It’s a bad time for textbooks.
In schools and school board meetings, and in the news, they are often ridiculed. People say they are too heavy. They are too expensive. They induce sleep. They stand in the way of creative teaching. They are filled with errors. Ideologues on state textbook committees use them to achieve their political or religious agendas.
I have visited the classrooms of gifted teachers, loved by their students, where the textbooks are stacked in the corner, grimy from neglect. The teacher has developed her own set of materials. She communicates the subject matter better her way, with state test results that prove it.
And yet, at educational conferences and in scholarly papers, the textbook is making a comeback. Sure, its defenders say, many textbook series have deteriorated into fuzzy platitudes, with little use for teachers or students, but that does not mean that our classes are doing better without them.
In his new book “FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning,” former school administrator and teacher tramer Mike Schmoker says “the educational community was quick to respond to the (legitimate) criticism of textbooks, but quicker still to adopt their horrific replacements: excessive use of lecture, worksheets, movies, poster making, and pointless group work.”
His book cites numerous scholars bemoaning what the demonization of textbooks has done to learning. Fordham University reading expert Molly Ness says students have “little direct exposure to print in the content areas.” Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein says most students are never taught the slow and careful analytical reading of texts that is required to understand content. A few inspired teachers may be able to translate the texts for them, but once they get to college, and to many kinds of technical jobs, they are going to have to do it themselves.
With each year, Schmoker says, they have less instruction in how to read non-fiction prose. I have complained many times on this blog that in those relatively few instances when high school students are required to read an entire book, it is usually fiction.
Reading experts Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan of the Univerity of Illinois at Chicago did a study of textbook use, cited by Schmoker. “They discovered that textbook reading, though critical to learning in the content areas, was grossly ignored and that students must be taught how to read textbooks, at increasing levels of sophistication in all content areas and at every grade level.”
This is not as hard as it sounds, Schmoker argues. “There are simple but seldom-clarified ‘moves’ that we must model for students to acquire the essential knowledge in each discipline,” he says. “These moves aren’t complicated. In all content areas, they require teachers to repeatedly teach and model slow, often methodical kinds of reading for their students—the kind that the teachers themselves do when they read such texts.”
He cites a 2007 article by education writer and documentarian Kathleen Cushman in the periodical Educational Leadership describing the culture shock for students arriving at college without much practice in reading textbooks. She said they lack the “deeper reading, writing and inquiry that college requires.”
Textbooks, of course, no longer have to be on paper. The rise of computers and electronic books carries much potential for reduced cost and easier access to primary sources.
But those often dense writings have to be read and understood if a student has any hope of making it through college. In one chapter of Schmoker’s book he cites several experts saying that the bias in favor of lab work in high school science is counterproductive because the experiments often do not relate to the text. or the purpose of the course. Countries with the highest science achievement, he says, “devote less time to hands-on activities” than American schools do.
Schmoker does not explain how the need for careful, slow work to understand scholarly language is going to overcome the modern public school bias in favor of light, breezy prose. He seems to hope that smart teachers will see the problem and reverse direction.
We are likely to be hearing more about this. In the growing demands for a new kind of 21st century education, we are discovering a need for critical thinking and asking questions that actually takes us back to the 5th century BC. Then, a man named Socrates set a standard that has seen rarely been met. . You can’t keep up with a teacher like that unless you know the content. As Schmoker points out, you are most likely to find it in textbooks.