Teaching or learning pt 2: textooks are for teaching or for learning?

The Textbooks dilemma: are they for teaching or learning?

A student told me today that he prefers a certain teacher over the others because that teacher doesn’t use a textbook.

Wow, that’s cool, I say.

“So why do your other teachers use textbooks?”
“I have no idea.”
“And what do you learn from them?”
“I have no idea.”

No wonder the kid has testing issues, his teachers are teaching through textbooks without student learning.

I’ve a few ideas on how to fix that, but first, let’s get back to the difference between teaching and learning.

Teaching is delivery, learning is engagement. This is the most difficult part of teaching, bridging from the one to the next. Pedagogy is supposed to teach teachers how to engage students. It does offer some powerful tools, such as for teachers to distinguish between “guided practice” (teaching) and “independent practice” (student engagement). But way too many teachers use textbooks either for busy work or without support.

Think about it: kids aren’t born with textbook reading skills. Like anything else, it has to be taught. And effective teaching with learning means guided practice before independent practice: teachers, you have to show them how to do it before you can expect them all to get it. It’s not “laziness” that’s why they’re not doing it, it’s a skill they often lack and that you need to deliver.

Imagine that kids were actually learning from their textbooks.

What would be going on  at that point?

A first outcome would be that students would be accumulating the enormous and useful background information that the textbooks can deliver to students. They would then bring that information into the classroom as Prior Knowledge and use it to develop the concepts and lessons of the classroom.

Suddenly, your class would be interesting… and fun, and without any games or teacher tricks, just from student learning.

Yeah, right…

Okay, so the kids aren’t reading their textbooks. Sure, they can do the math problems or answer the “checkpoint” questions, but are they absorbing the lessons and actually learning?

When I first came to teaching, I was given a textbook and told, “Teach this.” That was my job description. And once I started on that path, I learned hard and fast that the kids weren’t learning from the textbook. But I was committed to it, so I spent the next several years trying to figure out how to make it meaningful for all the kids.

The first lesson was that highly functional students have no problem reading textbooks and learning from them. Like the handbooks we give to students, those who use them don’t need them, and those that don’t use them need them. So how to engage kids who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a textbook?

The next lesson was that students needed to be rewarded for doing their reading. Hold them accountable, yes, but reward them for it. Clarify expectations and give back hard and celebrate when they meet them. When they see other students being celebrated, they want that, too.

After a while, I began to hear from other teachers how my work with the textbooks in my class was benefitting their own classes.  That was cool, and it kept me going on it, because it can be really, really tough to make textbooks work.

I can’t say I created a solution to the problem, but I did my damnedest to make the textbooks work. If I were back in the classroom, I’d bring them in again. It was that worth it.

Teaching with Textbooks (TwiT)

Textbooks can be incredibly useful. But teachers HAVE TO MAKE THEM USEFUL FOR THE STUDENTS. Too often we see the assignments given out and turned in and never used again, except maybe for a test question or two.

Here’s what a teacher can do:

  • clarify relevancy and purpose
  • develop Prior Knowledge of the content prior to assigning the reading
  • connect directly to classroom before/after readings
  • apply higher order thought
  • use it consistently
  • reward textbook reading with meaningful assessments and application of the information in them.

Obviously, when none of the above is happening, your textbooks are teaching and not learning tools. Time to reassess.

But when your students find their textbooks relevant, you’ve got them.  And, you have empowered them for learning elsewhere, and how cool is that!  And besides, so many parents wonder if their children actually need those damned books they have to buy and that the kids have to carry around, so your parents will be excited about it, too.

Good luck teachers! If you can make a textbook relevant to students, than you can do anything!

As for you students, ultimately it’s up to you: apply your Prior Knowledge, seek and clarify new knowledge and read with an active mind. And who knows, if you do the reading, maybe class tomorrow will actually be interesting for a change.

– Michael

PS Electronic textbooks don’t change the equation. The challenges and processes are all the same, they just don’t weigh as much.