Thursday, December 18, 2008

Call for Action: Ditching Textbooks

We can't go 1:1, computers are expensive.
So are textbooks; you prioritize.

Where is your focus on learning? Is it in a canonized content or is it outside of that, in collaboration and engagement of ideas? Is learning timeless or does it change often? Is curriculum driven by the materials, or the other way around?

I don't want to set up a false dichotomy; it isn't computers or textbooks. But in an era where finances are slim, we need to second-guess the afore-perceived "must" of having textbooks.

Nope, I'm wrong. We need to second-guess it, even when finances aren't slim.

Our over-reliance on textbooks and bought curriculum sequences is not pedagogically sound. For starters, textbooks are needlessly thick, a grab-all of every initiative and topic out there. Second, they are linear, meaning you have a start and an end and checkpoints on the way. Learning in the 21st century is not linear... it is hyperlinked. It is multi-tasking. It is working on many objectives at once, not one at a time.

Third, poor teachers (and some not-so-poor ones) take the textbook as the lesson plan master, unable to work around it, differentiate within it, adjust instruction for learning moments that pop up. What comes after unit 2? Unit 3, of course! And I must be done with the last unit at the end of the course! The textbook becomes a crutch for a teacher, who should be using their training and talents to synthesize together a system of resources.

Fourth, they are static. They do not change, (until you purchase the next ones). Say what you want about Wikipedia, but it stays up to date. And fifth, textbooks are not authentic; outside of school people do not use textbooks, with maybe the exception of the "For Dummies" series (and I haven't seen too many districts use that as their curriculum). They are to find their own resources, which might include newspapers or online files or print books, and from those, synthesize answers to problems. Their learning is not laid out for them.

Don't get me wrong, if textbooks were used just as a resource (as the internet is), they would have excellent value, as many of the best written-ones have excellent rich content. When they are used as curriculum, though, there are a host of problems as you can see.

Some anti-textbook people will raise the rhetoric to say teachers are centering on themselves instead of students when using textbooks. For example, the standard answer from many teachers is that the textbook makes their job easier (actually, the word they'd use is "manageable"). Admittedly, I've never used a textbook in my teaching, although I should say as an English teacher, I had some advantages. Perhaps it would have been easier to use it. But, I had a selfish reason for not using it... it made me feel like I was more valuable as a teacher when I was synthesizing the material. I felt like, if I was hit by a meteor and wasn't able to finish out the term, that the class would actually miss me instructionally. Yes, selfish, but then again, we want to think of ourselves as professionals.

Would you like more? Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman have many more reasons:
• Textbooks often do not match up with the curriculum (or in our case, the Iowa Core)
• They are hard to read (they are reference, not fiction or non-fiction)
• They are badly designed
• They are authoritarian, giving the illusion that there is only one correct way of looking at things
• They are not written for students; they are written for curriculum directors

Throw in the costs and the amount of paper wasted, and plunking curriculum dollars into technology, a tool to a vast source of free content begins to make a lot of sense.

Here is a look at movements to make more free content, which although improving, still has a long way to go. And this is an excellent place to start to find out how to teach in a textbook-free environment.

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