Most Textbooks Should Just Stay On the Shelf

By Jay Mathews
Monday, December 15, 2008

Most people think textbooks are important. Schools that don't have all of theirs might find themselves accused of dereliction of duty. The Washington Post, for instance, was aghast last year that several thousand D.C. schoolbooks hadn't yet left the warehouse when classes began.

My colleague Michael Alison Chandler underlined this in her story two weeks ago about an effort by some Virginia teachers to break the $8 billion-a-year textbook industry's tight grip on science instruction, which often stops abruptly about the time Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity in 1905.

The fact that such obsolescence is tolerated shows how much faith we put in textbooks. So does our acceptance of the difficulty most students have reading through a standard textbook without falling asleep. Reid Saaris, founder of the D.C.-based Equal Opportunity Schools Organization, remembers teaching 12th-grade history in Beaufort, S.C., with a particularly tedious required text. The few seniors who chose his class usually did so for inappropriate reasons. One year, five boys showed up, gave Saaris disappointed looks and said they had enrolled only "because of the hot lady who was supposed to be teaching the class."

"Obviously, there is a lot of money in textbooks, because the publishers push them hard," said Mark Dodge, a physics teacher at the H-B Woodlawn program, a public high school in Arlington County. He doesn't like the fact that every seven years or so the textbook salespeople start promoting a new version. "A teacher who relies heavily on a textbook has to entirely revamp his or her course when a new adoption occurs," he said. "It really takes two or three years to do that well. By the time you really get it polished, you begin closing in on a new adoption cycle. I think most experienced teachers go through that trap once and then move away from heavy dependence on textbooks."

Mike Grill, a history teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, said his textbooks keep his lessons aligned with the Advanced Placement curriculum, but he adds primary source documents, journal articles and other original materials as often as he can. "It's no secret that most students loathe their textbooks, so I've learned that the more textbook breaks I provide, the easier it is for them to come back to the textbook and get something out of the textbook reading," Grill said.

In the classrooms I visit, it is often a good sign that the textbooks are stacked on a corner bookshelf or window sill, gathering dust. The best teachers have an ongoing conversation with their class, calling on every student, challenging sloth, praising fresh ideas, moving the group beyond the text, which covers only the state's or the school's curricular requirements. "In some instances, I have completely avoided using the textbooks because they presented information in such small, bite-sized chunks that it was actually confusing for the students," said Toby Harkleroad, who taught social studies theology at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and is now principal of St. Camillus School in Silver Spring.

My favorite teacher, Al Ladendorff of Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif., used our U.S. history text like a bull's-eye on a firing range. He had us identify factual distortions and analytical flaws in the thick tome the state had chosen for us. I never got over the realization that textbooks, presented as revealed truth all those years in school up until then, sometimes had as many mistakes and wrong-headed assumptions as my own term papers.

Textbooks still make good dictionaries, with glossaries at the back. They also reassure parents, who don't get to see teachers in action but are comforted, in a perverse way, that their kids' schoolbooks seem just as dry and predictable as theirs were. But like the newspapers that have been my life, textbooks are creeping slowly toward obsolescence. Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, said his companies are moving into "Web sites, podcasts, electronic books, software, courseware, online tutoring tips, educational games, video products" and many other ways to learn.

Big books have failed to hold the attention of teenagers leafing through the pages with music blasting in their earbuds and text messages filling their cellphone screens. Facts and ideas, in my experience, are more likely to sink in if introduced in group exercises, exploiting the adolescent urge to belong. Teachers have their classes organize book clubs, recreate the Constitutional Convention, raise animals, write and perform plays, publish online magazines.

The Virginia teachers in Chandler's story are leaping beyond the textbook industry by writing their own chapters in biophysics, nanotechnology and other emerging fields and posting them online. They will be optional, free supplements to hardbound books.

If teachers can write their own textbooks, why not students? It would make a fine group project, with each kid doing a chapter. Debate the fine points, put them on the Web and pass them around, irresistible preparation for the final exam. Then we might not worry so much if the 800-page doorstops don't show up on time next year.


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