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Increase Student Engagement by Getting Rid of Textbooks

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Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Shelly Blake-Plock a high school classroom teacher from Maryland, who blogs at

Drool in the textbook.

That's one of my most lasting impressions of high school. I can't tell you the number of times that I fell asleep -- face down in my textbook -- during various history and foreign language classes.

And these days -- as a history teacher and as a foreign language teacher -- that's one of the memories I'd rather not impart to my students.

It's not that textbooks in and of themselves are in toto 'bad' or 'good'. In fact there are great examples of both. And while I've chucked my share, I've kept a couple around. Case in point: Wheelock's Latin. I must have a dozen of my own copies of that textbook, and each year I've required incoming Latin I students to dutifully pick up a copy of their own.

But not this year.

In fact, I've spent the last three years shedding textbooks from my classes. West Civ? No textbook. Latin Lyric Poetry? No textbook. AP Modern Euro? No textbook.

And guess what? No drool.

Take that Latin text. Sure, it's a fine Latin grammar book and has been for decades; and it's full of great examples of "real Latin literature." That's what actually hooked me on it years ago. But I've had to realize that times have changed and that even in the short decade that I've been a teacher, many of the texts, tools, and devices I'd learned to see as "most effective" weren't necessarily the "most effective" now in 2010 when it came to holding my student's attention -- and more importantly, instigating the best benefits of their motivation and imagination.

Medium does matter. And the textbook is generally a medium that inspires neither motivation nor imagination. If textbooks were inspiring and everyone wanted to read them, they'd be at the top of the New York Times' bestseller list. But they're not. Because that's not what textbooks are meant to do. And that brings us to the philosophical part of this issue.

As a teacher, I'd say that the best things textbooks do are a) make my life easier by supplying me with reading passages, questions, and projects for the kids to do, b) organize the class material in such a way that we can stay on a steady course, and c) make it easy for colleagues and I teaching the same classes to "keep on the same page," so to speak. And in all three cases, the textbook serves the teacher quite well.

Unfortunately, the textbook does not serve the students quite as well.

The students do not learn "better" because my life as a teacher is "easier." Convenience is not a form of effective pedagogy. My students learn better when they take the active role in finding and choosing texts, asking their own questions, and creating their own projects. In my 9th grade West Civ class, this means students learn directly from primary sources (see the Internet History Sourcebook, the Perseus Project, the Library of Congress's 'Teaching with Primary Sources' project, and the Internet Archive) without the filter of a textbook middleman. It means that they keep daily blogs full of questions and reflections on our learning and that they engage with our crowdsourced Q&A wiki. It means that they propose projects based on their own individual learning strengths and that they make me assess them not by a "standard" but by a formative approach to personal development. And this does not even touch on the elements of project-based, performance-based, and gaming-based assessment that go well beyond the range a textbook allows.

As for organization, no static paper textbook can beat the timeline resources available on sites such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Helibrunn Timeline of Art History or the BBC's History, let alone what students can contribute to and create on their own via Dipity; and no proprietary encyclopedia can touch the resources of Wikimedia and it's various genre and topic specific portals. These resources are updateable in realtime to reflect the most current scholarship, thinking, argument, and debate as it happens, they are manageable through contemporary mobile modes of communication and organization such as Twitter and Delicious, and they reflect new media -- and thus the authentic modes of 21st century networked connectedness -- not as auxiliary to the classroom experience, but rather as fundamental to it.

As for "keeping on the same page"... One of the most exciting things to have come out of the textbookless experience among my West Civ social studies colleagues has been the way in which each of us have the opportunity to share what we know and what we really care about with one another in the active creation of our own courses of study -- and thus we depend on and appreciate even more each other's knowledge, wisdom, and professionalism both f2f and through our social networks. We're not dolts reading a textbook aloud, showing PowerPoint slides full of "notes," and giving bubble tests. We're professionals in the field of human development and we are learning, sharing, and growing as a result of not being force-fed. The students see this and know this because we are transparent in our endeavor whether talking about pedagogy in the classroom with our students or taking part publicly in the ongoing conversation on Twitter, on the Nings, and in the blogosphere. And by doing this, we are modeling qualities we want to see our students themselves hone.

Now, there will be those who say that schools without 1:1 resources just can't engage in this sort of way. And, actually, I'd agree. And I'd say to those schools: "So what are you doing to change things? What are you doing to bring 1:1 computing to your kids? Why aren't you letting students bring the technology they already own into the classroom? And how are you changing and reallocating your resources to take advantage of technologies that prove over the long-haul to be more cost effective and less redundant than textbooks and printing?" I'd ask the English Department: "Why are you buying novels and anthologies that by-and-large are available for free online at places like Project Gutenberg, Open Library, and Google Books?" I'd ask the Math Department: "Why are you beholden to a textbook company for math questions? Use your hard-earned knowledge and post your own questions on a class blog; let the kids formulate questions; shake things up a bit."

And then we get to the political issue.

Try as we like, none of us can get around the fact that textbooks are a political issue. It's not as though textbook manufacturers are maliciously trying to brainwash our kids with this or that. They're just watching their bottomline during a period of economic turmoil and big changes in the industry. The job of Big Textbook is to sell textbooks -- whether paper, digital, or whatever (as a side note, I personally have come to see the iPad and iBooks as the new face of Big Textbook just as the iPod and iTunes became the new face of the Big Music). Anyway, to sell textbooks, they have to edit content to best fit into whatever goals and guidelines certain, ahem, state boards of education set for their curriculum. The result is a relatively small number of political folks (not making a judgement here as to the politics, just saying what it is) having an enormous amount of influence on an industry that will then produce a product that will "necessarily" be picked up throughout the country.

That's pretty much how it works. Well, up until now.

Because now, if they take hold of the reins, teachers themselves have the power to free themselves of this system. Administrators have the power to change up how they do business and free themselves of this system. Parents and students have the power to petition gnarly districts to grant administrators and teachers this privilege to free themselves of this system.

And at the end of the day, we see that the point of schooling in this country isn't to keep the book industry afloat. The point of schooling in this country is to educate the next generation to have the courage and sensibility to make decisions that better our society.

And maybe clean up the drool.

Shelly Blake-Plock is a high school classroom teacher from Maryland. He runs the blog and some of his most interesting recent conversations have been with textbook publishers.

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Cathy Stutzman's picture
Cathy Stutzman
High School English Teacher from Flemington, NJ

Awesome post! I was just talking with a social studies teacher (@darodet on Twitter) who is toying with the idea of replacing textbooks with wikipedia (among other things) so that history becomes more of an ongoing, evolving conversation. Not to mention, students could end up exploring sub-topics that interest them by simply clicking on links and resources listed on the wikipedia pages. And, they could easily use Diigo or Delicious to annotate and engage with the online texts in ways that most borrowed, public school textbooks do not allow.

Derek's picture
HS Principal AIS Budapest and founder of simCEO - classroom simulation

As a HS principal, I'm blogging about this topic in a different manner - how to locate paperless resources that are set up for classroom, educational purposes instead of resources that are simply interactive, 3D storehouses of great information such as online museums or the internet in general ( in which the teacher needs to fashion into lesson plans that integrate standards and pose meaningful questions).
I think one of the stumbling blocks to making this movement more mainstream is that textbooks provide structure and order (and RESTRICTION and BOREDOM) in sharing information, but they lack an hint of authentic engagement. Meanwhile, many of the technologies mentioned provide little or no structure - and thus the road block.
What technologies are out there are able to integrate content in an authentic manner, instead of being storehouses of content (with no structure) or 2.0 communication devices which lack any content. If anyone out there has any suggestions on this, please share with my on my blog where I'm exploring this issue:

Stephanie's picture

I am also an advocate for the textbook-less classroom, provided that the school has the necessary resources to implement it. I agree with much of what you said in your post: textbooks are dry for the students. They also cost schools a lot of money in that the textbooks (particularly history books, but others as well) must be updated every five to ten years. Students also seem to engage with their learning if they can choose projects and assignments that interest them.

Additionally, they are also heavy. I remember weighing my backpack on an average day in middle school: 27 lbs. I weighed only 90 lbs. at the time!! There is no reason that students should have to carry around a bag that contains that large of a fraction of their own body weights like that, especially if the school has the resources to prevent that from happening.

Derek's picture
HS Principal AIS Budapest and founder of simCEO - classroom simulation

I was turned on this to post from a comment on my own blog, I am a HS Principal and I'm trying to ask questions and gather resources within my blog for a related issue - effective educational uses of technology that contain content but are structured in an open-ended, project-based manner with an authentic purpose. I use the old "Oregon Trail" simulation as an example. I list some criteria on my blog to learn more detail, but does anyone have any good leads on other technologies that might fit into the model of Oregon Trail and yet utilize 2.0 technologies and/or allow more dynamic content to be integrated easily?

Holly Eide's picture

We've recently been introduced to the notion of school without text books. I am absolutely all for it!! Text books by the time they are published are usually 2-3 years behind. Why not use virtual classrooms and even teacher specific curriculum so children have an opportunity to learn from teachers who specialize in subjects/topics and take the classroom outside the four walls. The dropout rate among higher IQ students is actually greater than those with lower IQs or test scores. The average teacher must cater to the "average" in class student leaving those needing advanced or slower learning rates left to boredom or feelings of incompetence. A home school model of learning at a child's individual learning rate until achievement on a given lesson would greatly improve the learning and interest level. Kids are used to playing video games and moving on once they have mastered or achieved a satisfactory grade, that's part of the challenge. Why not open up technology learning to allow students to advance and move based on their individual achievements rather than solely on age and grade level? Great post Shelly...keep me posted on future progress.,

Tania Mulry - EdRover Inc.'s picture

Growing up in 2010 means being immersed in the digital culture - the internet, mobile devices, unlimited TV options, video games, 3D movies.

Books are quickly becoming an expensive, bulky, anachronism that no longer support students' adapted learning styles.

It is time for schools to look at the business case (yes, business case) for replacing books with more engaging digital devices and educational content that is more in line with the style that this generation understands.

At EdRover, we are working on a mobile school fundraising solution that will help schools fund the switch to digital learning.

Sharel Kasai's picture

I see the future classroom 10% textbook and 90% computer based.It's a great save on paper. This 10:90 would probably put a few textbook companies out of business though. I find that when students use computers in class, many of them end up on FB instead of on the lesson.hmmmm.

LaToniya A. Jones's picture

Thanks for this post. I also follow you on Twitter (I'm @POWEROrgMath)
Textbooks are written for the masses. However, in order to help students improve content knowledge we need to provide a variety of "authentic learning experiences" as you have mentioned. Technology and the electronic resources you shared are great examples of ways to create equitable learning communities for ALL students. Whether students are in a 1 computer classroom setting, have unlimited access at home, or utilize community resources such as the computer lab in a local library-- socio-economic barriers/school finance issues are not a concern.

LaToniya A. Jones's picture

Great Post! Textbooks make assumptions about where students are at various grade levels and leave little room for authentic learning experiences. The approach and variety of electronic resources that you mentioned offer a different option for the teaching and learning environment that permits instructors and students to continue building upon their learning communities with current events and relevant resources. Whether students are in a 1-computer classroom, have unlimited access to the Internet, or utilize the computer lab in their local library -- the option to explore, investigate, and access electronic resources beyond their classroom/school builds active learning and eliminates the barriers to equitable learning opportunities due to school budgets and socio-economic status.

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