George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Increase Student Engagement by Getting Rid of Textbooks

Shelly Blake-Plock offers suggestions for improving student engagement by going directly to the source.

August 5, 2010

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, and no proprietary encyclopedia can touch the resources of Wikimedia and its 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.

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  • 9-12 High School

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