Thursday, July 7, 2011

Textbooks limit


Image by Patrick Correia http://www.flickr.com/photos/ender/517900257/in/photostream/Licensed under Creative Commons.

This is a post that I have stewing about for a while and I will say up front - I dislike textbooks and I believe they have outlived their usefulness, and as we move toward the e-books and the cry for for e-textbooks to lighten the students load, I say lets abandon them altogether for the following reasons:

Textbooks were created by the publishing industry in response to an acknowledged shortage of decent information before the internet and extensive publishing made information so easy to gather - a textbook had all the information you needed to cover the curriculum in one place. This reason no longer stands up, we have an abundance of information, textbooks enable students and teachers to be non critical users of information.

Who is writing the textbook? What information have they not included? Why have they included the information they have? Is there a bias or an agenda behind the language or inclusions? Are these questions even asked? In recent years it has been found that a number of countries have excluded or whitewashed important historic events in their history and social studies texts - China and the Tianamen Massacre, Japan and the actions of their armies during World War II, Germany and the Holocaust. Textbooks previously and still are used as a way to indoctrinate the young into a certain way of thinking. What is included in textbooks and how it is written are taken as truths. If only the textbook is used in learning students are not given the opportunity to see all perspectives, opinions or to find and study primary sources or to even be given an opportunity to form their own opinion of the events or information contained within. Textbooks limit thinking.

Textbooks are created to help students pass tests by including strategic information required for the tests that are created based on the textbooks which are based on the standard curriculum. Textbooks are created to support an outdated mode of teaching and learning and assessment. Textbooks ensure students remain working at the lowest rung of blooms taxonomy - where is the comparison, evaluation and synthesis of this information? Where is the inquiry, questioning, consolidation, rumination, forming of opinions based on multiple perspectives? Textbooks limit learning.

When 'all the information you need' is in one place - what is the motivation to learn how to search and gather, make sense of, select and reject what is required? Textbooks have all the interesting research and hard work done for the student. How can informed decisions be made when only one source of information is taken in account? How can students learn discernment of information? How can they learn that good research takes time and skill? When we leave school there is no textbook on life with all the answers in one place, we do our students a disservice by sticking with textbooks to teach. Textbooks limit information literacy.

Textbooks are out of date as soon as they are published. Things change so fast in this world, how can we really base teaching on something that is stagnant and difficult to update. Textbooks limit the understanding of a dynamically changing world and how to find current information.

Textbooks are expensive and thwart the free market. In Hong Kong the local education system is based on textbooks recommended by the Education Department, and every year parents are compelled to spend thousands of dollars on these texts, and because they are required to purchase them, the publishers can charge what they like for them. We need to remember textbook publishers are in the business of making money, not educating children. Textbooks limit freedom to information through their pricing, and limit the free market.

Once students purchase these expensive texts, teachers are then obligated to use them in their teaching, limiting the time available to explore different information or points of view or even go off topic a bit to explore something new and exciting that was not in the textbook, or even, gosh, localising the curriculum to make it more meaningful. In many cases the need to 'finish working through the textbook' during the school year to ensure all information has been covered occurs with little regard to the learning styles, needs and interests of the students. Textbooks can become a crutch to teaching. Textbooks can limit good teaching practise and spontaneous learning.

So, if we expunged textbooks what would we use? How could we teach without a textbook to support the learning? My ideal world would be where students set the agenda and the curriculum of what they wanted to learn possibly within a wider framework of a national curriculum of 'topics'. Teachers spend an awful lot of time planning the curriculum without really consulting the students what is it they are interested in. We assume there is knowledge that everyone must know in order to be a good student, person, citizen etc. This goes against the pedagogy that students are individuals with individual learning styles, interests and needs.

But, we have national curriculums that specify what children need to learn, so we must at the moment work with this. How about the teachers help the students learn how to research, evaluate and synthesise their own information about a topic? Creating their own 'textbooks' (I would suggest this should be retitled collections) on a topic they can share with each other? They can then evaluate each others collections and see if there is bias, authenticity, currency, and reliability in amongst it. They could discuss what and how they found, and how they feel about it, they could from their findings justify their own opinions, They would own the information and knowledge they have discovered, and more meaningful learning would occur. This does take more time, and may mean that less content is covered through the year, but the skills that students learn will outlast any quantitative information they may have to learn, and take the learning to a much higher, quality level.

Turning textbooks into digital form does not make them better, it only makes them lighter and harder to burn.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

Some readings and research on this topic;

Researching the Ideological and Political Role of the History Textbook -
Issues and Methods
http://www.heirnet.org/IJHLTR/journal1/Crawforded-kw.PDF

Textbook : a bit of background information
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textbook

Hong Kong Schools Prepare for Mainland Revisions, New York Times, 1997.
http://www.nytimes.com/specials/hongkong/archive/0403hong-kong-schools.html

The Centrality of Textbooks in Teachers Work: Perceptions and Use of Textbooks in a Hong Kong Primary School
http://www.dlsu.edu.ph/research/journals/taper/pdf/200712/young.pdf

7 comments:

Staceyt said...

Ifeel the same way but the teachers at our school are not ready to let them go, I hope that sharing your blog with them might help change some minds.

Eliterate Librarian said...

I agree! Luckily many of our teachers do not issue textbooks and their classes are richer for it. There are some that still cling to them. My first year teaching we chose a new textbook because we had new standards. The best "choice" was a book that covered our standards in the last 4 chapters, yet the state bought it anyway. I never used it. What a waste of money!

Tom Lee said...

Great post Diane. There is nothing like flicking through a 'real' book but I agree with your sentiments. In a post-pc era where some of our students haven't lived a life with cassette tapes/VHS and only know of iTunes and Amazon, are we in some way holding our students back (more to the point, the publishers)? We are a 1:1 school and because we are unable to provide e-textbooks for all of our subjects, it is no wonder that some of our staff and even students find the transition challenging - more to the point, unable to let go.

There is an opportunity for authors and publishers here. With things like iPads and Kindles leading the post-pc age, why not harness the functionality of these devices not from just an economical and weight(less) issue, but from a universal access approach - that is, for students/staff who are vision or hearing impaired. Why not develop engaging e-content that reaches out to those who are visual learners?

With great respect to the humble textbook in its current format, your post has clearly outlined that change is required in this area and publishers need to step up.

Tom Lee said...

Great post Diane. There is nothing like flicking through a 'real' book but I agree with your sentiments. In a post-pc era where some of our students haven't lived a life with cassette tapes/VHS and only know of iTunes and Amazon, are we in some way holding our students back (more to the point, the publishers)? We are a 1:1 school and because we are unable to provide e-textbooks for all of our subjects, it is no wonder that some of our staff and even students find the transition challenging - more to the point, unable to let go.

There is an opportunity for authors and publishers here. With things like iPads and Kindles leading the post-pc age, why not harness the functionality of these devices not from just an economical and weight(less) issue, but from a universal access approach - that is, for students/staff who are vision or hearing impaired. Why not develop engaging e-content that reaches out to those who are visual learners?

With great respect to the humble textbook in its current format, your post has clearly outlined that change is required in this area and publishers need to step up.

Julia Smith said...

I agree Dianne. It was not something I have given much thought to (high school librarian) but your challenging, objective arguments confront this issue with real depth. Well done, great post.

Rick Susman - The Booklegger, Australia said...

I loved your article on texts; it really tapped into my feelings over many years that they’re often a sop to lowest common denominator teaching and learning.

About 15 years ago, in a consultancy with Shelford (a small girls’ college in Melbourne), we created an environment that teachers could choose between a textbook or enquiry-based learning approach, by creating an alternative to texts. We challenged them that for most courses (exceptions were maths or accounting), students would benefit from a diverse range of resources (now, it could be a mix of print & digital) to reflect varying interests, reading abilities etc – that is, would a class of 30 students be better off with 30 copies of 1 title – or 30 different resources? We showed that it would even be substantially cheaper by incorporating a book-hire type scheme and developing the library collection substantially. The library actually ended up with an extra $50,000 - $100,000 per year!
I think that the push to e-texts is from the publishers who believe that they will be able to sell direct to schools, without the need for booksellers at all! Thank heavens that we don’t deal much with textbooks – funnily enough we’re starting to get quite a number of our library customers starting to swing back to more print (particularly in areas such as English, History, Visual Arts & Design)

LindaJ said...

Hi Dianne

While I agree with a lot of what you say, I still feel that for some students textbooks will provide a scaffolding or foundation from which to build their knowledge - if they are well written, by educators. It is up to teachers to decide whether a text provides a sufficient base knowledge from which to explore concepts further to avoid a waste of money, and teacher librarians to guide teachers to enriching extensions of these basic concepts! (I do like Rick's ideas though...)