Teaching Opinion

No Textbooks: A New Responsibility for Teachers and Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 12, 2014 5 min read
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The role of textbooks as we know them is questionable. School district leaders have been weighing the value textbooks and of the dollars spent on them. Metro Nashville Public Schools and other Middle Tennessee school systems, will not replace their social studies textbooks. “It’s a “digital classroom” these days, officials say, and teachers need flexibility to use curriculum not offered in the old-fashioned print textbook.” This is a step away from a single print resource toward an arena in which multiple print and digital resources can be used. It can be recognized as another step in their path to become 21st century schools. It is also a step into new and heightened responsibilities for teachers and leaders.

The 20th Century
Often school district curriculum manuals sat on shelves collecting dust. Renewed from time to time, they kept company with the state curriculum manuals. A form of old accountability and consistency assurance was provided by the textbook. It offered a guide and a guarantee that what was to be taught, was taught. Teachers new to the field, the grade level or subject or to the district may have referred to the dusty manuals but, once reviewed, back to the shelf they went. After that, teachers developed lessons and activities to lead their students through text defined learning topics and gain mastery over the course for the year. If the bookmark moved further toward the back of the book as the year moved along teachers, students, principals, and parents were confident of progress. Textbook companies designed their textbooks to capture most states’ curriculum, and intended that skills required to read or complete the assignments were scaffolded from basic to more difficult. Textbooks were not intended to be the only resource used in teaching but, in many cases, lack of resources ...or of time and creativity...made it so.

Good teachers always used supplementary resources to add to the richness of their courses and to offer students varied levels of difficulty in the materials used. Limited only by the technology available in the school and the walls and filters if they had Internet access, gradually, teachers have been able to access a growing treasure trove of free resources to supplement their work with their students.

The 21st Century
Over these past few years, there has been an accelerated move away from textbooks. Elementary schools began to order more supplemental resources and classrooms became growing libraries with books, literature and non-fiction, organized by level of difficulty, or by topic. Many middle schools followed suit. In an effort to remain in the market, textbook companies rushed to offer online resources. In addition to making their texts available online, activities, primary documents and other resources were made available. Some even opened a service to allow teachers to compile books of their own resources. 24/7 access for students, parents, and teachers became possible.

A Different Accountability
Yes, “teachers need flexibility to use curriculum not offered in the old-fashioned print textbook” but with that flexibility comes a huge revised responsibility. This move away from print texts is a move away from an old “accountability” system. This old system gave teachers, students, leaders, and parents a method for noting progress through curriculum. Teachers designed tests according to pages or chapters covered. Parents expected children to study that content and be ready. Backpacks were full of these texts.

Now, engaged in a new accountability system, many teachers are assessed, in part, by an achievement score on external standardized tests. Unlike the tests teachers developed based on a district’s curriculum in concert with the texts available, these standardized tests are a foreign entity. They have become reviled as external enemies of the teaching learning process.

Assessment is used to demonstrate, inform, understand, and provide evidence; it can be accomplished through performance and portfolio, timed and over time. Students’ progress, shown through achievement on assessments and the grades earned and reported to parents, is the way things have been done. And certainly, schools have always used external standardized tests along the way to benchmark one thing or another. But let’s remember to look at the shadow side as we march ahead.

A Different Responsibility for Teachers and Leaders
Moving away from the use of textbooks is a serious consideration Using digital and varied resources in classrooms is befitting of this century. But let us also acknowledge what this move means with regard to the responsibility it places on teachers as curriculum developers, facilitators, and assessors, especially if their performance is (at least in part) measured by an external measure.

The move away from textbooks must be accompanied by a responsibility to create the time, space, and guidance in which teachers can research new resources and use them to transform the work being done in and outside of their classrooms. An environment that encourages experimentation, sharing with colleagues, failure as learning, and successes as models, may be a change for some schools. Teachers being asked to let go of textbook use need that environment in order for the use of multiple resources to be successful. It is facet of professionalism returned from textbook companies to the masters of learning...teachers.

The responsibility for every child being offered experiences similar enough that they can all make the mark on the same target rests, ultimately, with the leaders. As each teacher wrestles with the new and exciting opportunities that can exist with the use of multiple resources instead of a text, the leader has to be sure there is some method of replacing the target that once was the dusty curriculum manual and the trusty ole’ textbook.

We celebrate all steps taken to modernize the learning experience for students. It is also very important that we acknowledge the hard work and changing responsibilities that come along with these changes. Teachers have a responsibility to continue to grow and develop as 21st century educators. They cannot do that without the leader willing to let go of the old and familiar and make potential possible.

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