reduce the cost burden on parents. The Minister proposes to have the price of textbooks reduced, give schools the discounts on bulk orders that shops get, separate textbooks and workbooks, and provide support materials online. This initiative is to be welcomed.

Just a few years ago, concern about textbooks centred on their weight and a circular to address that problem was issued. That too was a positive development.

Media and political discussions of textbooks tend to be about their superficial aspects such as cost and weight. Important as these characteristics are, it would be good if more attention were paid to the what’s inside the textbooks.

Educational discussions of textbooks tend to be about whether textbooks in general make a positive or a negative contribution to learning. A handful of teachers and schools have stopped using textbooks completely. But polarising the matter in this way gives the impression that textbooks are either good or bad with no middle ground. It detracts attention from the fact that publishers, for various reasons, make choices about textbooks and those choices have a considerable influence on teaching and learning in schools.

The choices made by publishers include the content that is included and how it is sequenced; the kind of examples that are used and how they are presented; attitudes conveyed towards the subject; demands that are placed on learners (are they required to memorise material or to analyse it?); the type of answers that learners are expected to give (answer only or an answer with an explanation?); connections that are made across topics in a subject; connections made between a subject and other subjects; and connections made between the subject and life outside school.

In a study of maths textbooks in three countries (Taiwan, Cyprus and Ireland) three colleagues and I found that each country made different choices about the matters listed above. Worked examples at the start of a unit in Irish maths textbooks tended to be pre-fabricated, whereas in the other countries the examples tended to provide scaffolding and require learners to insert missing pieces, making the examples more interactive. Cypriot and Irish textbooks required only answers to problems, whereas Taiwanese textbooks required students to write the mathematical sentence they used to solve a word problem as well as the answer. Taiwanese textbooks frequently included a request to “explain your thinking process in solving this problem,” a requirement not found in Irish or Cypriot textbooks.

I am not claiming that the other countries made better choices. But it is striking that textbooks produced in Ireland tend to resemble other textbooks produced in Ireland and textbooks produced in Taiwan resembled other Taiwanese textbooks more than those from the other countries. A free market has led to homogenisation rather than diversity of textbook offerings.

If you ask textbook publishers here why Irish textbooks are the way they are, they will tell you that it’s because teachers want them that way. I am not so sure that teachers are given a choice. If educators become more conscious of the choices that textbook authors and publishers make, we can imagine how the content of textbooks could be better designed to support teaching and learning. Textbooks offer an interpretation of the curriculum, but it is only one interpretation.

Although it takes a lot for teachers to create their own instructional materials, doing so today is easier than ever before. In a radio interview Anne Looney of the NCCA pointed out that many teachers have started collaborating in the creation and compilation of classroom materials. The teachers use online environments to share materials that have worked in their classes. Anne Looney points out that what could be a daunting task for an individual teacher becomes more satisfying for all when several teachers collaborate. Such a mindset is a game-changer for textbook publishers. They will need to

  1. Listen genuinely to teachers and what they need in textbooks
  2. Offer Irish teachers choices that are available to teachers in other countries
  3. Design textbooks that encourage learners to think about rather than just memorise the content
  4. Provide textbooks that match the circumstances of Irish classrooms (multi-grade, differentiated, multi-lingual, etc.)
  5. Provide textbooks that are aligned with the skills as well as the content of the curriculum
  6. Produce textbooks that offer depth as well as breadth
  7. Ensure that textbooks are accurate in their content
  8. Integrate and support what they produce with suitable technology

Otherwise, the cost and weight of textbooks will soon become irrelevant. More and more teachers will just develop and share their own instructional materials. Schools will put more money into printing and duplicating open source materials rather than relying on a resource that was essential when schools had few copying or printing facilities and no computers.

Still, as a new school year begins, most teachers have at their disposal relatively heavy and costly textbooks that will shape substantially how they work and how the children work during the year. Limitations in the current textbooks could be ameliorated by teachers making minor tweaks to textbook questions. Even something as simple as asking learners to “explain how you got your answer” could make a difference to the amount and style of learning the textbooks support.

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