George Lucas Educational Foundation

No Books, No Problem: Teaching Without a Text

Thanks to a forward-thinking teacher, chemistry students quickly learn to love leaving the textbook behind.
By Geoff Ruth
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Credit: Francis DaSilva

The students in my general chemistry class almost never open their textbook. My reason: The less I use the book, the more they learn.

While some textbooks are excellent, most bore my students and frustrate me. "Readability formulae" produce mind-numbing prose. Since textbooks are marketed nationally, they must comply with content standards for all states, resulting in ten-pound tomes that cover all topics superficially. Many promulgate scientific misconceptions or even outright errors. (For more on the trouble with textbooks, see "A Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education".) They present ideas didactically as discrete facts to be accepted, rather than as clues of principles to be discovered and explored.

Some textbooks do a fabulous job of making science relevant, but others insult students' intelligence by oversimplifying and fragmenting the subject matter so much that it becomes incomprehensible. Still others explore only a few topics instead of a standard content set.

I didn't set out to banish the book from my classroom. During my first year of teaching general chemistry, I based much of my curriculum on the textbook. In my second year, I gave each student a textbook yet assigned very little from it. Finally, in my third year, I scrapped it altogether and haven't used it since. I realized the textbook's deficiencies and substituted alternate curriculum for topics that my students needed help in mastering. As I added more extra resources, I found that students learned far more when I didn't assign the book.

Molecular Leveler: Geoff Ruth's outside-the-book approach to teaching chemistry helps him tailor his lessons to students' needs.

Credit: Francis DaSilva

Without a textbook, I can create curriculum that engages students by relating science to their everyday lives. Lessons become clearer when I link the topic to an issue that affects them personally. For example, many of my students live in poor, heavily polluted areas, so when we study intermolecular properties and precipitation reactions, we examine the air and water quality in their neighborhoods. Students learning about precipitation explore how two toxic substances can dissolve in the nearby bay and then combine to form a solid that accumulates at the bottom. When we're studying electrochemistry, I assign projects in which students design cell phone batteries that are cheap, environmentally benign, and of the appropriate voltage.

Teaching without a textbook means more prep time, especially in the first few years. It means amassing and adapting curriculum from a wide variety of sources, including journals, lab books, Web sites, packaged curricula, and other teachers. It means mapping this collection to the standards of your school and state. In addition, it means proactively engaging and persuading the administration, the teaching staff, and the parents that ditching the textbook is in the students' best interests. But it's worth this effort. My students are more engaged, they understand more and act out less, and they develop a deeper comprehension of the subject matter.

But the process was a gradual weaning. I wouldn't recommend that any teacher -- particularly a new teacher with multiple classes to prepare for -- try to create a year's curriculum alone or over a single summer. Beginners should take careful note of which lessons are working and why, and then make adjustments suited to their students. (For more information, see "How To: Toss the Text".)

For example, students at my high school typically have stronger reading and writing skills than math skills, so I integrate a review of basic algebra concepts throughout the year. At the beginning of the school year, I take several days to make sure my students can manipulate variables in simple formulas. It's a skill that recurs throughout any chemistry class but is not covered in chemistry textbooks.

Credit: Francis DaSilva

In addition, my students learn particularly well when they work together to discover scientific ideas and apply them to new situations. For instance, I have them organize their own versions of the periodic table from a subset of information and then work out the principles underlying the periodic table as accepted today.

Whenever possible, I use curriculum that encourages students to draw their own conclusions. For instance, my students come to understand the logic behind the periodic table by sorting cards containing information about a particular element. Through this activity, students come to understand the reason for the curious shape of the table -- an arrangement that even some chemistry majors cannot explain coherently.

The lesson plans scripted by textbooks rarely leave room to deviate from standardized curriculum, but such detours are essential to confront and correct students' misunderstandings. My lesson plans include activities to make sure students distinguish the nucleus of an atom from the nucleus of a cell -- I don't want to hear my chemistry students define the nucleus as "the brain of an atom." When we cover the sizes of atomic particles, I build in a review of negative exponents and powers of ten so that no student believes that electrons, at about 10-27 grams, are bigger than protons, at about 10-24 grams.

My curriculum is also peppered with activities that allow me to gauge the students' understanding and adapt quickly to their needs; such unscripted activities are anathema to many textbook publishers. We play a modified version of bingo, called chemgo, that uses cards covered with atomic symbols or other chemistry terms to reinforce concepts like the organization of the periodic table. Students cross off symbols that correspond to statements like "the noble gas with the heaviest atoms." In this game, I work from a list of skills that I want students to master; as students play, I pick topics that give them the practice they need. Even while teaching complicated concepts in a difficult subject, I tailor curriculum to my students, not the other way around.

Though I don't discuss with the students my rationale for shunning a textbook, on a recent student feedback form, I asked them whether they'd prefer to use one. More than 95 percent said no. Some complained that textbooks are heavy; many derided them as boring or difficult to read. As one student put it, "Textbooks are filled with stupid words that make things harder." Several responses indicated that textbooks are useful only for certain kinds of learning. "You don't learn stuff from textbooks," one student wrote. "You just memorize for a test, then forget it." I won't settle for that in my classroom; without a textbook, I don't have to.

Geoff Ruth teaches chemistry and biology at Leadership High School in San Francisco. Write to

Go to "How To: Toss the Text."

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

James F. Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Throughout a twenty year teaching career I encourage my district to move away from Textbook purchases in English and Reading instruction.
My first effort was to rid our Reading teachers of Basal reading programs that classified kids according to how many skill workbooks they completed in a grade rather than by how well they read.
MY first year I had kids who were placed in a level 5 reading class in a 6-8 grade Middle School. I had in that class students ranging from 10-15 years old. A comparison of basal classification to student achievement on the
California Achievement Test (CFT) performance in reading showed that many of the students assigned to this class, as reader on a fifth grade level, read as high as a tenth grade level on their CFTs, and further showed that very few of the students read on or below fifth grade level.
When I inquired about this discrepancy no one from my building to my district level could explain how this could happen, nor had they a plan to correct it. With-in two years we were out of basal readers and into a "Literature based system."
I had tried to convince the district to stop buying reading textbooks and move to a teacher selected classroom, trade book library that allowed students to read books they selected during Sustained Silent Read (SSR) time provided in class. I was informed that the state funded textbook purchases and required a new textbook adoption in each major subject area every five years and that those funds had to be used to buy textbooks.
I found other ways to accomplish the trade book approach which evolve into a Reading Workshop approach that did more to enhance reading skills and develop student enthusiasm for reading than any other approach I have ever seen or heard about.
My subsequent attempts to change the direction of those "State funds" to trade books, computer programs, etc. continued to bear no fruit. My solution was to teach twenty years with a classroom set of the same grammar and literature textbook I had use after my first text book adoption. These books had he same, and in many cases superior content, to the subsequent text book that the state wasted money on only to have them sit in the book room used (hey, the funds had to be used whether they accomplished anything or not). "And so it goes:)"

Jenithesis's picture

"Some textbooks do a fabulous job of making science relevant, but others insult students' intelligence by oversimplifying and fragmenting the subject matter so much that it becomes incomprehensible. Still others explore only a few topics instead of a standard content set."

It is important that teachers make a balanced education for their students. According to research papers and articles, it is important that kids learn a balanced education by teaching the important things.
Study hard and play hard

- Jenithesis

Larah's picture

Students must read more by himself. Becouse in nearest future them awaits such events like dissertation writing (some writing services which help: or some else paper. And what today's students will be done if they dont reading books and writing essay now?
All must be in proportion.

Jonnie Cruse's picture

Textbooks are often used as a guide to teaching when it should be used as a resource. Many resources should be used and textbooks often limit the teacher to one source. I believe textbooks are restricting and aren't building experiences to make connections for the students. It hard to adjust to the students needs when following text. The design of the class is based of the authors and not the teachers.

Jonnie Cruse's picture

I believe teachers often use textbooks as one resource. Many resources should be used in the classroom. Textbooks restrict experience because it does't give hand-ons activities for the students. Most teachers use textbooks as a guide instead of a resource. It is important that teachers teach instead of using a textbook for reading. Some reading will help the development of some concepts but many subjects its easier to learn hands-on.

johnsteve's picture

Insurmountable challenges. Massive piles of background research, books, and interviews. Can you ever get through it? The creation of research reports, essays and lengthy dissertations, and the pressure to read more books than you could possibly have time for can quickly get out of hand. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the whole college experience is often about giving students more work than they could possibly complete.

Galvin's picture

If you would like to obtain much from this piece of writing then you have to apply such techniques to your won web site.

Brandon's picture

Well this comes a long time after this post was posted but a couple thoughts.. First off I don't think that textbooks and meaningful experiences are mutually exclusive. Many textbooks are filled with great activities and of course supplement your own if you like. To me a textbook can be useful for structuring a course and providing a continuous experience where transitions are natural, teaching from many different sources I believe you run the risk of presenting the course as disjointed discrete facts and also subtle hangups in notation especially when it comes to math and science.

I also cringed a bit when I read "Textbooks are filled with stupid words that make things harder" ...not an attitude I want my students to come away with. Those stupid words are, you know, just the essential vocabulary of someone actually proficient in the subject. It's one thing to think you know it but another to be able to talk about it accurately and of course actually be able to demonstrate you know it.

The textbook is the backbone of my classes, yes things are built off it, yes I put my own stamp on my courses, but the recent push I'm seeing as we transition to CC courses... without textbooks adopted... no textbook for the course.. asking teachers to essentially write their own textbook/curriculum won't serve our students well.

Fluffy Guardians's picture

Hello, I am from Universidad de Murcia, we are future teachers and group called Fluffy Guardians; I really like your ideas. Textbooks have many drawbacks as you mentioned. Most of them kill students creativity and demotivate teachers. As you said textbooks are not daily, we need to teach topics with daily news etc, teachers need to create real, natural environment for them... Thank you

richard jones's picture

It is good to have the ability to read a good quality blog with useful data on topics that a lot are interested on. The point that the data indicated are all first hand on actual experiences even help more.kriss
Continue doing what you do as we love reading your work!

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