October 10, 2006

The Textbook

A related issue in high school curricula is the "textbook," which is probably a misnomer. For many subjects, the "textbook" is not designed to teach a student in a progressive and systematic way. It is a reference book, with the earlier chapters written with no concern about the fact that kids have not yet read the later chapters. The average high-school text in biology, for example, introduces about three times the number of new unfamiliar words that would be recommended for the first year of learning a foreign language. What makes this figure even more astonishing is that the concepts behind those words are new (unlike the foreign language that presents new words for familiar ideas).

For instance, on page 106 of Holt's Biology text, the following words are introduced for the first time:
Chromatin network, nucleoli, centrosome, centroiols, DNA, mitosis, prophase, nucleoli, astral rays, aster, chromosomes, chomatids, centromere, spindle, pole, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase.
A reasonable topic for discussion of secondary-school curricula would be whether these texts are reasonable, whether they are consistent with new theories about the ways kids learn, or whether they are designed to promote the use of pain killers and other forms of escape. Similar problems exist in math and English.

Zig Engelman, 1992


Anonymous said...

And at the university level, textbooks present a whole different series of problems. For one thing, although textbooks work well for what I'll call "basic" courses (for lack of a better term -- it's not meant pejoratively), such as calculus or macro-econ, they don't work at all for higher-level classes whose topics are more specific. They also don't fit well with the way many faculty teach their classes, since textbooks are a collection of little context-free soundbytes and exercises. Try using a textbook in a case-based class. Actually, don't. It doesn't work.

For some of these classes, faculty write their own textbooks (which rarely get used outside their own classes, just because of the specificity of topic). Mostly, though, university classes use packets of articles put together by faculty.

Oh. And of course, we choose our own texts, and don't have them picked for us by an administration or board.

Anonymous said...


I agree that many textbooks in many disciplines are not formulated to inform instruction. They tend to be reference books. While I'm not rushing to herald the advent of e-content and e-textbooks as a panacea for the textbook problem, if texts are conceived of (by both publishers and teachers) as reference manuals, I do think we can eliminate them entirely and move to the web. Who needs to pay for that crap when comparable stuff is available for free?

That said, the fact that textbooks serve as substitutes for the curriculum in most classrooms, and despite teachers' claims that they use texts "only for reference," the actually do use them as the basis for classroom instruction 9 times out of 10.

So why aren't they constructed as curriculum should be? Why aren't they aligned with solid models of instruction?

You got me.

As one of your other commenters states, it's about politics. In part. But it's also about the blindness of our instructional leaders today who are simply lost. They spout the rhetoric of constructivism ("life-long learners") and eschew rote memorization, and are generally too timid to hold up model teachers and say, "hey, this teacher is a great instructor, while this one is cruddy." They'd rather just muddle along, I guess.