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For Love of Textbooks

Jay Mathews is waxing nostalgic over textbooks and tries to make the case that, not only are they important to a good education, but that they are making a comeback.

To support the argument, he brings in an expert (meaning someone who wrote a book Mathews has read and agrees with) who 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.”

Which, of course, ignores the fact that all of those “replacements” have been staples of most high school classrooms for half a century or more, right along side classic textbooks.

But it gets worse.

Reading experts Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan of the Univerity of Illinois at Chicago did a study of textbook use, cited by Schmoker [Mathews’ “expert”]. “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.”

I can only imagine how most students would react to that instructional approach, but just reading that statement is putting me to sleep.

What neither Mathews or his expert address in this column is why the textbooks used for most high school classes are so important when the same or similar material is commonly available from other sources, often with many more options for students to actually interact with and use the information.  And without the exorbitant prices.

Certainly students need more experience with reading non-fiction materials, and there may be a place for some textbooks in the K12 education process.

But we need to get passed the assumption, held so dear by Mathews and others, that college must be the one and only goal for every student.

And that slogging through the “dense writings” of booster seat-sized textbooks in any way helps kids learn how to manage and understand non-fiction information in their hyper-connected world.

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1 Comment

  1. Even if we agreed that college is a reasonable goal for all students (which I don’t, I think you are right that such a goal is absurd), why should we force students to read boring, expensive, often out-of-date, poorly written textbooks in K-12 education simply because college professors are likely to make them do so? I remember many college courses that used a plethora of other resources and not a textbook.

    This is the same argument that means that I give my first graders multiple choice tests a couple of times a year – we have to prepare them for 3rd grade and on. What a waste of learning time!

    I’ve not read Focus (the book Mathews is quoting) but I have it and may need to pull it off the shelf now to compare my take on it with his.

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