Saturday, May 26, 2012

The textbook-less mentality

Here's the thing: tell a social studies teacher to go textbook-free and you are not going to be hailed as a hero. Mostly you are going to get a whole lot of push back. "I need a narrative to teach history." "The materials are all there." "There are great maps on the textbook that I can't find anywhere else." "I need the expertise of the authors of the textbook."  And on and on and on.

The Borg were wrong: Resistance isn't futile, it's fertile.

What's needed is a different approach to teaching history.  As I've said before, I believe that history is a good story.  But the learning that comes from the study of history is not how to tell a good story.  It is how to examine that story for perspective/point of view/bias.  It is how to see how cause and effect occurred within that story. It is how to place that story within a context.  It is hypothesizing about how that story could have unfolded differently if events were changed. It is what patterns emerge from looking at the first story and the ones that came later.  It is how the circumstances around the story made it happen that way.

Textbooks do none of this well, but they are seen as irreplaceable because they provide organization/structure, and they come with extra materials, embedded images, maps, charts, graphs, tables and sources.  And teachers are creatures of habit, who, when left to their own devices, are reluctant to re-visit something that works, and who lack the time to fully tear down their curriculum and re-build it better. Or worse, teachers aren't given the ability to tear down the curriculum, because it was handed down to them from on high and they aren't empowered to make changes.

A fundamental shift in thinking about the role of the teacher vis a vis his or her materials is needed, and the shift is this: I, the teacher, need to become the curator of the story.  I know the story, and I can share the story.  But in order to share it and encourage the habits of mind that make the study of [fill in the topic] valuable, I need to go out and find the materials that will enable my students to build those skills and habits.  I, the teacher, need to recognize and give myself permission to say that I know my students better than the person who compiled the textbook.  I know their strengths and I know their weaknesses.  Therefore, I, the teacher, need to gather the materials that will do the job.

That act is where teachers balk.  No time.  Too hard.  I'm not an expert. I've designed the class around the book, and I need their unique materials to do my job.

The notion of the materials in the book being important and irreplaceable is just crap. All the primary source documents, pictures, maps, graphs and charts any teacher could need are all available with the click of the mouse from the interwebs. They exist in digital form and are easy to replace, project and distribute.

Supplemental materials. Worksheets are the bane of my existence. I hate them. But many teachers rely upon them and think that they help students to extract, refine and remember information from, you guessed it, the textbook. They are unique to the textbook contents, and thus can't be replicated. So, do away with textbooks and you can do away with worksheets, which means some teachers feel they don't have a way to occupy the students in class. A more charitable view is to say that perhaps the teachers don't feel qualified or confident enough to ask their own questions about the document/image/chart/graph.  In which case they need leadership that will help to build this confidence.  Though really, if you don't feel as though you can guide a group of teenagers through the Mayflower Compact on your own, I'm not sure you should be in the classroom...

The narrative.... Why do we need to have a narrative? Narratives are, by their very nature, impacted by the perspective of the narrator. Part of what makes the teaching of historical events interesting is filtering through to find "truth." But whose truth? What truth? If you read the late Howard Zinn's A Peoples History of the United States, you get his version of the truth of American history. It isn't "right," it is biased, and it doesn't pretend to be otherwise. If you read A Patriots History of the United States you get another isn't "right," it is biased, and it doesn't pretend to be otherwise. But in both cases you know what you are getting when you open the cover. If you read the textbook The Americans, it attempts to present us with a non-biased, even-handed narrative of American history. It is scared to have a point of view, because to do so might alienate future customers who don't agree with that point of view.  So the story is presented in as blandly vanilla a way as possible, and as a result, it kills all the habits of mind that make the teaching of history so valuable to today's society.

We, the teachers, should be about curating documents and materials that meet the needs of the students we teach for the course that we are teaching. We, the teachers, should not be presenting our students with information filtered through the textbook company to please the state board of ed in the state that is the largest purchaser of the textbooks. (Yeah, I'm talking to you Texas...)


  1. I think that this is an inspiring post and I sent it to my NEU course's professor and virtual colleagues. Teaching a foreign language involves delving into the literary classics which in my estimation, just cannot be replaced. In order to show my students that I am proactive and a sponsor of the "text-less" persuasion, I used both the iBooks and pdf Annotate Apps in which we downloaded the English version of Le petit prince on the iBooks App and the French version on the pdf Annotate App.It worked incredibly well as the students were able to write notes in these Apps. Plus, they did not have to carry books to class.
    As for the worksheets, I scanned them into our Dropbox account. I do use worksheets as a way of practicing the material prior to having them do PBL activities and / or projects which illustrate critical and higher order thinking skills.
    Wonderful posts filled with inspiring ideas, Todd!

  2. Nice post and good points about the bland history presented in the textbooks. I have worked in smaller museums for the past 20 years and one thing I have tried to impress on teachers is the value of using local historical resources in the curriculum. It seems that elementary school teachers make the most use of local history, in our area it is a mandate to do local community history in grade 3. But, knowing from experience the great resources to be found in local archives and collections, I see some great, untapped potential to bring history to life for students at all levels. Currently I am pulling together the history of the CCC projects conducted in a number of nature preserves in our county. These are places familiar to area students and they can see through maps, CCC reports, photos, local newspaper accounts, etc just how the New Deal played out in their own communities and that it wasn't a far off (in both space and time), abstract thing. The same can be true of so many themes and topics in history.