Get Rid of Textbooks!

Every year I acquire a few K-12 textbooks that are given away where I work.  I am amazed at the quality of these textbooks as compared to those I studied 40-50 years ago.  Mine were much smaller, plainer, and simpler.   Modern textbooks are marvels of knowledge presented in beautiful full color multimedia layouts.  And they are HUGE.  If children are studying these books this generation should be the most well educated generation ever.  Then why all the bad press about failing schools and under achieving kids?  Could the textbooks be part of the problem?

At first glance modern K-12 textbooks look more comprehensive than my general education textbooks in college.  If high school students mastered these books they should be much smarter than college students from the baby boom era.  But then I got to thinking, maybe these giant tomes provide too much content for young people.  Could academic apathy just be a rejection of being over programmed?  Are we trying to stuff too much into growing minds?

I picked up these textbooks for reference works.  I can’t imagine being in the 11th grade and having to master five of them in nine months.  Three of the volumes I picked up this year where American Literature (10th), British Literature (11th) and World Literature (12th).  I got the teacher’s editions and each volume has hundreds, if not thousands of teaching suggestions, questions, quizzes, activities, etc.  This is a lot to learn and to teach.

The goal is the systematic injection of facts, more facts, and endless concepts.  On the surface, the desire to educate is motivated by wanting children to have a deep and wide knowledge of the world and history.  This is great in concept, but I’m wondering is its wrong.

I can imagine an interesting experiment for some school systems to try.  Take 11th graders, and instead of giving them a textbook on British Literature at the beginning of the year, start the year by telling them they are required to each edit and produce a textbook on British Literature to be handed in at the end of the year.  All great literature before the 1930s is available on the Internet in public domain versions, and even selections of copyrighted material after that is available.  Students could collect the content, write an introduction for each piece, and an analysis afterward.  They could do the layout and graphics, and if they wanted, have a hard copy printed-on-demand for less than the cost of buying a professional textbook.

Wouldn’t students learn more by doing?  Wouldn’t learning about British Literature be more fun as a treasure hunt than rote memorization?  Teachers could still guide the students lesson by lesson by discussing a required reading list, but they could also expect students to find their own supplemental reading.

Teachers could lecture on authors, assign a standard poem, story or essay for all to read, and then require students to collect additional works from the author’s output that they felt an affinity for, to add to their personal textbook/anthology.  Lesson plans could be built around students sharing their experiences.  Competition would arise to who could find the coolest works to collect.

And why not let the students collect art work, photos, letters, diaries, and other content to supplement their poems, stories and essays.  Encourage them to study history, science, social studies, economics, etc. to help explain their selections.

It we had students create their own textbooks they’d have a book for life they could keep, revise and expand, and it might be more memorable and meaningful than being forced to study a book for one year that they turned in when school was over.  Also, they would have something to show their kids and grandkids.

What if college acceptance was based on the textbooks they created in high school?  I know this is a bizarre, radical idea, but the Internet is changing our society in all kinds of ways.  With computers, software and the Internet, students shouldn’t have too much trouble creating their own textbooks, and imagine what kind of textbooks they could create for the iPad, which adds the dimensions of sound and video.

Instead of buying students hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks, buy them Adobe Creative Suite and require them to be creative.  Expect them to work instead of memorize, I believe they will learn more that way.  Can you imagine a K-12 system that was based on productivity instead of passive learning?  And students would learn so many practical skills as a byproduct of this kind of schooling.  And the same concept could be applied to all other courses. 

We might have more scientists, engineers and mathematicians if students spent their time doing productive work rather than memorizing.  K-12 students in the course of their academic careers should make a telescope and microscope, design a house, assemble a car, build reproductions of all the classic science experiments, reinvent mathematics century by century, put together a radio, television and computer, and so on.

Every school year in a student’s K-12 life is really trying to learn about reality from the Big Bang to the present.   We weave the language skills with math skills and then start studying the history of reality over and over again, with each school year expanding on the previous one.  That’s a lot of knowledge to catch up on.  Maybe kids would learn better by recreating how it was discovered rather than being forced to memorize the facts.

I remember my elementary, junior high and senior high years, they were like a 12 year prison sentence that I had to endure by sitting and being forced fed a curriculum not of my choosing.  Study, memorize, test, study, memorize, test.  It was all so painful.

JWH – 5/14/10   

3 thoughts on “Get Rid of Textbooks!”

  1. Yes, your thoughts are the same as mine. I didn’t begin to learn the English language well until I wrote and interpreted a few books. And, how did great writers such as Jane Austin learn English so well at an early age? Was it not by writing novels in her early teens?

  2. Interesting idea, Jim, but to a large extent, one goal of K-12 schooling is to have everybody start with a general – and universal – base of knowledge. Shouldn’t everyone in our nation share at least the basics of our society – in history, literature, science, etc.?

    These days, people home-school their kids so they can ignore Thomas Jefferson (no “separation of church and state”), teach creationism and a 5,000-year-old Earth as “science,” and make sure that Phyllis Schafly gets the full treatment as an American hero. And the Internet helps people keep their separate beliefs, no matter how loony they might be. How can such people work together after a lifetime like that?

    Raising creative kids is great, really it is. But doesn’t a society also need a certain fundamental understanding, a basic level of knowledge that’s pretty well universal? (Of course, then you have what they’re doing in Texas, which is to try to make sure that this fundamental understanding matches extremist conservative ideology.)

    1. I thought I covered such objections when I said, “Teachers could lecture on authors, assign a standard poem, story or essay for all to read, and then require students to collect additional works from the author’s output that they felt an affinity for, to add to their personal textbook/anthology.” That way what the teacher assigned would be the standard everyone was expected to know, but let the students design the supplemental.

      In fact, when I first started to write my essay I was going to suggest something completely different. I think the textbooks are too big and overwhelming to assume everyone is getting the same basics. I was going to suggest that they simplify textbooks so school books just had the basics and none of the distractions.

      Take grammar books. Students get several in their K-12 careers, and they seem to be getting bigger and more elaborate each grade. I’d recommend creating a single standard grammar book that kids keep for their 7-12th years. Something plain, simple and direct. Something like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Something that would become their Bible for grammar and writing.

      But even here, I think it would be better that teachers lecture the standards and make the students create their own grammar books.

      I was always expecting teachers to teach the standard curriculum, but have students learn by elborating on the standard by writing their own textbooks.

      I know it sounds boring, but I agree with you to the point that I think there should be a national list of what each K-12 student should know to graduate high school. But it should be fairly basic. What we really want is to inspire them to want to learn on their own, to explore further than the basics. We want to teach them to want to learn, not to hate education, which I think is what’s happening by overprogramming them.

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