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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.

Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pete Figtree's picture

The textbook is for the teacher's convenience. I does not usually cause students to want to learn. Students see the textbook and often immediately shut down.

PF an exploration of gaming in the classroom

Erin's picture

We'd have to really reflect on the validity and reliability of the resources. What a great lesson for teachers and students to learn! That could be one of the most important lessons they learn as they become lifelong learners, to discern truth from propaganda, the value of multiple perspectives to glean the facts from peoples personal recollections. Can you imagine the incredible amount of money this could save in a district that could go towards technology, classroom supplies, or salaries?

malcolm bellamy's picture
malcolm bellamy
Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

Loved this post. It reflects many of the ideas that I have myself and which I expressed in my reflection on the #edchat discussion which I found really interesting (see )

I am also grateful for the excellent links that Shelly has put in the post. I am a follower of his excellent blog which I can highly recommend.

Frank Noschese's picture

Great post! You wrote: "The students do not learn 'better' because my life as a teacher is 'easier.' So true! I think the same argument applies to electronic whiteboards as well.

In science class, I would also say that you could go a step further and eliminate not just textbooks, but almost all lecturing as well. Students are creating knowledge in the lab and sharing it with the class. One popular method for this is called Modeling Instruction. Interactive whiteboarding is a key component of Modeling. You can read my take on it here:
The $2 Interactive Whiteboard.

Eric Anderson's picture
Eric Anderson
Special Ed Teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders

This post has me thinking about how to decrease my reliance on textbooks. Part of the issue at my school has to do with access to technology. Because I work in a day treatment setting, the agency believes everything we do falls under the privacy restrictions of HIPAA and the recent revision to it called HITECH.

We work under policies that restrict the use of social networking sites, classroom/teacher web pages, etc. Convincing the agency to distinguish between health information, which must be protected, and school information is an uphill struggle.

Nikki Navta's picture
Nikki Navta
CEO of Zulama

Our background is rooted in textbooks, the founders of Zulama all worked for many years in that industry. Textbooks served their purpose, and thirty years ago they were the best our technology had to offer. Now our technology is completely different, and the way in which "textbook material" needs to be delivered is, accordingly, completely different.

Lorilee Pearl's picture

Elementary schools without textbooks?
I believe that student engagement is key to educating our students. However, as Blake-Plock mentions there is value(if somewhat stifling) to assist new teachers.) As a reading coach/curriculum specialist at a small urban school, does anyone have suggestions where to begin. We're just getting so
E white boards and our technology resources are generally used in 4&5 grades for student-based projects. We also are held to a "bubble-in" state test that determines pass or fail in grades 1-5 and will possibly be a factor in future teacher's salaries? True reform is needed. I'd welcome suggestions.

Tracey Jackson's picture

I would have to agree that textbooks tend to have a negative stigma and students just do not like to carry them. I usually only keep a classroom set out for my students and their enrichment assignments can be done online. For those students that do not have internet access, I give them a copy.

I think my students enjoy my lessons because I do not live by the textbook.

tonia randall's picture

I think textbooks are for the purpose of the teacher to track students learning. However, sometimes students can find them quite boring. They caring them around but alot times barely open then at home. Students would rather get on the internet and research the topic than read it in their text book.

Laura Huertero's picture

Very rarely can I find a novel I want to use in the English classroom. Sure, a few DWM's have relinquished their rights to the public, but otherwise rights to e-books must be purchased the same as novels. Furthermore, I contend that reading a NOVEL is not nearly the same experience as reading a textbook, and reading a novel IS an experience I wish to model for students.

As a Spanish teacher, however, I have long eschewed textbooks, and have been immersing myself further and further into potential "authentic texts"--though it is very difficult to find ones suitable for my beginning learners.

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