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‘Bite-sized’ history textbooks accused of ‘dumbing down’ the subject: should we be worried?

History textbooks are designed for the “supposedly minimal attention spans” of today’s pupils, a prominent history teacher has said

Published: January 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm
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Writing in the TES, Robert Peal, a history teacher at the West London Free School, said today’s textbooks rely too heavily on magazine-style bite-sized chunks of text, and deprive students of the serious historical storytelling that was prevalent from the 1950s through to the 1970s.


Peal wrote: “An ongoing issue I have with the key stage 3 history textbooks is their lack of extended narrative. You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of ‘source material’ or a ‘funny fact’.”

Is Peal correct in his assertions, and if so, should we be concerned? Two teachers share their views…


“Attention spans need to be developed, not sidelined”

Compressing 2,000-plus years of history into a school textbook is not an easy task. Making it digestible and engaging for secondary students across the nation is harder still. But textbooks relying too heavily on bite-sized information does a disservice to our young historians: it's fast food academia. A famous American film director once said: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”

Take the Second World War as an example: it was about Hitler, of course, but history texts reducing events of such significance into bite-sized info blocks of a few battle dates causes problems. The danger is that history is condensed into something far too narrow. Such an approach is dismissive: history is often complicated, and it requires context and explanation – the very information left out of some modern-day textbooks.

X-ray operators at airports are rotated after 15 minutes – the time limit that studies show the human brain can focus at maximum concentration. Although adults in paid employment are different to students in school, we shouldn't be so quick to write off their attention spans. With at least a quarter of an hour to work with, in and out of classrooms teachers are encouraging students to read more, and the more they read, the more they sit still, and the more still they read. It's a non-vicious circle worth cultivating.

And there's no way around it: to obtain a real understanding of history, sooner or later students have to read large chunks of text. But they can be engaged when it's explosive and dynamic text that offers a more complete and detailed explanation. Short info blocks grab a reader’s attention, but so do catchy subheadings, short paragraphs and timelines, which at least provide enough information to give some level of depth and insight. There are enough films, documentaries, programmes, images and even history-themed comic books at a teacher’s disposal to pull their pupils’ initial interest without having to overuse little info boxes. 

Attention spans need to be developed, not sidelined. Progressing upwards a big, heavy history book seems formidable – overwhelming, even – to most teenagers. During a library reading period I shocked a 15-year-old girl who saw me reading Antony Beevor's 880-page The Second World War. “Have you even read the first one?” she asked, to the amusement of the rest of my class. History textbooks are essential: they are the stepping-stones to those all-important, larger works that we all enjoy so much. A serious subject requires a serious approach.

If you took the time to read my arguments, it shows your attention span has been developed sufficiently to allow you to get through this article. Are we doing everything we can to ensure tomorrow's generation do the same?

Patrick Lewis is an Australian teacher currently working in London. His areas of interest include Ancient Rome; the history of Britain; the history of colonization; the Second World War, and the modern Middle East. When not teaching and reading history, Patrick is a competitive judo player training at Kings College, London.


“Teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about using textbooks”

During my eight years in secondary education as a history teacher, textbooks have become somewhat synonymous with the idea of ‘lazy’ teaching: the old, “kids, open page 15 and read the text and complete the questions.” This negativity around textbooks has been further exacerbated by the recent article featured in the TES that described textbooks as now catering towards a ‘Horrible Histories approach’, with knowledge broken down into snippets of information next to sources and cartoons, and no section of prose being more than 200 words.

I would like to offer a counter to that: a defense of history textbooks in the 21st-century classroom; a statement to all teachers out there to not feel guilty if you are using a textbook – you are not a failure because you haven’t created an interactive webpage with matching QR code!

Firstly, I must qualify this statement by saying that if you are opening a page of the textbook every lesson and getting students to copy the questions, then yes, that is lazy teaching. Your job is to inspire.

But I believe that a textbook only becomes obsolete in the classroom when it is seen as the end of the learning journey – an ‘open and shut book’, if you will. However, if you see the textbook as the start of the journey, then its use is transformed.

When teachers are under so much pressure to achieve such a lot in a lesson, it makes little sense to rehash knowledge already featured in a textbook into a worksheet or something similar, and this sentiment has been echoed by Ofsted.

Therefore, a textbook is useful for conveying information, and when the knowledge is out there a teacher can then use their students’ questioning skills to bring that knowledge to life: to give it meaning; context within a bigger picture of understanding, and even initiate debate. Students love the chance to argue their opinions and enhance their reasoning skills, and the textbook has helped that. The textbook is a resource within a lesson, not the resource.

So yes, textbooks are written in smaller chunks – there is no denying this – but is that really a problem? Perhaps students do have shorter attention spans, but so do adults: I for one have checked my phone at least twice while writing this! If we are to encourage and inspire students to love history, we must all adapt, whether we deem it right or not. Education is an evolutionary body that should always move with the times. History need not stay in the past.

Hayley Sutcliffe-Glazer is a teacher at Hanson Academy in Bradford, currently teaching Years 7–9. Hayley was previously subject leader at a school in Pudsey, Leeds, where she worked for seven years teaching ages 11–18.


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