Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Get Off Textbooks

With the exception of a grammar book in first year Latin, I haven't used a textbook in class in over four years.

I'd remembered textbooks from high school... well, at least I'd remembered having had them. But my first real introduction to textbook culture came in my first year of teaching. I was hired out of college as an English teacher at a big public school east of Baltimore. I was handed a curriculum and a textbook and told: teach.

So, I tried to. And it was a miserable failure. I'd spent four years engaged in study in the Liberal Arts only to be handed a thick glossy book filled with abridged texts of questionable selection, 'critical' questions that were anything but, and historical information and background that was cursory at best.

I recall that the first thing I was supposed to teach was The Odyssey, which in the textbook was described as an adventure story and for which the publisher had supplied background material on the Trojan War and Greek culture in the amount of two paragraphs cribbed from Joseph Campbell.

By second quarter, I had scrapped the textbook and was teaching entirely using unabridged novels and plays. I didn't last long at the school, but at least in my time there my kids got a more authentic experience of literature -- and they all managed to pass the district exams at the end of the year, so I guess not using the textbook didn't hurt them much in the department that seemed to matter most to my higher-ups.

When I came to my new school, I began by teaching American Lit to Juniors and British Lit to Seniors.

The textbooks still stunk. To this day, I will never understand how an American Literature textbook -- in the 21st century, no less -- can treat Ezra Pound's most trivial work as his most important, can fail even to address the importance of The Waste Land, and can manage to exclude entirely the life and work of Allen Ginsberg.

For the non-Humanities folks among you, that would be like teaching the colors but skipping red, green, and yellow.

"This is what I learned in high school?" I thought to myself. I could have sworn I'd read Pound's Cantos and Eliot's The Waste Land, and Ginsberg's Howl. And then I recalled back to Junior year -- a year of handouts of major works not included in the textbook; a year of books on reserve in the library full of crucial unabridged texts not included in the textbook.

Now I realize what was going on back then. My teachers were using the resources at their disposal -- mostly library books and copy machines -- to offer us what the textbook companies could not: an education that reflected the reality of literature, not the practicality of what textbook editors thought that high school kids would be able to understand.


Read yesterday that California was moving to get off textbooks. I was very excited at first.

Went back and read the article a second time and was less excited.

The more I thought about it, the more depressed I became. Now I'm trying to reconcile why I feel this way.

To begin with, I have to give CA credit for looking towards getting off paper. This blog is all about paperless classrooms and digital education, so you'd have to figure I'd be elated about that. And, to an extent, I am. We know that paper production and consumption produces vast amounts of methane by-product, so any attempt to limit its use seems good to me.

What makes me depressed is the route which the article seems to suggest that California wants to take in going paperless.

It appears that the State wants to replace its textbooks with... textbooks.

Well, textbooks of the online variety.

Now, I've spent my entire academic career -- both as a student and as a teacher -- in the humanities and social sciences. The reason I don't need a textbook in English class or in History class is because I can grab anything I need from the Internet or the library; the reason I don't need a textbook in teaching a foreign language is because of the vast resources of the Web and the resourcefulness of my own experience working with the language. But, maybe it's different in mathematics and the sciences. Maybe a textbook is necessary.

But somehow, I doubt it.

I took a statistics course in grad school where there was no textbook and by-and-large we learned statistics by studying Quetelet, rolling dice, reading box-scores, and analyzing modern political campaigns.

I have a long-standing interest in String Theory and Quantum Mechanics, though I have no formal training nor the ability to complete complex mathematical equations. But I've read widely on the subject and devoured what I could via the accessible resources of the Web and, though formally ignorant, I can still sit down and engage in an educated discussion with a physicist.

If we think in terms of our students, there will be kids who get more of an understanding of probability from predicting horses than they ever would by reading text on a page. There are kids who could pick up and relate matters of contemporary physics to their art, their writing, their philosophy if but they were allowed to engage with the contemporary discussion without being bombarded by the question-and-answer-key doldrums of the physics textbook.

How many kids have missed out both on ever really appreciating poetry and and on ever really appreciating physics because of those damned textbooks and what they do to the expectations of what understanding and achievement mean in the classroom?


Virginia has recently become, I believe, the first state in the nation to go with an open source online textbook. Called a Flexbook, this physics text is entirely customizable:
FlexBook provides an environment for development and display of educational materials available for any teacher to use, share and adapt at no cost, using software and tools such as Java, Django, Ajax and the Google Web tool kit.

The non-profit foundation that produced the flexbook technology is CK-12. Unlike P21, whose board is cluttered with special interests of the textbook industry, the 'Educational Partners' of CK-12 include open source stalwarts like Wikimedia Foundation and the Open Access research advocate Public Knowledge Project.

Will flexbooks prove a cure-all? Not a chance. Is their board necessarily less self-interested than the folks who comprise P21? That remains to be seen. Plenty of tech industry superstars reign in the leadership of the organization.

But does the philosophy of the foundation seem to point in the right direction? Well, as far as open source goes, I'd say yes it does.

There are a lot of smart teachers out there. A lot of teachers who have spent countless hours in front of a jammed copy machine, making supplements to functionally primitive textbooks. Give them the tools of open source and the resources of the Web and we will see an exploding of the myth that demonstrative learning is best served by standardized education.


  1. 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. Thus, we end up w/ standards documents that generally seriously offend no one, but also please no one, and our textbooks reflect that.

    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 and district administrators who decide which books to purchase. To do otherwise would ignore the biggest markets and the biggest profits. So I do agree w/ what you say in your last sentence: we do need to explode the myth of standardized education (or at least standardized education in its current form), but if we want that to happen, change needs to happen on a political level. What frustrates me most about what I've read so far about CA open source initiative is that is seems to be purely money driven. Because the state is broke, they essentially want people to do the work of textbook companies for free. It is, like you say, replacing textbooks w/ textbooks, and I just don't understand how that will work. Creating a standards-based textbook takes a huge amount of time and effort, and when creativitiy is so hampered by the standards and sensitivity issues, I don't see where there is the incentive to do that for free (unlike in the case of say, open source software).

    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. I do see the glimmers of that happening, but it seems a long way off.

    I think the experiments you're doing in teaching paperless are great, and I hope one day they can be applied more universally to core subjects, but I have a hard time seeing that happening w/o major changes to standards, and I have a hard time seing standards disappearing completely. I think there probably still is a place for textbooks in subjects such as science, math, and elementary reading in the 21st century, but they need to stop being like the textbooks of today and more like interactive portals that help guide teachers and students, not restrict them in exploring subjects in their own way.

  2. I know loads of Kindle and DX owners are a bit annoyed that it’s still hard to find many publishers that offer proper textbooks for student owners like me. I just found this site a few weeks ago though, www.bookboon.com and these guys publish a huge range of textbooks and every single textbook is made available to download free of charge in a compatible pdf e-book format with no registration. It’s a totally 100% free textbook solution perfect for new Kindle owners like me looking for good and free academic content!

    They actually just put up a new accounting series, really good used the ones on Liabilities and Equity and Balanced Scorecard this year as prep for my acca exams. There is also a facebook app with all the books on, http://apps.facebook.com/bookboon Check it out guys…


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