Throwing out the books with the bathwater?

Dec 30, 2010

It is an interesting time to be working in education.


I am a professional teacher. I used to teach in an inner city school and now I run and tutor at the Southampton Tuition Centre. As a result, I follow news stories related to education with considerable interest.

It is warning that many of the UK’s poorest children face being severely educationally disadvantaged by their lack of access to technology.
My secondary school took delivery of its first computers two days before I left.  I remember it because my tutor, Mr Ravel, was head of maths and keen to show off these new machines to us.  We wondered what place they had in education.  Why on earth would a school need such things?
At that time (early 1980s), the idea of home computers for other than the geeky was laughable.  We carried heavy bags full of text bookscrammed with information that we needed to remember.  Among the things that we learned was to draw conclusions and make a reasoned argument. We wrote essays, drafting out on paper first and then used dictionaries to check for spelling mistakes before completing the final version.  Computers were the things of science fiction.
Now many Schools can’t even afford textbooks and a great many lesson plans are based on material found on the Internet. This is not a problem specific to the UK. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed that schools should abandon the idea of text books entirely since California (not a poor state) cannot afford to buy books. Please see
So is the loss of heavy text books a problem?  Apart from the burden of carrying them, what else have our children lost?  Have maths problems or equations changed and got out of date?  Has history changed or how science works?  No, not in any fundamental way.
With the Internet as a source of educational material how do we ensure that the quality of that information is maintained?  Many children go automatically to Wikipedia; a website that can be updated by anybody. There is no guarantee that this or any website is accurate.  News sites can be skewed by opinion so we need to teach our children how to identify bias or spot the more subtle advertising. Of course, there is always a concern regarding online safety.  Many parents are not equipped to protect their offspring from trojans, malware or viruses.  Another concern is the illegal downloading of music and video material. Under the Digital Economy Act that could result in loss of Internet access for a household.  This then takes us back to the first point of children disadvantaged by a lack of access to computers.
There can be no doubt that there are a lot of really great educational resources available on the Internet.  At my education centre, I will soon be delivering online tuition as well as face-to-face tutoring.  However, I am as reluctant to follow Arnies’ proposal of abandoning text books as I would be in giving up on teaching children handwriting in favour of typing.
So, is online learning a bad thing? No, clearly not. It can be the only way when the teacher and the student are physically separated as happens in some parts of the world. Computers can, with the correct educational software, be a great teaching tool – I use them daily for this purpose. However, there is something to be said for the old approach of using textbooks and that something is that they work. Undirected learning from the Internet tends to be hijacked by social email and the use of Facebook. Old and new can and should be combined and, with a teacher or parent helping, do work. However, the textbook is not dead even if our schools can no longer afford them. Education is about learning and teaching is about using multiple tools to help the student learn.
With educational stories never far from the headlines, I am sure that I will have a great deal more to say.
Jan Long

Tags: Books, School
Category: Education

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