Sunday, April 01, 2007

Textbooks and Curriculum- Perspectives and policy- Think aloud continued

This is a great discussion about textbooks! The various voices who have weighed in have added valuable perspectives and insights and I encourage you to read the previous post with all of its comments. ( 14 comments – some are my own- but this is a real conversation). The more I reflect on this issue the more I am convinced that while we need something different it is not going to be forthcoming anytime soon. So the question is what we do in face of this reality. A discussion of textbooks is the gateway to questions of pedagogy, curriculum, course design and lesson planning.

As I stated in my original post textbooks do have a place in the curriculum and as Clarence commented learning to read formal pieces of writing is still and important literacy skill. There are two related but distinct aspects to our current textbook models. One is the message to students that this is all you need to know and the other is to the teacher this is all you need to teach. As Mr. Maher comments it is well suited to the industrial age educational practices and to assembly line thinking but it does not work well to meet the needs of today’s students.

Meeting the challenge presented by this model is a difficult task because it has to do with breaking away from the traditional mold, the traditional pedagogy. To move away from student and teacher dependence on textbooks my mantra for the last 5 years at least has been “ textbooks are not the curriculum, they are a tool…standards drive our curriculum.” I have never held a teacher accountable for moving from page 1 to page 230. However in reality it does often become the curriculum because it is in the zone of comfort and it fits the training most current teachers received.

In addition, the standards which are the curriculum have proved to be too broad and cover too much area (especially in Social Studies) which furthers the reliance on the textbook as a default approach. We have begun looking at power standards identifying critical knowledge as a means to focus instruction and empower the teachers to be authors of curriculum but it is not an easy task.

Another aspect of the textbook/course design issue has to do with grade level skills. Basic academic skills like reading, phonics, computation etc. are well served by a structured text driven curriculum. Critical thinking and knowledge skills are not. How do we strike a balance here, particularly at the K-8 level? In answering this question I believe I will approach an answer to the budget question. What money do I allocate to textbooks and what is the justification for that expense in terms of a holistic approach to budgeting?

So here are my initial ideas in trying to write a policy for curriculum resources or in more traditional terms a textbook policy that can guide purchases. It presupposes a standards based curriculum and honest ongoing discussion of course design I also think our movement toward the Moodle arena will be well served by these criteria.

  • All texts will be supplemented with online resources ( and perhaps with library purchases)
  • In the upper grades student scribes and wikis will help to build resources for future classes. Take a look at what Clay is doing with a “textbook” wiki
  • As knowledge based texts ( like Science and Social Studies) age the online supplements should increase and be well defined.
  • Purchases in Social Studies and Science will most probably be in the form of smaller, lighter more reasonably priced trade books and trade magazines.
  • Grade level skill acquisitioning each subject must be clearly articulated and resource provided. (Skills however can not be taught in isolation but must be applied across the curriculum)
  • Leveled readers in subject areas should be considered to make the curriculum more accessible.
  • Language Arts will encompass digital literacy.
  • Reading component will progressively move toward literature as the grades progress and can then employ less expensive lighter novels instead of anthologies.

As I said this is my initial brainstorm but it needs more work. What do you think? Will this work? What would you add or delete? It is my goal to put together a working document for my school and your comments will be invaluable to the process.

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Nathan Lowell said...

I like the way this is evolving and I'm gonna think out loud about this section:

Basic academic skills like reading, phonics, computation etc. are well served by a structured text driven curriculum. Critical thinking and knowledge skills are not. How do we strike a balance here, particularly at the K-8 level?

In working with my own kids (8 and 11), I've noticed that setting them critical thinking tasks and knowledge skills goals resulted in improvements in reading, computation, etc.

I wrote about them last year in Python Girl. They were in 2nd and 5th grades. They did this through reading, figuring, searching, and basically using a lot of the 21st Century Skills we keep talking about.

I appreciate that this was due in large part to having very good reading skills to begin with. It's worth considering that the challenge of figuring out how to do something cool might be a really powerful motivator for even young kids to take on improving those basic academic skills.

It's one thing when the teacher says you need to do it. It's another when you want to do it because you see you need it in order to do something cool.

More, how much might some of these basic skills be nurtured by having even 2nd and 3rd graders create media for consumption by other kids? One of the characteristics of this new world is the breaking down of silos. Sure it's a social studies class but why not use it to teach reading and writing and numeracy while you're there?

Just thinking out loud along with ya.

Barbara said...

Nathan I agree critical thinking and engaging tasks are important at all levels. I only meant to suggest that the heavy emphasis on BASIC skills development that are intrinsic to the primary grades means that a scaffolded and consistent program as found in many basal texts is probably a worth while expenditure. In our community in fact it has proven very successful.
In this context there still needs to be room for 21st century skills too.
I need to assure we maintain a rigorous curriculm, cut textbook dependency and spending and encourage teachers to take responsibility for directing curriculum content and exploration.

Clay Burell said...

Hi Barbara,

Keeping the conversation going (and maybe we should both embed the "cocomment" widget on our blogs to at least cross-reference our multi-blog thinks)--

I'm with you all the way regarding the skills-based curriculum. What I'm learning by watching my 9th grade learners develop the "Broken World" online textbook history wiki, is that this is another example of it "not being about technology, but about literacy."

In the work of paraphrasing their textbook chapters, the learners hone their reading and writing skills.

In supplementing it with multimedia, they hone their research, info-literacy, citation, and critical thinking skills (and soon, their digital editing/multimedia storytelling skills as well).

In embedding videos (via YouTube) of themselves giving lectures (in pairs) to teach the class their respective chapters, they work on their public speaking, reading comprehension, and slide presentation skills. (Right now, this is the most exciting part for me to watch. We're upping the standards for class presentations now, making them "test" grades, and the learners are rising to the occasion with some very good 20 minute lectures that show mastery of content AND a sense of narrative drama in the history. And of course, those who have not reached the standard can watch, learn, and be motivated by the examples on the wiki of those who do.)

And in being required to self- and peer-assess each chapter's writing, layout and graphic design, and lecture/slideshow, they're developing their metacognitive literacy skills.

I'm stumped by the imperatives of the "coverage" model. Why are we still stuffing their heads with inert data, when a moment's reflection will show us that we've all forgotten the data our heads were stuffed with in our own high school years (at least I have).

What hasn't disappeared from those years are the basic literacies: reading, listening, writing, speaking.

And the read-write web simply enhances classroom development of those literacies, in my experience.

And the more I experiment and reflect, I can't help but expect that things will only get better for learning.

Thanks for the post.

Nathan Lowell said...

[T]he heavy emphasis on BASIC skills development that are intrinsic to the primary grades means that a scaffolded and consistent program as found in many basal texts is probably a worth while expenditure.

What I'm calling into question is this "heavy emphasis" might be the problem.

I'm not saying it is, but I think if we're going to evolve into something new and better, then we need to question some fundamental assumptions.

Yes, K-3 needs some basic skills. I've seen the texts my kids used and they were some of the better arguments for home schooling. :)

So, what ARE the basic skills?

Reading, certainly, but not just reading words, but symbols, signs, and media interpretation. Mostly this boils down to practice and motivation over the long haul. (I have some rather oddball ideas here that involve text based games.)

Writing, of course. (I'm impressed with our school's writing program - at least in third grade, btw).

Numeracy. This one is problematic because there is still the emphasis on "math facts" (the arithmetic tables) and timed testing. There's a LOT of room for improvement here but the State requirements don't leave a lot of room for change at the district level.

What else??

Nathan Lowell said...

Oh, and are TEXTBOOKS the best response to these needs??

Their comfy for the teacher, they're handy for the administration, but are they *really* the best way to encourage students to learn the skills?

Jes' askin' :)

Bogusia said...

Very interestingly, where I taught in Alberta, Canada, the elementary teachers never used textbooks (the textbooks usually began in Junior High School - Grade 7 and on). This doesn't mean that the elementary teachers didn't use other books: they had to have a whole set of resources at their fingertips in order to fascilitate the learning. (I am not saying that every book is useless, I actually quite like books.)

Elementary Teachers in Alberta need to create their own lesson plans, figure out what is important for them and their kids in order to fullfill the requirements of the curriculum, understand where the students are still lacking, and fill that void. I thought this was the standard, until I read your blog. I didn't realize that a textbook in elementary (K-6) school is required.

Recently, on my own blog, I was trying to understand why Alberta students are tops in the world in Math and Science (according to the Economist, Sept. 2006), and I really couldn't figure it out. Maybe this is key... not using standard textbooks in the primary years, hmmm.

Barbara, I think you should let your teachers spend the textbook budget on Resource Books or Educational Games instead of having some prescribed textbooks! This would force your teachers to think about what is important, and why they are teaching what they are. This would force them to become better teachers.

I always believe that a teacher needs to be flexible to the individual needs of a student - very hard to do with a set TEXTBOOK.

Barbara said...

Wow... the power of conversation. Isn't interesting how parochial are views can be until we connect with the global community. I would have assumed K-6 textbooks to be the much to learn.

I'm at work so I will post more when I get some time to think.

By the way Clay where can I find the widget you mention?

Karl Fisch said...

Let me share a recent conversation I had with my media specialist. We were talking about the media center (no surprise there) and how it should be changing to better meet the needs of students. My media specialist then said something that I think makes a lot of sense. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like:

It used to be that I thought of the electronic resources as supplementing the print resources. But now I realize that it's becoming the other way around - that the print resources are supplementing the electronic ones. As I look at purchasing new print resources, I'm really only looking for print resources that can provide something that I can't find in an electronic version, or that the ease of use of the electronic version still isn't on par with the print version.

I think that may be one perspective to consider in your quest. Look at what resources you need to help your students learn what you believe they need to learn, then see what fits that best. I'm still thinking, of course, that the textbook will not be the best solution most of the time but - when you think it is - get it. But, as I said in my comment on the last post, don't default to the textbook.

Barbara said...

Thanks Karl
I agree and I am pretty much going that way. I have one year (2007-2008) to make this viable and to establish a clear and compelling rationale. In 2008-2009 we will be going into our accreditation process (a once every six year occurrance)
Here is the rub.. I do not have a media specialist or librarian or other support personnel so the burden falls on the shoulders of myself and the faculty to find and vet the resources or in the older grades to lead the students through this process.
I hope it is not to long until more of us are doing this and sharing our resources.