Friday, January 4, 2008

Dear Text Book Reliant Educators...

...Like, "Are you offering today’s students an educational experience worthy of their attention?"

In the history of public schooling/mass education nothing has made more of a contribution than the text book! An awesome resource, the text book really amounts to an entire course between covers. Text books contain all the content needed for a course, discussion focus questions, quizzes, homework assignments, teachers’ guides, and in many cases even more. They are put together by teams of highly accomplished educators and editors and have become so closely associated with the culture and body of practice of schooling that truly, schools have evolved due to the influence of text books almost as much as text books have evolved to accommodate the needs and demands of schools.

On the other hand, little is more emblematic of the old paradigm of schooling than text books. They are static tomes, out of date as soon as they are printed. And they thoroughly support the idea that to be educated is to absorb or memorize a body of factual knowledge and likewise support the idea that purpose of teaching is to transfer knowledge from the teacher (the knower) to the student (who does not know).

To a marginally prepared ‘School Marm’, an isolated teacher out on the prairie in periods of our history gone by, and to the community of learners she served, the text book would have made education… POSSIBLE. Essentially, such a teacher was there to ‘implement’ the text; to guide the students through reading it, and then using the focus questions provided have them reflect on what they had read, implementing its assignments, tests, etc. As highly valuable as all this has been over the years, it has disastrously lead to an unintended consequence: trivializing of the role and preparation of teachers. Due to the tempting over-reliance on text books, teachers have evolved into a species of implementers rather than thinker/creators; a species of educators who promote the old paradigm of schooling in a vicious cycle.

Here are excerpts from a recent article in Teacher Magazine that inadvertently reveals how the ‘School Sector’s’ unthinking reliance on textbooks is intertwined with the irrelevance of schooling and the spiraling out of control nose dive of public school education. I’ve interspersed some of my own commentary in red:

Published: January 2, 2008

Textbook Shortage
By The Associated Press

Aimee Hein had a math class at Apollo High School that didn't have enough books to allow her to take one home. It made preparing for class and doing homework more difficult, the senior said. "It's harder to study for a test if you don't have your own book," Hein said…

Q: Is she studying for recall or for reflective understanding? The later would not come from the book.

"It made it hard to do assignments. If the lesson went long (in class), you didn't have enough time to do it."

Observation: It would appear that what these students do in class is read textbooks, and consequently if they run out of time in class they are expected to continue their reading at home. Instead of worrying about the supply of textbooks, maybe this district should be worrying about the educational relevance of the uses they are put to.

"You can't run a school district without textbooks. You can't say, 'We are not going to have textbooks until somebody gives us money to have textbooks,'" school board member Jerry Von Korff said. "There are certain fundamental things that are required."

Observation: This statement illustrates an attitude of absolute reliance on mindlessly perpetuating what has been done before in schooling, a dangerous attitude when preparing youngsters to cope with a world in which change is the only constant!

Textbooks are just a part of the resources that teachers use to help students learn subjects. Lessons are supplemented with DVDs, compact discs, computer work and other items teachers find and develop.

Q: Should lessons be ‘supplemented’ by the use of these types of resources? Or perhaps THESE resources offer a better source for the lesson entirely, at the very least this is an important question to ask!

In many classrooms, the textbook is a key component, and teachers and students say without access to them after school it slows the learning process. Students get books in class and have to turn them in when the bell rings. Some of the information is outdated and requires teachers to point out the changes.

INTERPRETATION: “Key component” all too often is code for 'only actual component', with other types of resources and modes of teaching and learning really just window dressing at best!

Chris Ann Johnson, a physics teacher at Apollo, said she has a book that talks about the U.S. someday planning to visit the planet Mars. Johnson said teachers have to supplement the books that are out of date with current information.

"It's more the real life relevant examples—those change," Johnson said.

Yes, and content about such examples is available as authentic documents FREE on the web! Why not go and get them for the students or better yet, send the students there to get them for themselves?

Textbooks from the four core subjects—math, science, social studies and English—are mostly no more than 10 to 12 years old, according to a St. Cloud Times review of St. Cloud school district's textbook inventory. Espe and teachers say that books should probably be replaced every six years.

Observation: There is a tremendous amount of current content free on the web for educators who look for it!

"...We are probably better off than other areas of the school district because our standards were so recently updated," said Mike Berndt, a psychology teacher at Apollo who oversees the textbooks in the social studies department.
The challenge, Berndt said, is that the some of the tests that advanced placement students take are about cutting-edge research that the books don't reflect. He said good teachers will just supplement.

Q: Why slough off such work as supplementation by ‘good teachers’? Why not set up a district-wide expectation for all teachers to do this and SUPPORT them in those efforts? DUH!

"There were a couple of times, you had an assignment and there aren't enough books in the library. It's very frustrating," Kayser said.
Johnson said teachers are usually understanding of those situations.

Q: Instead of being ‘understanding’ why not support and encourage students to go out on the web where more content is available than students can ever use?

Bart Gibson, who has taught industrial arts at Technical High School since 1992, said he doesn't have the budget to replace textbooks and some of the aging equipment in the wood, metal and auto shops. He buys one copy of a textbook and provides copies of relevant material for students.

Free tutorial videos are available on the web that show the ‘how to’ for a great deal of what is covered in Industrial Arts. Furthermore, teachers like Mr. Gibson can do their own low cost, easy to produce digital videos (or audio podcasts), which can be distributed endlessly in unlimited copies. Imagine how powerful it would be if each school in our nation created just one such video and uploaded it to a common web depository? We’d have 10s of thousands to share!

"I think it curtails the excitement. When the children have the resources, when they have the books, it helps to kindle the fire and build the excitement and the interest and helps them make a decision on what they do with their lives," Gibson said.

Want to see some fire, Mr. Gibson? Give the ‘children’ resources that relate to the century in which they are growing up. Try free, online, interactive, media-rich resources!

Hein, the Appolo senior, said the older books do take a bit of the spirit out of student enthusiasm for a subject. "When a book is really old, you are like, 'Do you know what you are talking about?'" Hein said.

I agree with this student, like, “Are you offering today’s students an educational experience worthy of their attention?”

Read the full article @ its source:

And of course any discussion about text book practicality has to include a discussion of digital textbooks. There ARE Digital Texts being used currently, but this is not common. The basic problem is a chicken or egg conundrum – publishers won’t produce digital texts on speculation as they are very costly to develop and schools won’t commit to ordering them until they have been on the market for a while and are a proven commodity.

There are a number of things the Federal Government could do that could get the ball rolling involving pre K – 12 Digital Texts:

1) It could produce a series of digital texts (online and/or downloadable) for all grades and for all commonly taught subjects. This set of texts would be offered to all schools and students free of charge. This might cost $50 million or so, but imagine how making these available to all interested learners would impact education. The cost of updating this would be a small fraction of the original cost. Once an online text is produced and uploaded, the cost of providing it repeatedly via servers is very marginal and no doubt many hundreds of millions of people around the world would benefit and look to the US as a touchstone for education.
2) The Federal government currently dispenses many hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to schools systems annually. All of these grants carry reporting and sustainability requirements. Why not require all grant recipients to produce, as part of their acceptance agreement, content in textbook style or in and alternative format that can perform the same function. By uploading these to a common repository the entire nation can benefit from the grants given to specific localities.
3) The Federal government carries great power through the function of tax exemption to foster the creation of digital content for learning. By granting tax breaks or incentives to newspapers and other content publishers to tweak their content so that it is easily usable as k-12 content, a vast amount would be added to what is available. These sources of free content online would not damage the publishing industry, as there will always be demand for higher quality and specialized materials. By providing the basics free, consumers will ultimately have access to these improved and enriched items.

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