Solving the history textbook conundrum: a five-point manifesto

There’s been a bit of chat recently on Twitter about the use of textbooks in lessons. In history, this is part of a wider debate that has been going on for some years. You can read a decent review of the literature on this here, and it is worth noting that England is relatively unusual in not making much use of textbooks in history lessons. Debates around textbooks usually come down to the same tired old arguments. Some of these arguments are about teaching methods: it is not uncommon to hear that reading textbooks is dry and dull, and not something that will inspire children about the past. Whilst I have some sympathy for the children who have been on the receiving end of dull textbook lessons, I do not think this is an argument for not reading in history lessons: reading is so central to what historians do, that to argue against reading prose in history is to me similar to arguing against reading prose in English Literature. Textbooks, like any classroom tool, become interesting in the hands of a good teacher.

A more significant point is about the ‘objectivity’ of textbooks. There is a good body of international research that suggests that pupils see textbooks as offering a single and final authoritative account of the past, and this becomes all the more concerning if governments begin insisting that pupils learn from ‘approved’ textbooks. There have been too many cases of indoctrination in the past for us to ignore this issue. This concern, however, has pushed things in one of two ways. The first has been to stop using textbooks altogether. I do not think this is the only reason teachers stopped using textbooks in England – one should look also at the rise of the projector, easy printing and a preference for a number of years for ‘active learning’ – but a concern about indoctrination might in part sit behind this. The second direction has been to try to make textbooks more and more ‘neutral’. If textbooks are potentially tools of indoctrination, the arguments runs, then we would be better off taking away their teeth.

Neither of these approaches strikes me as the solution to the textbook conundrum. To stop using textbooks in lessons is, to some extent or another, to play down the role of reading in history, although many history teachers have compensated for this by relying on printing out reading for lessons. And to attenuate textbooks by making them as bland and as neutral as possible is one of the best ways I can think of for making those books dry and boring, notwithstanding the point that a good teacher can bring a poor resource to life. Instead of these two approaches, I want to argue in this post for a new attitude towards using textbooks in history lessons. I offer an initial five-point manifesto in terms of what I think needs to be done.   

1. Let’s move away from seeing textbooks as activity books

I’ll be honest: I like using textbooks, but I do not usually like using the tasks set in textbooks. The questions are never quite the right ones, and the activities the author sets are rarely things I want my pupils to do. This is particularly problematical with exam-board-endorsed textbooks, where the tasks set are usually board-specific, and this makes the book obsolete every time a new specification is introduced. It would be better, I think, for a textbook to be focused mostly on prose, accompanied by supporting images, maps and diagrams. There is no harm in having some possible essay questions tucked away at the end of a chapter, but I would rather see ‘recommended activities’ or ‘teacher guidance’ in a separate document or website. This allows the textbook to be treated as a book to be read, rather like you would in English Literature. This, however, brings with it a number of implications concerning the book’s status as an interpretation.

2. Let’s treat textbooks as interpretations of the past

A common complaint about history textbooks is that they are treated as a ‘single true account’ of the past. I think this point is often over-egged, but nevertheless we know that children who use textbooks often see it as the gospel truth on the thing they are studying. Yet textbooks are not and cannot be ‘the one right answer’. Textbooks, like all works of history, are an interpretation of the past. An author of a textbook has to make a whole set of judgements about the past in deciding what to include, what to miss out, what to emphasise, what to gloss over, what to simplify, and all of that is before we get to unwitting errors, oversight, ignorance and ideological stance. This is, of course, true of every work of history ever written. In the wider discipline of history, however, this universal truth has not resulted in monographs being discarded as a waste of time (except perhaps in some of the more extreme forms of postmodernism): instead, works of history are understood to be interpretations. This is the status we need to give to the textbooks we use in lessons. Use the author’s name with the pupils: so what is Ben Walsh arguing here? How is Rob Peal summarising this event? What is Ian Dawson’s take on this? If we litter our language as teachers with reference to the textbook as an interpretation of the past, then we will already have gone a fair way in making clear to pupils that the book they are reading is really just one interpretation of the past.

3. Let the authorial voice shine through

For us to treat textbooks as interpretations of the past – particularly with novice historians who do not yet know enough to be able to spot the ‘buzzing’ in the text – then the authorial voice in the book needs to be clear. Well-written history books do not hide the author’s voice. Instead, the author is there throughout, giving his or her interpretation of events. Historical scholarship drips with authorial intent. Textbooks, in contrast, often try to hide the author away, and many textbooks are written a similar style with all the stylistic quirks and idiosyncrasies filtered out. It is counter-intuitive, but if we want to avoid textbooks being seen as objective master narratives of the past, then it is more important for the author’s voice to shine through. In the discipline of history, we praise authorial argument, and yet in history education we criticise books that are seen to adopt a particular stance on some aspect of the past. The answer here is to turn this on its head: rather than try to hide authorial intention behind attenuated historical prose, let’s instead encourage textbook authors to be outspoken. I defy you to find a single school textbook that includes phrases such as “I would argue…” or “My argument here challenges the view that…” But if authors were to use it, then this would make it clear to teachers and pupils that the textbook being read is itself an interpretation of the past. It would also model for pupils the forms of argumentative writing we want them to produce in lessons. It is no wonder that children struggle to produce quality argumentative writing if their regular dose of historical prose is a textbook devoid of this.

4. Use more than one textbook

It follows from this that teachers need to be using more than one textbook with pupils. This does not mean having two or three books open every lesson, trying to spot differences between the texts. Rather, it means normalising the idea that the study of the past is based on reading different books which may well give you an alternative perspective. When I was at the West London Free School, I did this on a regular basis with my Key Stage 3 pupils. We used the Headstart in History series as our core textbook (I do recommend it), but I managed to persuade the school to invest in a class-set of EH Gombrich’s Little History of the World, which is an excellent example of a book aimed at children but dripping with authorial intent. Every few lessons, we would switch to using Gombrich’s book, and use that to look for alternative angles and perspectives on the past. From time to time, articles would appear (such as from History Today or the BBC History Magazine) and we would use those as well. Much of this is common practice in ‘with-it’ history departments, and history teachers will of course know the fairly extensive teacher-authored literature on this approach and the array of reasons for why we do it. In general, though, bringing historical scholarship into the classroom has been seen as something to do in certain circumstances or for particular curricular aims: my argument here is that this practice is easily incorporated into everything that we do.

5. Let’s stop calling them textbooks

All of these points lead me to conclude that one of the most damaging things we can do is to keep calling these books ‘textbooks’. To do so – whether wittingly or not – gives them a status in the minds of those who use them that separates them and distinguishes them from other works of history. Language matters. If we stop calling the books we use ‘textbooks’ and instead call them what they are – ‘books’ – then we situate those bundles of paper as just another example of the works of history that pupils will find in bookshops and libraries in the future.

So there we have it – my five-point manifesto on solving the history textbook conundrum. I am one of the more vocal advocates of using books regularly in history lessons, and any of my pupils from recent years will tell you that most lessons involve a good chunk of reading from books. But I hope this post has made clear that a love of using history books in lessons is not the same as a demand for encouraging children to think that there is a single master narrative of the past. Rather, for me, it is about striking right at the heart of what history is. Historians spend most of their time reading, and a good chunk of that is spent reading works of history written by other historians. Well-written history is beautiful, sophisticated argument. This is what we want our pupils to be writing. And, for me, it follows that, if we want our pupils writing decent history, then they need to be reading decent history. Currently, the whole industry surrounding textbooks, and the attitudes we have in education to textbooks, militates against this. My suggestions here are an initial stab at what we could do to resolve this.


9 Comments on Solving the history textbook conundrum: a five-point manifesto

  1. Ooh, Michael – ‘militates’, not ‘mitigates’!

  2. A corollary of #3: cease to call whatever it is that we pursue at the level of interpretation ‘objectivity’ – which is not exactly what interpretation is anyhow?

  3. .

  4. Do you like using primary source readers that publishers often align with the textbook? I used to use them, but later opted for my own selections and have been able to purchase/copy longer readings instead of the short snippets in the readers. Still, that can be expensive an dlocks one into the same things for a number of years…

  5. Tom Burkard // 16 December 2017 at 16:58 // Reply

    I just finished reading ‘Sapiens’, not so much to advance my historical knowledge as to get some insight into how historians can get filthy rich. Although it’s rather too long for a school text, it combines obscure but interesting research, shrewd insights, sweeping generalisations and a wealth of internal contradictions. As the science teacher who gave it to me said, be prepared to throw it against the wall every time you sit down with it. The authorial intent (beyond selling a lot of books) drips off every page. It goes rather against the grain to make this talented charlatan even richer, but to give him his due, it’s so contentious that lesson plans virtually leap off the pages.

  6. Good to see you mentioned Ian Dawson in the article. His book on the Wars of the Roses seems to exemplify th approach you describe here, and I found it made a grear change using this in classes. Have also uses other books in same ‘Enquiring History’ series.

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