Textbooks have been ubiquitous in American classrooms for generations. Yet, the debate over the future of textbooks intensifies with complaints of outdated information and politically objectionable content, especially with the availability and ease of Open Education Resources and other growing technology-based options. Despite this, textbooks remain a staple of lesson planning and serve as guides for curriculum development.
The special place textbooks occupy in traditional education makes it more difficult to retire them than we assume. Abandoning longstanding practices in education often proves more challenging than anticipated. Consider that textbooks:
- Provide an efficient and consistent way to present curriculum content that aligns with state and local standards for instruction and learning.
- Supply well-researched information collected, compiled, organized, and presented by discipline experts.
- Match and align students’ levels of academic and social development with target content based on grade level. Calibrate vocabulary, readability, and other learning supports to match the average student’s anticipated grade readiness.
- Require no additional devices or connectivity for basic use.
- Represent a one-time purchase often used over multiple years.
On the other hand, textbooks present serious limitations:
- By the time content is collected, organized, written, published, then made available, the textbook is out-of-date.
- Textbooks are often treated as one-size-fits-all support for classroom instruction.
- Textbooks provide limited perspectives regarding events, problems, or controversies.
- Textbooks become susceptible to political agendas and dominant culture interpretations, especially those among politically powerful groups.
- Chosen textbook approaches can conflict with the needs of students’ curriculum and learning paths.
As this debate unfolds, the considerations given most weight should relate to learning, not to teaching ease or to content control. Arguments should focus on students’ learning future and their learning needs. Consider these ideas to enhance debate:
- Learning is best stimulated through engagement and experience, not exposure to content. Limited in experiential depth, textbooks cannot provide the growing number of tools and approaches available for richer learning experiences.
- Stimulus for learning must integrate students’ unique learning rates, learning paths, and their responses to diverse experiences.
- Students should be exposed to issues from a variety of perspectives if we hope to nurture careful, informed, and critically thinking citizens. Exposure to a single or limited set of views shutters students from rich, important, and engaging learning opportunities.
- Students deserve access to the most current information possible. Textbooks rarely expose students to real-time content. Better alternatives and richer options capture and deliver current issues, developments, and insights.
Make no mistake: Transforming our traditional instruction-driven system to a more learner-centered system will demand releasing long-held traditions and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning. Educators should commit their informed voices and professional expertise to this debate.