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Textbooks have been an assumed component of classroom learning for generations. They have been a staple of lesson planning and a guide for curriculum development. Textbooks represent major investments for producers and consumers. Purchasing and distribution of textbooks has been a key process in preparation for and beginning each school term. Still, printed textbooks have come under considerable criticism in recent years as relics of the past. Most recently, in this year’s Gates Annual Letter, Bill Gates predicted the imminent demise of the textbook.

These observations and predictions may be correct. However, textbooks occupy a special place in traditional education that may make them more difficult to retire than we assume. Abandoning longstanding practices in education often proves more challenging than anticipated. Consider the compelling list of reasons why students should not be grouped and taught based on their date of birth. Yet, the practice persists. Observe the number of studies that show student retention in grade as an unproductive education intervention. Yet, these and other marginally effective traditional practices remain in place in most traditional education settings.

The emergence of technology tools alone will not necessarily lead to the replacement of the printed textbook. After all, the textbook plays a key role in the organization and operation of schools across the nation. Consider that textbooks:
• Provide an efficient and consistent way to present curriculum content that is aligned with state and local standards for instruction and learning.
• Are filled with well-researched information collected, compiled, organized, and presented by experts in the discipline addressed.
• Are static, so political, social, and cultural issues and events can be presented in a manner that matches the perspectives and expectations of policy makers.
• Are written to match the academic and social development of the grade levels at which their content is targeted. Vocabulary, readability, and other learning supports are calibrated to match the readiness of average students at the target grade.
• Do not require additional devices and connectivity beyond the printed document for basic use. Consequently, they can be accessed virtually anywhere.
• Represent a single purchase even though they typically are used over multiple years.

On the other hand, textbooks present some serious limitations. Consider that:
• The time necessary to collect and organize content and write textbooks means that by the time textbooks are ready for sale and use, they often are already out-of-date.
• Textbooks are typically built as a one-size-fits-all support for classroom instruction.
• Textbooks are limited in the number of perspectives they can provide regarding an event, problem, or controversy.
• Textbooks are limited in the experiences they can provide. Yet, it is the experience associated with learning that is most likely to drive understanding and long term recall, not exposure to content alone.
• Textbooks are susceptible to political agendas and interpretations of the dominant culture and politically powerful.
• It is easy to rely on the textbook as the curriculum and learning path, even when the needs of students are not consistent with the approach chosen in the textbook.

In light of these factors, it seems naïve to assume that technology and the promise of digital content alone will bring about the demise of the printed textbook. Too many forces with an interest in preserving the status quo are in play to make such a transition easy.

As this debate unfolds, the most compelling arguments and the considerations that should be given the most weight are those related to learning, not ease of teaching or control of content. The arguments need to focus on the future of learning and the needs of learners. Here are some ideas to start the debate:
• Learning is best stimulated through engagement and experience, not exposure to content. Textbooks are limited in the depth of experience they can provide. A growing number of tools and approaches are available to provide richer learning experiences.
• Students learn at different rates, on different paths, and through different means. The stimulus for their learning needs to integrate all of these factors. We can no longer afford to base the curriculum and instruction on a one-size-fits-all foundation.
• Students need to be exposed to and see issues from a variety of perspectives if we hope to nurture citizens who are careful, informed, critical thinkers. Exposure to a single or limited set of views shields students from rich, important, and engaging learning opportunities.
• Students deserve to have access to the most current information possible. By definition, textbooks rarely can expose students to real-time content. Better alternatives and richer options are available to capture current issues, developments, and insights.

This list can and should continue to grow. Please feel free to add your own arguments.

Gates, B., & Gates, M. (2019, February 12). We didn’t see this coming. Retrieved from https://www.gatesnotes.com/2019-Annual-Letter

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Understanding why students may be reluctant to engage is a crucial first step in countering the behavior and opening the door to full participation and learning success.

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