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Textbook learning: the elephant in the room

Teaching strategies

Textbook learning: the elephant in the room

Textbook learning – a program of learning centred on a book developed specifically for educational purposes.

An old-school learning strategy used by almost every teacher: why is textbook learning not even considered a strategy? Why don’t universities teach best practice ways of employing textbook learning? We explore the pros and cons of using textbooks and explain why textbooks continue to be the mainstay of effective classroom practice even though many academics balk at the idea.

Multiple students in a classroom with tablets.

Textbooks have a bad rap. They conjure up images of dusty old books full of never-ending chapters and dull content. While this may have been the case many years ago, textbooks today are vibrant, colourful resources with diagrams, images, cartoons, case studies, social media snippets and ‘did you know?’ highlights. Some even include jokes, curious anecdotes and stories that students find interesting and relatable. Authors use child-friendly language, and many textbooks are as visually appealing and engaging as any glossy magazine or online blog. They can be in hardcopy or softcopy and include links to videos, online activities, games and additional interactive resources such as test-your-skill quizzes. The reality for busy teachers is that the humble textbook continues to be an invaluable tool. Almost all primary and high school students are exposed to textbook learning on a daily basis.

Textbook learning happens when teachers organise learning activities based on (or guided by) a published book written for this specific purpose.

Textbook learning happens when teachers organise learning activities based on (or guided by) a published book written for this specific purpose. They include all the necessary information, extension activities, summaries and practice questions. Teachers rarely follow any textbook chapter-by-chapter or page-by-page.i In many cases, less than half of the textbook is used throughout a course or school year. For example, students may spend a month or so on chapter 1, then chapter 4, then chapter 5 and 6 combined, and finally chapter 9. The teacher selects the chapters as well as aspects within each chapter for students to complete. In each lesson, a teacher might cover 3-6 pages on average including readings, worked examples and practice activities. Textbooks can be used extensively, or they can be supplementary (for reference purposes only). It is common for other resources to be incorporated in the lesson as well.

There are a number of advantages of using the textbook as a teaching strategy:

  • They are relatively cheap when purchased en masse and they save on labour (development) costs.
  • Some of the best and most experienced teachers, researchers and education experts develop textbooks later in their career. When they do, decades of experience and advice can be passed to a new generation of teachers.
  • A textbook is an author’s collection of best-practice teaching methods for their area of expertise (sequencing, resources, questions, explanations and scaffolding).
  • Textbooks are often written by multiple contributors, each with different areas of expertise.
  • Textbooks save countless hours of time finding and developing resources, planning lessons and developing assessments. They allow teachers’ limited time, energy and effort to be employed elsewhere (such as with one-on-one instruction).
  • While textbooks can be generic and are not likely to cover local content (such as local news), there is no guarantee that developing programs and resources from scratch will result in better outcomes for students or more engagement.
  • Students know exactly what they are going to be doing in advance and there are no surprises. Some may argue this provides a safer learning environment (mentally).
  • When students miss a class, they can easily catch up.
  • Parents, educators, school managers and students can easily see what has been covered and what will be covered in the future.
  • Textbooks make revision much easier – students can re-read past chapters and consult chapter summaries.
  • Relief teachers can easily pick up where the teacher left off, meaning little downtime for students and no loss of learning time. Planning relief lessons is easy.
  • Planning and preparing a course or school year can take hours, not weeks.
  • When students fall behind, remedial and intervention programs can utilise the textbook at an alternative pace. This means students feel less segregated and they can work with resources that are familiar to them.
  • Because most textbooks use a similar structure for each chapter, classes are much more efficient as students learn how to use the textbook and what is expected of them.
  • Other strategies can be implemented at the same time as textbook teaching, such as modelling, guided learning, scaffolding and reflective practice.
  • Textbooks provide a way to gauge the expected level of performance in a certain subject, course and year group.
  • Many textbooks are aligned or ‘mapped’ to the Australian curriculum and other standards. They often prepare students for sitting national standardised tests or entrance exams.
  • Textbooks provide a structured and routine lesson which can be beneficial for many students with behavioural issues or neurological disorders.
  • Textbooks sometimes come with a ‘teacher version’ that include pre-written assessments, benchmark answers and marking rubrics directly linked to the learning outcomes of each chapter.
  • In some courses, a textbook must be used due to the complexity, volume of content and nature of the topic. For example, it would not be workable for a year 12 history teacher to write multiple history textbooks for each of their classes. Similarly, it would not be feasible for a nursing lecturer to write a nursing textbook that requires thousands of hours of research as well as annual updates to ensure that only the latest techniques are used.
  • Textbooks have the effect of adding an additional subject expert to the classroom.

Foot notes:

  1. The exception being direct instruction which requires the teacher to follow a script almost to the word.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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