BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 11:53 UK

A textbook love affair?

Tricolore cartoon

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News Magazine

Generations of schoolchildren have had trusty textbooks as a bedrock of their education, but California has decided to phase them out in favour of the internet. If the UK was to go the same way, what would be lost?

Covering graffiti-laden, handed-down textbooks with left-over wallpaper, sticky-back plastic or posters of the latest bands has been a start-of-term custom for secondary school pupils for years.

Purging books of any trace of their previous owners served to make them feel like ours, and signified reaching a landmark in an educational journey.

And any quick scout around online nostalgia forums shows that for many former British pupils the educational books that weighed down their bags in their teenage years still bring back fond memories.

Lumpi the dog

"Cours Illustré de Francais - with Monsieur and Madame Lavisse and Nikki le singe!" says one on the Times Educational Supplement website.

"I learned my German from Vorwarts! There was Lumpi the dog as well," another exclaims.

But, in California, high school pupils will be denied such experiences as moves are afoot to rid classrooms of such paper-based learning.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Schwarzenegger described textbooks as "antiquated and heavy"

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to ditch "antiquated and heavy" textbooks in favour of approved online learning materials, arguing it will save money and help students keep pace with progress.

If you went to school in 1949, 1969 or 1989, the route to producing successful homework might be a battered encyclopedia, or a book owned by a parent, to supplement a textbook. But in 2009, Wikipedia and other internet sources have usurped the textbook for many children.

But it's not just a question of efficient learning. As adults, people have nostalgia for the textbooks they grew up with.

Writer and broadcaster David Quantick, behind television's Grumpy Old Men and Harry Hill's TV Burp, remembers his school books fondly.

"We had one at primary school that was called 'New Worlds to Conquer', which was great - it was about everything," he recalls.

"At secondary school we had a German one which was yellow and had writing on the front - it was very forbidding. I also remember Cassell's Latin Primer."

Having a go

He has clear memories of his language books, he says, because of the characters and stories contained within them.

Tricolore textbook
Tricolore's characters are remembered by many

"They made the effort. It was pretending to be real, although it was a bit boring. They really did have a go," he explains. "It has stayed with me."

This use of characters appears to be the secret to the success of one of the most commonly remembered textbook titles - Tricolore, a French teaching course which has been used in secondary schools throughout Britain since the 1980s and is still popular.

Its original and current authors, former teachers Sylvia Honnor and Heather Mascie-Taylor, believe their books are remembered primarily because of their featured personalities and choice of location.

I have often met adults in many different contexts who mention Tricolore - and we were surprised when it was even mentioned in a novel
Heather Mascie-Taylor
Tricolore textbook author

"One of the things which made Tricolore so popular at first was the decision to base it in La Rochelle and the way we featured the Dhome family, with their bakers' shop," says Ms Honnor, explaining that the real-life M Dhome used to make regular guest appearances at teaching conferences.

"Lots of people have mentioned La Rochelle in connection with the course over the years."

'Surprising' influence

Ms Honnor and Ms Mascie-Taylor also acknowledge their textbooks have stuck in people's memories - particularly those of pupils taught in the 1980s - because of the sheer number of classes that used them.

Yet, both authors agree that they have been stunned by some of the unexpected influence their books have had.

David Quantick
I say, 'Respect the book'
David Quantick
Writer and broadcaster

"I have often met adults in many different contexts who mention it - and we were surprised when it was even mentioned in a novel by Nigel Williams [They Came From SW19]," says Ms Mascie-Taylor.

Of course, nostalgia aside, there is no denying the power of the internet in education.

But Ros Sutherland, professor of education at Bristol University, argues this doesn't necessarily mean such internet resources will end the use of textbooks altogether.

For a start, she says, all UK pupils would require access to a computer both at home and at school - something that will not be the case for some time.

And books also provide students with things they simply can't get online, she says.

"You hold it in a different way - you can flip backwards and forwards between pages and you can scribble notes in the actual book itself."

'Rigorously checked'

Dr John Woollard, lecturer in information technology education at the University of Southampton, agrees.

"E-resources are becoming increasingly associated with textbooks," he says. "But I personally don't think they will replace books because of the flexibility a textbook offers.

"It is a physical thing and in a classroom everyone can go to a particular page and identify what is being talked about. And a teacher couldn't really readily check if everyone was looking at the right page electronically."

Kindle 2 electronic reader
The future of classroom learning?

Paper texts are also more rigorously checked as sources of information than those on the internet, he says.

"Books tend to have more authoritative value because they have been peer-assessed - and a school has to invest a lot of money buying them, so there are more judgements being made."

But Dr Aisha Walker, senior lecturer in ICT in education at Leeds University, argues the internet can be just as reliable a resource as books.

"Just because it is electronic doesn't make it a bad source," she says, explaining that a good e-book is much better than an out-of-date textbook.

Yet, David Quantick concludes that for him, online material will never be able to replace the enjoyment and authority of the physical, permanent presence of a book.

"Books are real. You can look at a book all the time," he enthuses, adding, "I say, 'Respect the book'."

Here is a selection of your comments.

As a college ILT Champion (that's innovative learning technologies, by the way) I am always looking at different ways to make learning easier. The internet, e-books and interactive/animated displays are just tools towards that end, as are 'dead tree' books and the cardboard models of Roman houses I just sourced for the Archaeology course. No one way, no one thing, is best: the joy is in the wealth of resources available not in any single one of them!
Megan, Cheshire, UK

When a prefect, I apprehended a junior on the bus for leading rude footie chants against the pupils of a nearby school of a different religion. She gave a false name and I soooo enjoyed asking her to show me the front page of the books in her bag.
Diane, Sutton

I have fond memories of several of my school textbooks, particularly one outstandingly good O Level Biology text. I think it is important that students should learn to consult written materials, use contents lists, indexes and examine illustrations in detail. Whilst the internet is extremely useful for reference it does not contain all the information you can obtain from books and does not encourage good reading and research skills - printing off an internet page is not the same as making your own notes from a text.
Kay Sanders, Huddersfield, UK

The only thing I remember about my textbooks was that they were a huge pain to lug to and from school every day! I think it's good that schools are considering using more computerised resources - especially in schools with a higher number of different subjects being taught each day. After all, not all schools have the luxury of being able to provide their students with lockers to keep them in.
Charlotte, York, UK

The internet will never replace the simple joy of reading a book. Do we really want children spending their whole lives gazing at a computer screen? I just worry that by taking away books, you take away a willingness to read outside of the classroom- why bother when Google has the answer? So many of us are introduced to a lifelong interest in literature in school, after all. The internet is more of a reference guide which doesn't give a deeper picture. I'm glad we used books in school- as a visually impaired student, I would have found the intense use of e-books very difficult indeed.
Laura Gregory, Wales, UK

Like anyone who learned Latin at school since the 1960, I remember the Cambridge Latin Course. It was even honoured in Doctor Who: when the Doctor went to Pompeii he met a character named Caecillius.
Andrew Tempest, London, UK

My teenage daughter will "do" homework from the Interweb. Usually copying and pasting. From finger to page without passing through brain. But when she's really learning anything it's always from a book. The web page is so light weight it just floats off the screen.
Terry, London

What happens if a household can't afford an internet connection? Or if there is more than one child requiring text information from the net in one household, but only one computer? Or if they need to reference several sources at once - it is easier to flip between books than net pages? What happens if the computer system crashes? What if the information is not correct - books are edited, checked and not hackable? The internet is a useful resource, but should never be the only resource for the education of a child. This is a retrogade step, and will result in a much poorer education system for California residents. I sincerely hope we don't follow suit.
Tina Price-Johnson, Forest Hill, London, UK

I spent school as a small boy lugging a huge sports bag filled with text books around. If I had physics and maths on the same day, I could hardly carry it around - and there were no lockers. Probably why I've had a bad back almost permanently ever since. My daughter has only one textbook. For school and homework she may be directed to certain official sites, or look elsewhere online, or in the books we have at home. I love books, but dragging heavy weights back and from and around school when you're small isn't necessary.
Simon, Burnham-on-Crouch

I remember my German O Level text book was titled "Sprich mal Deutsch". We used to infuriate our German teacher by translating this as "Speak bad German" (which in my case at least is what happened).
Stephen, Norwich

I think electronic book readers would be a super idea for schoolkids. I'm sure that after a few months of being dropped, lost, found, lost again, stolen back from another child, dipped in custard, used as a goalpost, flicked with ink and generally kicked round the playground in a rucksack, they'll still be perfectly capable of being passed onto the next year's students. I'm even more positive that thousands of parents on reduced incomes would be overjoyed to receive a bill for several hundred pounds worth of destroyed ebook reader, rather than maybe the occasional tenner for a new textbook. The real problem is that there's too many solutions looking for problems to be solutions to.
William Shaw, Wakefield, UK

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific