They don’t need no stink’n textbooks!

Are textbooks an obstacle to learning?

By Benjamin.Stern

In “We Don’t Need No Stink’n Textbooks,” Tom Whitby convincingly argues that textbooks are as obstructive to learning as they are ubiquitous in American classrooms. He suggests that most teachers’ inability to emerge from their comfort zones — of which textbooks are an essential component — hinders them from utilizing the incomparably better resources available throughout the Internet.

Whitby is certainly correct: Textbooks are an obstacle to learning, and teachers rely on them extensively nonetheless. However, moving beyond textbooks requires a more penetrating solution than curating the Internet under the guise of a digital textbook as suggested in the article. The reliance on textbooks runs deeper than habit; it’s a product of intellectual laziness. To truly move beyond these textbooks, teachers must be forced to confront the fundamental question of our craft, which Whitby mentions at the beginning of his article: “What should we teach?”

In other words, we need to elevate the conversation. As a technology integrationist, I can rattle off 100 apps that do some familiar classroom task more quickly or more beautifully. Similarly, I can help you flip your class or adopt a project-based learning framework, but if the content of the curriculum doesn’t change too, learning will increase marginally at best. Far from a condemnation of technology, these examples indicate that we need to rebuild from the bottom-up. Ideas, skills, habits of mind, and content are the foundation of any class. The instructional strategies, tools, student-teacher relationships, and general environment of a classroom provide its scaffolding. Before we discuss this latter set of issues, we ought to take seriously the former.

Textbooks have given several generations of educators a “pass” on confronting the difficult conversations surrounding the big ideas of a classroom. If someone else decides these issues for us, then all we have to do is complain. Frankly, thinking is much harder than complaining. What’s more, our politics, culture and traditions make these conversations especially difficult, but all important conversations are. Political and ethical beliefs are implicit in every curriculum anyhow. Look at the fervor surrounding the content of the Texas standards for textbooks. We would have to teach only the Encyclopedia Britannica to avoid these issues — and even an encyclopedia reflects the choices of the editors to some extent.

Every reformer seems to agree that education should be about so much more than content delivery. So let’s focus on the new goals. We need not be afraid. After all, how can we teach kids to form their own opinions if we cannot even deal with our own? To see real, enduring, and profound change, we must elevate the discourse of ed reform. It behooves us to use this moment of transition in the means — that is, textbooks — to discuss the all-important question of ends. Such opportunities of real transformation are rare; let’s seize it.

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