OK, hands up if you have a Kindle or something comparable in the electronic world? Seductive, aren’t they? So attractive on a plane – lighter than a copy of ‘War and Peace’, and no stack of books to take up your carry-on baggage allowance.
A friend swears she was only able to read ‘War and Peace’ when it appeared in electronic form. Even the paperback had previously defeated her – “I’ll never get through that!” said she. Electronically, it appeared daintily page by page, never overwhelming her with the physical reality of so many pages, so much writing. And she loved the book and wished she had read it years ago. She said the device made her feel in control, rather than lost in a text which might demand she emigrate to a desert island to read it.
Most people would surely be deeply offended if you arrived for a visit, spotted their Kindle (or equivalent) and cheerfully flicked it open to see what they were reading, but bookshelves have always felt like fair browsing game. “Oh, so you like China!” we exclaim when we find individual guides to three major cities and a Mandarin phrasebook. If ‘Wild Swans’ is also there, the private jigsaw labelled ‘Who is this person?’ that you are mentally assembling shifts again. Assigning a book to our shelves, we acknowledge publicly that they have been a part of our lives. It’s not exactly that we are proud of them, but, noisy things that they are, they do speak for us, as well as themselves.
But like it or not, we live in changing times, in which newspapers are reducing their print output and going digital, and we read of a crisis in book publishing. ‘Fifty Shades … ’ started in digital form before becoming a text. The students we teach today may in future consider books the way we consider quill pens – and maybe even fountain pens. How lovely, how quaint, how so not ‘now’. Get with the programme, Granddad – the world is digital, even if it’s Dickens or Shakespeare you want.
And many forms of all these will be possible: the last time I saw the text of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was a week ago in a bookshop. But it wasn’t a book, it was on the wall, in an A3 frame, the whole text printed in tiny red letters in the shape of a heart with a dagger-shaped space down through the middle of it. The whole text! Unbelievable. I asked if they had ‘Gone with the Wind’. They said, “No, and we might need a few frames for that.” But they had ‘The Great Gatsby’, printed in the shape of a Gatsby-esque/James Bond-ish silhouette. It made you feel you could read it in minutes.
Apart from its novelty value, you still had to read it, possibly with a magnifying glass, whereas the technology now exists to virtually do the reading for you. Making students read Shakespeare aloud in English classes has long been the most effective way to put any student off the Bard and all his works forever and a day. Murder goes on in the classroom, with teachers dithering between daring to demand “No, Jennifer – not like that, like this. . .” and not wanting to damage the esteem of young Jennifer or cause her to feel humiliated in front of classmates, so saying nothing at all through gritted teeth. Better to let Shakespeare suffer – he can take it.
But help is at hand, with fabulous recordings of actors, not just acting the play but actually taking it a speech at a time, and facing the screen so the student feels the speech is addressed to them, with many squeals of “Oh, now I get it!” Book, bin.
So that’s OK for Shakespeare – though no doubt it will take a while to get all the texts recorded for schools this way – but what about other texts? Novels for non-exam classes used to be a fairly free choice for the teacher delivering, depending on what was in the cupboard. Many staff meeting battles over “You can’t have ‘War Horse’ again, it’s my turn!” Indeed, I once took over an English department where all the fiction texts used with years 7-9 were war related. I asked why. A slightly jaded former head of English replied, “Because boys like war. Girls don’t care ’cos they just like books. But if the boys aren’t happy, they riot.”
I changed the books on principle. And they were right – it was harder to engage the boys. When I left, they brought back the guns.
But now there is a war raging over textbooks in classrooms at all, with a policy document by Tim Oates, who led the government’s national curriculum review, suggesting that education in England is being positively damaged by poor-quality textbooks and an underlying ‘anti-textbook ethos’, and the situation could be improved by state approval of textbooks – as is apparently the case in Hong Kong and Singapore.
It’s a shame some textbooks may be considered poor, but I would trust one over a worksheet any day of the week. I was in the classroom when worksheets arrived, offered as the best way to differentiate between learners in the same classroom. I took against them when I discovered that many resorted to including word searches – word searches! Serving what earthly purpose was never explained to me, save to keep children starting with limited grasp of a text marooned in pursuit only of recognising key words, be they up, down or diagonal, which is, of course, how the world will confront them with words for ever thereafter.
It’s true that texts get tatty, but I remember the awe with which I handled my first French textbook because it had at the front the name of the then head girl, who had used this very text when she was just a tiddler like me at 11. Respect. And aspiration. You don’t get any sense of history from a worksheet in the bin after one outing.
Mr Oates wants a return to textbooks – only 10 per cent of pupils report their maths classes having textbooks, and only 4 per cent of pupils say their science teachers are using them – so that “Teachers can focus on refining and polishing lessons, rather than originating materials which focus on a high level of differentiation within learner groups.” You’d think teachers would welcome this impetus, but it appears not. Mary Bousted at ATL at least is worried about teachers losing freedom. Union reaction has been to declare teachers want to be creative and create their own materials. Which sounds admirable, if time-consuming.
There is probably a middle way in this debate. But I fear I come out on the side of the books. You know where you are with a tough text in your hands. Indeed, in secondhand bookshops I have been known to buy again the texts I grew up with. Old friends. They probably say a lot about me – I bought the poetry, but not the geometry, Vergil’s ‘Aeneid’ book 6, but not the biology. And they do furnish a room.
Hilary Moriarty is founding partner of the education practice of Greenings International, recruiting for senior positions in schools. She taught English for 25 years, and was for eight years national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.