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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Textbooks Still Have a Place in Schools?

By Peter DeWitt — March 14, 2013 5 min read
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“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change, or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes; it’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer ... there’s nothing to hold on to.” Marilyn Ferguson

Most toddlers walk around with their little blankets. Of course, they call them binkies, blankies and a whole list of other cute names. Just like Linus, toddlers feel unsafe without their blankets because it offers them a level of safety. To young children, it feels unnatural to sit in their carriage or on their bed without their favorite comfort item clutched in their hand.

Many educators feel the same way about textbooks.

After all, textbooks are safe to educators. At any moment’s notice when teachers are afraid that they won’t have the right answer, they can refer to their textbook for the answer. When they’re looking to give class work to students, they can assign a few pages to read. Principals who check lesson plans look to see what textbook pages will be covered that day. Going without a textbook is like a presenter going without a Power Point, it feels uncomfortable. It goes against the norm. It’s risky and educators do not feel like they can take a risk.

Schools, states and even the federal education department send the message to teachers that everyone must be taught the same curriculum. It gets rather impossible after that because there are numerous textbooks, resources and tools that are aligned to the Common Core. Schools do not all use the same resources, nor should they. Teachers do not teach the same way, so students will never get the same experience. Education doesn’t work that way.

Schools and states must do what they can to make sure the best teachers are guiding student learning, the best principals are helping to create inclusive environments, and all of these stakeholders have access to the best resources. Unfortunately, it’s too easy these days to buy a brand new textbook series, and follow a recipe that we know will never really work. Too many schools are left with teachers who want a textbook and to be told what to do by principals who are not qualified to provide that kind of guidance.

There are not enough teachers who provide inquiry-based learning experiences for students because too many feel like they are doing the wrong thing because they receive pressure from peers or administration to provide a more sterile teaching program. Textbooks are the common denominator in these sterile environments. Teaching and learning should never be sterile.

The History of Textbooks
Textbooks have been around forever. They may be hardcover texts that are used year after year, and quite possibly could be out of date. Or teachers may use consumable texts which require students to rip pages out every day. A textbook filled with “death by ditto.” If you taught or teach elementary school, you remember a time when you ran around the classroom helping students make sure they were ripping out the pages “on the line.”

How many of you used Scotch tape to put a page back together as the student sat crying because they felt bad that they ripped their page?

Schools spend a good part of their budgets on texts every year, and as much as educators may hate large publishers, they support them every day when they open up their textbook. Those companies, right or wrong, are driving the way kids learn if teachers have an overreliance on their textbooks. Teachers need to find a balance or step away from textbooks all together.

With the Common Core State Standards, schools are looking for new textbooks that are tied to the Common Core. Why would they look at any other resource? Beware....not all textbooks are as aligned as they say they are and school districts are at risk of spending thousands of dollars on textbooks that they may never need. In New York City alone, they estimate it will cost $56 million dollars to buy textbooks and resources aligned to the Common Core (N.Y. Times. Al Baker).

Maybe now is the time to break the dependency on textbooks.

Breaking the Habit
There are numerous reasons why many schools believe it’s time to break the textbook habit. Most schools have a variety of ways to meet the needs of students and those typically revolve around the use of technology. It’s time for teachers to be treated like professionals again, and an over-reliance on textbooks makes the book the expert and not the teacher. If used at all anymore, the textbook should be a base and not be the driver behind the conversation or the information.

The following are some considerations:
Common Core - Many textbooks and resources claim they are aligned to the Common Core but they are not. Considering that the Common Core has a focus on non-fiction, as well as fiction, other resources like class sets of news magazines, leveled readers and other resources may make the Common Core more engaging and give teachers the freedom they need.

Leveled readers - For those “real” book enthusiasts, leveled readers are a much better alternative to a textbook. Leveled readers help boost self-esteem and also builds literacy skills. They also come in non-fiction and fiction, and focus on every possible subject area.

Technology - Schools are offering BYOD which is the choice that most students would prefer, because they can do their own research and find their own resources. Even schools that do not offer BYOD have netbooks, desktops and tablets for students to use. Technology is a tool that, when used correctly, can offer much more than any textbook.

Winners Point of View - Textbooks are written from the winner’s point of view. Students need to learn that what they read in textbooks is sometimes a perspective of the winner. There is often another side to the story. Make sure students are researching on-line or using other resources for different perspectives on the same topic.

Diversity - Too often, even chapter books do not include the necessary diversity. Make sure that whatever books are used in the classroom setting depicts the diverse lives of students (NY Times. Motoko Rich).

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.