Saturday, March 03, 2012

Textbooks suck, although don’t have to.

Jay Mathews’ recent article on the Washington Post about the suckability of textbooks in quite interesting on many levels.  The simple realization by Mathews in itself is refreshing because while I know plenty of teachers that will jump on the anti-textbook bandwagon, I know of very few edu-pundits that are willing to condemn that which has been around school rooms for generations. 

As Mathews states in the article, textbooks are not effective in getting instruction to the basic (in my case high school) student.  They are boring, confining, and sometimes grossly generalized in how they present interesting theories to students.  Without any significant context for the student to go on, a lot of the theorems are just words on a piece of paper to memorize and prepare to recite on command.  They are extended encyclopedia entries with definitions bolded in the text and defined on the side of the page, making a student have to work not-at-all to actually find answers to questions that the book refuses to ask because the main point of textbooks is addressing content standards, not to impart knowledge.

I found the textbook adoption part of Jay’s column interesting as well.  One of the quotes kind of threw me for loop:

“(Beverlee) Jobrack said teachers and textbook adopters must be exposed to research on effective curricula and trained to find the textbooks that will link best with good teaching.”

Jobrack recently wrote a book called “Tyranny of the Textbook” which took aim at the billions of dollars thrown at the textbook industry.  Her comment about linking textbooks to good teaching is antiquated.  In a real United States History class a textbook would not exist and there would be a central location for primary source documentation.  The teacher can help fill in the blanks, but the history can teach itself without the use of generalizations.  And even if generalizations are necessary, a person can go online and access better materials than those found from Prentice Hall.  The only exception I would make would be Advanced Placement classes where the amount of information necessary to impart to the students in the limited time demands the use of a book that goes over a lot of stuff really fast.  But those are not normal students.  Those are motivated students. 

So why do I still use textbooks in Government and Economics at school?  Simple, because parents and students want that known crutch.  I’m still not totally into that camp that demands that everything on Earth be inquisitive and non-direct instruction.  Students still want to be told what’s going on and what exactly to study, and parents want to be able to have students have that information available outside of class.  Trust me, you have no idea how bad my attendance is and how often I hear “just tell me what I need to study out of the book and I’ll do fine.”  The students never do fine unless they are a top end student.  But education has yet to become a real priority in society and the textbook helps reinforce the notion that the student doesn’t need to be in class. 

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