Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Great Text Book debate

There has been a fair amount of debate among bloggers recently on the subject of text books in schools. Some folks are in favour of buying them and others are against. Among the contributors to the debate are Vicki Davis (for) and Stephen Downes (against). The origin of the debate (this time around, anyway) is apparently this post from Wes Fryer. Just for the record, I follow all three of these people on Twitter and Wes and Stephen are both Facebook friends of mine.

I acknowledge that, as someone who has never been a school teacher, my view probably doesn't count for much, but here it is anyway...

I am trying very hard to remain objective here, but there is one major impediment: I love books.

I am always reading at least one book - most of the time, I have more than one on the go. I am working from home today, and have a clear view into my lounge which boasts three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, some shelves of which carry the beginnings of a second layer of books on the outside of the first. Ours is the sort of house with piles of books beside the beds and in the loos (Americans: read bathrooms). When I read and enjoy a book, or section thereof, I go out and buy it. I love to own books. I love the smell of new books and I love that sense of anticipation when I hold a new book in my hands: what surprises does it hold? So you can guess which side of the debate comes more naturally to me ;-)

I have tried hard to remain neutral on this subject but when I list the pros and cons regarding text books, I find it far easier to come up with rebuttals for the cons. For example:

  • Books cost money - well, so do computers
  • Books date - so do online publications, computer hardware and software, besides - students can learn critical thinking from the challenge of discovering where a text has been superceded by more recent discovery
  • Books require the sacrifice of trees - and technology requires no sacrifices?
  • Books involve all sorts of un-green production processes - so does hardware
But then:
  • You can scribble in the margins and underline passages in a book
  • You can study a book in places where there is no internet connection
  • The tactile experience of a book carries value in itself
  • You can happily and safely fall asleep reading a book in bed (don't scoff - I do it all the time!)
When I was in high school, one of the punishments was to be sent to work in the stationery room. To me, that room was a treasure trove and I would often engineer to get myself sent there when a new consignment had arrived.

I can't get beyond the view of books as a treasure, and this remains the barrier - the reason my voice can't join the other side of the debate.


Stephen Downes said...

I read books too, have read thousands of them, have underlined passages, scribbled in the margins, and to this day read science fiction books in bed to fall asleep. Books for me have always been a treasure. So I know exactly what you're talking about.

That said, I also know the role textbooks play in a school classroom, and it is quite frankly none of those things. The textbook is nothing more than an information delivery vehicle.

If students underline in them or write notes, you're lucky. But they're so expensive they have to last for several years, which means that students that are caught writing in them are punished. They're too heavy to carry around, really. Mostly the students will skim through the text (hope it was covered in class) and do the problems at the end of the chapter.

There is utterly no reason to continue this practice. Textbooks are incredibly expensive and are nothing that could not be easily replicated online - by students themselves! - at a fraction of the cost.

Moreover - unlike textbooks - electronic texts can be used in ways that traditional text, pen and paper studying could never be. At the very least, they can be searched - which means that, if the electronic text supports notes (as it should) those margin notes can be found again, not lost forever.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the idea of an application which would allow a person to scribble in the margins electronically, if that's what your last paragraph is indicating. It's the one thing I really would love to be able to do. Tagging with delicious (never can remember where the dots go in that name) is small beer compared to being able to "personalise" a text.

I still have my English lit text books from high school, and I dug out To Kill a Mockingbird for the umpteenth time recently (I am trying to encourage my son to read it). It's one of my most favourite books, and I am one of those people who is fortunate to be able to read a book several times and enjoy it equally every time. These days when I read it, I am tickled by the remarks written in the margin by the 15 year old version of me. Things that I thought then were profound observations and now seem so obvious. In a weird way I feel kind of fond of the girl who wrote those things!

I presume from what you say that you are not referring to literature as being included in the bracket of "text books". I could never make peace with the disappearance of those!

Lisa M Lane said...

I am also surrounded by books, and I adore them, but I confess I have found very few textbooks I want to keep. There are a few classics, and they are way beyond the quality of anything I've seen published recently.

I'm a historian, but I don't think I'm just valuing the old over the new. The annual production of supposed "new editions" that contain little more than cosmetic changes seems to me to cheapen the whole idea of "book".

Family Ezekiel said...

Karyn, I agree that books are great - but textbooks are not!

As someone who worked in the educational publishing industry, and whose clients include many of the major players in the UK market (and who loves to shoot himself in the foot)- I have seen the commissioning, production and marketing process up close - and it ain't pretty!

Although the call for a moratorium would probably mean that lots of people I know would lose their jobs - I am all for it! I think the market needs to re-organise itself - and have posted recently about how it can, and should change -

A small note about regional issues - The UK market is very different to the US school publishing sector. Apart from the obvious size and diversity of curriculum differences - the UK has a more 'pick and mix' approach to purchasing. So teachers are not as brand loyal as their colleagues in the US. UK teachers buy into any resource that looks to solve their perceived needs.

But this is where the similarities start.

Publishers know that most teachers buy textbooks, not out of need, but out of fear. Fear of the perception that they are not covering the curriculum properly.

So, course books offer coverage - but rarely quality.

There are rare examples of innovative publishing that meets teachers desire to implement best practice, but the vast majority of textbook sales in the UK - and arguabley the US - are a waste of money.

And, of course, the killer punch is that there is more than enough content in schools already!

Teachers have loads of content - but only recently have they been given the power to use it in a dynamic and creative way.

Key to the solution is allowing teachers to combine UGC, free web content and apps, and quality-assured curriculum focussed material into a blended learning experience.

Some publishers are seeing the posibilities in this technology, and are taking the disaggregation of content positively into their strategies - but they point to a very dependent profession as a reason to keep printing and to avoid investing in change!

We need to get teachers off the habit of buying textbooks - and to focus again - not on courses - but on students/children.

Of course, any real change will require a change in policy, curriculum and assessment. But seeing as the head of the QCA, Ken Boston, is all for this - perhaps this would be pushing on an open door.

The mass produced textbook has been dead - as a powerful teaching tool - for many years. The time has come to kill it off once and for all.

Many teachers are making their own courses - piecing together the best content into resources to support the teaching and learning in their schools.

Let's save the millions of pounds/dollars wasted on boring and poorly focussed textbooks on supporting teacher CPD and make the promises of personalised learning more of a reality.

Anonymous said...

Well hello, Eylan! How nice to "hear your voice". I will be hunting you down on Facebook forthwith!

I do hear what all you folks are saying, here, but I guess my concerns are driven by the beat of a different drummer - one who has a cowhide drum! Check out my subesequent post: