Monday, March 19, 2012

Textbook Dependence

There's been lots of talk lately on textbooks (or maybe not so lately--I've been avoiding writing). First, Beverlee Jobrack's Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms was published. Next, the edu-world was all aflutter over Apple's entrance into the textbooks market. Finally, veteran textbook author and publisher Annie Keeghan offered some not-so-pretty insights into the aging, hulking industry textbooks have become.

I haven't gotten a chance to read Jobrack's work, but luckily Education Week curriculum journalist Erik Robelen and by the Fordham Institute's curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee did.

I agree with Jobrack's premise as stated by Robelen that in discussions of education reform:
improving the curriculum—what actually gets taught in classrooms—is all too often left off the table. And the author, who provides an insider perspective on the world of developing and selecting curricular materials, contends that this neglect is a key obstacle to increased student learning.
Now I can't refute Jobrack's contentions, but I can speak to my opinion on textbooks, which is that they may well be inaccurate and I can only imagine that they are just slapping new labels on old content. (And this is why textbooks on i-pads will not be "revolutionary.") I also can mostly speak as a social studies teacher. When I taught strict ESOL, I didn't use one textbook in particular but various books and resources depending on what I was teaching. That was true of social studies, too, but I did lean on the textbooks more. But I think the problem with textbooks is two-fold:

1) Especially in subjects such as social studies, textbooks are over-emphasized. Sure, textbooks are useful. Especially when I teach social studies, I use them as reference books and encyclopedias. I like to have two or three sets of textbooks in the class--to check different sources but also so that students of varying reading levels can access the content. Otherwise, I have students read historical fiction and non-textbook non-fiction books, and I use articles and readings that I come across on relevant topics--from the newspaper, from periodicals. What I like about using these is that they usually reflect in some way current scholarship in certain matters, and they are what I want my students eventually to be able to read and make sense of outside of school, independently. Part of what I'm teaching students is that yes, there are facts in social studies and history, but there is also how you put together the facts, interpret them, and which facts are accepted and which are controversial and why. This leads me to the problem that. . .

2) teachers, especially at the secondary level, don't often know enough about the subjects they teach to know if the textbook is wrong or to come up with readings beyond it. When you know very little about a subject you will be teaching, if for example if you are assigned at the last minute to teach World History (as I have been), when you know much more about US History, there's going to be a lot to learn in a brief amount of time and the textbook will get leaned on more and questioned less. I won't be able to fact-check an entire textbook and nor should I have to--that's the publisher's job. And, unfortunately, these days it seems like textbooks need even more scrutiny.

Porter-Magee is right on when she says you can't just have a great curriculum and expect teachers who don't know what they're doing to implement it well. Pedagogy matters; quality of instruction matters. Nor should we just make "teacher-proof" curriculum. Where I might disagree or question Porter-Magee is when she talks about emphasizing data-driven instruction:
And so any discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.
Implementation and assessment are vital but before they even get to the classroom (and continuing as they're there), teachers, especially at the secondary level, should be much better educated (and yes I think they should also be better trained) in the subjects they teach. Teachers should rely less on textbooks and more on other books, texts, and other sources of information. Teachers should be able to spot and to point out inacccuracies. They should help students notice diverging viewpoints or conflicting information in different sources and they should facilitate discussions about these different perspectives--their genesis and how to evaluate them. Far from making textbooks and curricula teacher-proof, teachers should be able to make sense of and judgments about the curriculum and texts they're teaching and to teach their students to do the same.

To attract people that knowledgeable and educated, we have to at least provide much better working conditions, greater professional autonomy, and better pay, but I guess I already covered that in another post.

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