Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Textbooks- Where do they fit? A think aloud

This is a think aloud about textbooks … I invite you to add your thoughts too…

Recently I received a survey from one of the major textbook publishers seeking information about our current textbooks and the cycle for reviewing and purchasing new books. As I worked my way through the questions it was increasingly evident just how much my thinking about textbooks has changed. When I first started teaching school anyone with some basic teaching skill could pick up a text walk into a classroom and be confident that they could be at least moderately successful. Every 4 years or so new textbooks were slated for purchase. Through the accreditation process one part of the discussion explored the copyright dates of the texts and schools were (and still are) often praised or dinged in part based on these dates.

I am not suggesting that textbooks do not serve a function in our educational process or that they have no value as one of our curricular tools. What I am saying is that they no longer are the gate keepers of knowledge and therefore are not in the place of primacy they once occupied. So what do we need and want?

I am not going to invest money every year in new textbooks unless there is a significant reason to make the purchase. I need textbooks which are responsive to the idea of ubiquitous sources of information. I need textbooks which are digital and accessible for all of my students. I need textbooks which respect the teacher and the students as unique learners and do not roll out a prepackaged product that says this is how you do it and this is all you need to know. I need textbooks which recognize, respect and encourage digital literacy, connections with new sources of knowledge and construction of new meaning.

So if we take a holistic approaching to budgeting and it is driven by student learning where do textbooks fit into the picture? How often do we need to purchase new texts? What criteria do we use to evaluate this question?

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Clay said...

Textbooks, in my view, should be the next idol to fall in this new Renaissance.

They weigh too much and contain too little (especially in points of view).

The hardest thing for me to currently sell to my admin is a holistic look at the shifts a 1:1 school can cause systemically--starting with textbooks.

If schools are totally wired (wirelessly), and all students have laptops, I know that at least in Language Arts and Social Studies, most textbooks are obsolete.

_Real_ books--novels and so forth--are still wanted. But there are online resources like the ABC-CLIO social studies database (commercial) and the millions of web-based writing resources that otherwise eliminate the need for textbooks.

Our school is working towards identifying what units in each class do not have online resources adequate for the unit, and ordering trade books for them (Longman's 20th Century History series is a good example: topic-based, 100-page paperback textbooks, lightweight and inexpensive). Otherwise, the 1000-page backbreakers (and curiosity breakers) of the past, a la Houghton-Mifflin, are things _of_ the past.

I don't think most Americans realize that Australia and England have a different approach to textbooks from this awful US model. I'm glad I discovered it.

Sorry to rush off. Good questions. Textbooks are one of the top reasons students don't like being students, and thus don't like school. We have alternatives now, as you say.

But you can expect more fights from the textbook lobby before we can use those alternatives.

Barbara said...

"I don't think most Americans realize that Australia and England have a different approach to textbooks from this awful US model. I'm glad I discovered it."

Okay you've got my attention. can Clay or anyone explain this to me.
I know some bloggers in new Zealand but none in Australia yet... Help me out here.

Clarence said...

First I want to congratulate you on this post. It is thoughtful, well written and shows your thinking; well done. Second, I think Clay has raised a few good points. For some subject areas and units, textbooks are obsolete and outdated before they are printed. But (and it may be a big but), as much as I love online thinking and learning, kids need ubiqutious access to online information if we are going to fade textbooks off into the sunset. New models of textbooks are needed, but you can't beat them for being accessible no matter where you are. I like to look at textbooks as one information possibility among many. Kids need to learn how to access information from a formal piece of writing (look at sub titles, maps, read the captions, etc.). That is still a valid and valuable literacy skill. That being said, I am cautious about how I use my textbooks, not wanting them to become "the voice" of knowledge in the classroom.

bogusia said...

I agree completely with you Barbara. I wrote a similar post on my blog last week about textbooks: www.nucleuslearning.com if you want to check it out. I'm a math and science teacher, and I think textbooks are more and more useless. I know that in Europe, the textbooks are small, affordable, and actually useful. In Canada (at least), they are bulky, expensive and have more and more useless material within. Great blog by the way.

Barbara said...

I agree with your comments but still need to define criteria for textbook expenditures. I admire the task Clay's school has taken on in reviewing curriculum and resources. I like the trade book concept too. I agree with Clarence that kids do need to learn how to access information from formal writing. However, as Clarence says textbooks cannot be the "voice of knowledge" in the classroom.

As I alluded in my post, my concern about textbooks also includes their impact on teachers and teaching.

A like-minded teacher and I were talking today. As she prepares her China unit, she is struggling with identifying the essential learning this unit entails. In a candid conversation, we both acknowledged that in the past we taught units because they were prescribed without grappling with the question of why (if) the content was important for the students to learn. (We are both chagrined to admit this) . As we seek to look at the role of textbooks it also means that we must take more professional responsibility for the content of the curriculum and the voices of knowledge which we help students access.

Patrick Higgins said...


I am glad to have finally made it to this post, and to weigh in on this great conversation.

Ask yourself this hypothetical: what would your teachers do if they did not have textbooks in the form they have them now? If they did have the smaller, lighter European versions that Bogusia spoke of, how would they handle course creation? I think if you really want to infuse a new methodology in your classrooms, start by looking at how many of your teachers are relying on that all encompassing textbook as the major source of information. Are your facilities such that they could effectively make the switch? Could the students be better served with your teachers relying on wireless sources an acting as guides through the information that your students discover?

Karl Fisch had a post not too long ago about one of his teachers creating a course for next year completely without a text (Monday, February 26, 2007: "Western Civilization Is Changing"). She might be a resource or starting point for dialog.

This is what I would tell a publishing company in regards to creating a textbook: it needs to be streamlined, with less focus on assessment within the book; the interactive website is necessary, and even more importantly, if the textbook company could create some type of class networking structure within that website (wiki, blog, e.g.), and as long as there are CD-ROM's of the text, or an online version of the text, only give me 30 of them, or whatever the maximum size of my class is.

I can't see a discontinuation of textbooks anytime soon. It's just too radical a shift for people to take. While I love Clay's idea, and when I get back into the classroom, the first thing I will do is collect the textbooks from the students and store them, textbooks and textbook publishers are too enmeshed both financially and symbolically to be removed within a fiscal year.

Could you be better served by switching to a learning-management system like Moodle, Drupal, or OpenAcademic where all of the things above could be tied together on a per class/per student basis?

Karl Fisch said...

I've been suggesting in my district that the "default" should change. Instead of assuming that all courses should have a textbook and only a few chosen courses do not, we should switch to assuming that all courses should not have a textbook and then justify purchasing the textbook. It seems like such a little switch, changing our "default" wording and thinking, but I think it would be huge. I think at this point we would still probably purchase textbooks occasionally, but not very often.

For me, it's getting harder and harder to justify textbooks. I think too often it's the easy way out, the crutch that we rely on so that we don't have to focus too much on whether what we are teaching (or rather, what the kids are learning) is essential or not. Is it "harder" to teach without a textbook? Perhaps. So what. What do our kids need to be successful in the 21st century? What will help them learn and grow the most? Ask yourself this: When you have a question about something, want to learn about something, is the first option you turn to a textbook? I would hazard a guess that almost everyone - except for a few teachers - answers that question with no. And a smile or a laugh (or a grimace).

Thanks for thinking so hard about this. Let's change the default and see what happens. And if you haven't read this article from Edutopia, go read it now.

Barbara said...

Karl and Patrick thanks for your contribution to this conversation. I am percolating the ideas and preparing to post again. The article in Edutopia was new to me. Thanks for the link.
This is a timely and important conversation and it has many facets during this time of year when next years budget is being set.

Nathan Lowell said...

I fight to teach without a text. In my grad school courses on distance education, the university REQUIRES me to put a text on my syllabus even when I don't use one.


Barbara said...

Why do you think they do that? Is it because somehow a course without a text does not seem legitimate? One of my concerns is convincing the community that a course can be rigorous without a text.
On an incidental note...I have a daughter in community college and one semester here books cost more than her tuition and some of them were never opened.

Nathan Lowell said...

I wasn't ever given an answer beyond "All syllabi will list the required texts." Apparently it's some kind of rule -- whether it's for 'credibility' or what, I don't know. I just chalked it up to "Arbitrary Administrative Hoop Jump."

So, I picked one and use it as "So, why is this book wrong? How do you know? Where are the logical flaws and what are the fallacies that this author demonstrates?" It serves as a foil and helps me make my point by providing a lot of non-examples. I don't think that's what the administration had in mind, but at least I was able to pick a cheap book and I don't spend a lot of time with it.

Mr Maher said...

I would suggest that the problem with textbooks is much greater than we think. They are suffocating our chances to develop truly authentic learning experiences. For us in social studies, we need more narrative, so we do need more books, but textbooks should be avoided at all costs.

Although it is true that textbooks are “no longer gate keepers of knowledge”, watch out because they are still gate keepers of lesson plans for many teachers. As my district revised our K-5 Social Studies curriculum we purposely delayed the resource purchase until after writing the curriculum. We avoided the trap of just following the content-path of the publisher. The real danger of textbooks lies in their slavery to the industrial age of memorization. They are stuck on definitions instead of critical thinking and information skills.

There is nothing more stifling than the questions at the end of a chapter section that require students only to find the highlighted word in the text and copy the sentence around it. Using textbooks to deliver your content necessarily leads to stale assignments.

Although I agree that it would help to have textbooks that “respect the teacher and the students as unique learners”, but that just can’t happen unless you do it yourself. Textbooks are mass produced and mass marketed. The closest they can get to the students in your community, is linking the book to your state curriculum, which for us in Social Studies is not really of much worth.

My guess is that the future lies with the teachers themselves. We will create our virtual libraries of links, primary documents, essays, videos, art galleries, maps and songs. If you are lucky enough to work with like-minded teachers and you have the network to do it, you can build this type of library right within your own school.

It’s fairly likely that the content in traditional history textbooks is going to be replaced by teacher-created netcasts. That's what make the future so exciting and at the same time, so much work.

Nathan Lowell said...

What about the possibility of getting a group of schools to collaborate to develop a kind of universal text by grade?

Wikibookshas a platform established already.

Is it possible to have the *students* write the next book? You wanna demanding lesson plan! Ok all you 5th graders, write an article on Argentina!

Collaborate with other schools doing the Argentina module. Site sources. Multimedia. Link to Webcams from downtown Buenos Aires.

I don't know .. I'm spinning out ideas here ... point is. Engage the students in the creation of the text (and I'm using that word in the context that means "text" and not "book")

What's needed is a clearinghouse so teachers can coordinate lesson plans and calendars.

Barbara said...

I think you are on the right track Nathan. I looked a wikibooks too. To get us started I think we need models more like Clay's https://brokenworld.wikispaces.com/A+Broken+World
( sorry about the look having trouble with links in the comments)
I am going to build activities like this into our Junior High curriculum and as more of us do so we should be able to create credible alternatives for our current texts

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