Tuesday, June 09, 2009

From the Horse's Mouth: a Textbook Editor Responds

A textbook editor responds to my call to 'Get Off Textbooks'.

Here's the highlight reel:
As one of the textbook editors you disparage in your post, I will say I am equally as frustrated as you are w/ the state of textbooks, but I think laying the blame completely at the foot of textbook publishers is misplaced. State standards such as those in CA are in essence political documents, and the textbooks produced to align to these standards are also politicized by extension. They are not so much a way to ensure that our children get the best education possible but a way to ensure that every interest group gets its say in how our children are taught.

There are a lot of intelligent, well-meaning, passionate people in textbook publishing. But unfortunately, the goal of textbook publishers is not ultimately to make a book that is of great value to teachers and students. Their goal is to please adoption comittees [sic] and district administrators who decide which books to purchase. To do otherwise would ignore the biggest markets and the biggest profits.

To truly change the educational system, change needs to happen to the standards themselves to make them more open and flexible and to allow for innovation in the classroom. And that change only seems like it can happen when the majority of parents, politicians, and educators begin to seriously reflect on how students are treated and taught and begin to change a lot of institutionalized attitudes that are really detrimental to actual leearning [sic]. I do see the glimmers of that happening, but it seems a long way off.

Problems with 'standards' and 'politicization'. Acknowledgment that this is really about markets and profits. Acknowledgment that flexibility and de-institutionalism are the benefactors of 'actual learning'.

If these are the feelings of a representative from within the textbook industry, then it's no wonder that classroom teachers themselves would want to throw textbooks out the window.

The short of the story: textbooks -- whether of the paper variety, or their online doppelgangers -- don't seem to be worth the time it takes to produce them.

Get Off Textbooks.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Pointing out typos in a comment on a blog post is way harsh. I may be an editor but I'm not an automaton. Also, I'm not representing anyone or any institution, just stating my opinion based on personal experience.

    And like I said, I think the textbook as we know it should cease to exist, but I do have a hard time imagining some evolutionary (or revolutionary) successor not taking its place. Not just a PDF of a print textbook, but a truly interactive product that facilitates learning and opens up opportunities for exploration outside a set curriculum--ideally a product that allows for user-generated content/social interaction. I suppose part of this feeling comes from having worked primarily in the K-6 market, where for a variety of reasons I can't see just unleashing students on the Internet/not having more of a set structure, though at the Middle/High school level I can understand the argument for mostly if not completely ditching textbooks, especially in the humanities.

    I'm curious as to how you envision a textbook-free educational system working on a broader basis.

  3. I could not agree more!! I would love to get off textbooks...if only my university (actually my department) would facilitate such a thing. For all of our undergraduate Intro classes, textbooks are pre-determined and it is mandatory that students take 4 computer-based tests from the textbook test bank (how I loathe the CBTs!). The rest of the course format is up to the instructor but, sadly, there is no chance of just opting out of the book. This is a reflection of the static and decidedly outdated model of teaching and learning.

    I totally see the value--the necessity!--of the paperless classroom, yet it would be so much nicer if that were a more widespread perspective. Thank you for this blog; it gives me hope! :)

  4. @N

    Per the spelling typos... you may be the editor, but I'm the Latin teacher ;)

    Actually, couldn't help myself... ha!

    I want to tell you that I appreciate your getting involved in this discussion here; I do think it's extremely valuable to bring folks together to talk about these matters.

    As for my vision of a textbook-free world... well, that's a work-in-progress. But I think that more than a physical or virtual manifestation of a concrete idea, where my mind is leading has more to do with the dynamism available through the Web, social media, and participatory forms of communication. Forms more in tune with where the 21st century will lead; whereas, by their nature, textbooks tend to be repositories of knowledge as defined statically in one moment of time by a select few people. And although those individual people may have altruistic or idealistic goals, the medium itself is inherently un-dynamic.

    As for my choice of the word 'representative', I used that very specifically with the preposition 'from' and not 'of'. I think it's very important to understand that yours is a voice coming from within an institution in the same way that I am a voice coming from within the institution of education. Neither one of us is necessarily representative 'of' our institutions, but we come at whatever argument from within our cultural and vocational contexts. And I think editors need to hear teachers and teachers need to hear editors.

    Again, thanks for being a part of the discussion. Good stuff.

    - Shelly

  5. Hehe, I guess pointing out typos/grammatical errors is what passes for hazing among educators. :-p I'll admit I was being lazy by not checking, but it's a lot of pressure to be editing all the time!

    I definitely agree that the educational system as a whole needs to acknowledge 21st century forms of communication and disseminating information much more than it currently does. One of the most horrifying things I've seen in reading programs are "web sites" being described as a literary genre, where there will be a printed page w/ a fake browser frame around it and obviously un-dynamic text inside. Totally misses the point just to hit a vague standard about technology. Of course, that brings up the issues of 1:1 and equal access and all that, but that's a whole other discussion.

    To briefly get back to the issue of money and profits, let me assure you that textbook publishing, like teaching, is not a lucrative field for the vast majority of those involved. It is also an industry, like much of the media, that is in fairly difficult shape financially and is struggling to find its footing in the 21st century. So I'm not sure that publishers (at least the big basal publishers) feel that they can do anything but appease the markets where the money is if they want to survive. But I think it is going to take a big investment of time and money from both government and the private sector to affect meaningful change in education.

    Hear, hear to keeping dialogue open! It is always good to hear what teachers and students think, and the more people constructively thinking and talking about these issues the better!

  6. I'm coming to this party unbearably late, but after NECC I'm realizing how far I've gotten from real content in using textbooks. Textbooks are convenient and easy, and they're chock full of prettily-arrayed pictures and outlined text.

    But then I sat down, and compared the Phoenicians with the the Egyptians and the Greeks. I learned that all three engaged in overseas trade, major construction projects, and that they had writing systems.

    But... None of that teaches you how to think. My book tells my students that the Athenians executed Socrates in 399 BC (Actually, it doesn't even say that; it says "Socrates was executed" and obviates almost anyone of any responsibility for the act). But it doesn't discuss the trial, or the degree of bravery Socrates showed going to his death, or anything about the ideas for which he was executed.

    Therein lies the real problem. In pleasing all the constituencies and filling up history textbooks with stories of all the Earth's civilizations, we have in fact reduced all of history to a pallid wash of what it actually was: a rich and diverse tapestry of historical events that occurred against a backdrop of stunningly elaborate and deep cultures with centuries-long histories and myths.

    Next year — all primary sources if I can help it.

  7. As the world's knowledge becomes more available, making decisions of where to start with any given group of students grows in complexity. That does not mean that a great book of American history or of literature does not exist. Perhaps our focus on "textbooks" rather than books themselves is at fault. I have seen numerous "textbooks" with amazing pedagogical acrobatics contained within their covers (and on accompanying CDs), but duller than dull in their explanations of process or information.

    We have ceded the responsibility of selecting our teaching materials to committees and boards and especially to those whose value of learning is reflected in their degrees and the powerful positions attained as a result of those pieces of paper. But learning isn't about graduation. Learning is about gaining the ability to assemble from raw data a cogent and cohesive picture of the universe in which one exists. That is not typically how we (are able to) teach. I personally do not believe that 95% of students at high school / college level are ready to think in those ways, but that does not relieve us as teachers from working toward that goal.

    In some ways, I'm sure, I may be considered a dinosaur. Nevertheless, the fact that we write on an electronic device (invented by paper-and-pen, slide-ruling, textbook-reading neanderthals) does not change the process by which we have gained and by which we apply our knowledge to our world. No more so than the letter delivered by caravan had more or less information than that delivered by rail or packet ship. As teachers, we must filter for our students the message and the envelope until they are well able to do so for themselves.

    As a side note, consider the numbers of high school graduates who accept as meaningful truth lies spread about the negatives of altering how health care in America is paid for and delivered. If we were now doing our best, we would have a broader and more open popular discussion and fewer citizens misled by irrelevant propagandist incantation. Just a thought on a thought.

  8. What about open source textbooks, like at cnx.org? There are alternatives, and new possiblities all the time.


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