Why science textbooks shouldn’t be abolished

I have learned a lot from the people I follow and interact with on Twitter.  It’s great to hear about new ideas, new technology, new methods.  It’s fabulous to hear inspiring work or students doing great things.  It’s enlightening to hear views that are different from your own.

However, there’s one “movement” that I just can’t get behind (at least for science classes, I can see the logic for other things but not for science)…getting rid of textbooks.  And, no, it’s not because I authored one – the reasons I authored one are the same reason I discuss in this post that we shouldn’t get rid of them…and money isn’t that reason!

And by “textbook” I’m not referring to the physical book as we’ve known it in the past – I’m referring to the curriculum.  It can be ebook, or just resources the teacher has that are a cohesive curriculum, but it’s the broader concept of textbook/curriculum that I’m discussing here.  The method of transmitting that to the teacher and student can be through whatever media works best for their situation (I’m all for true ebooks – not just digital “pages” in PDF form, interactivity and flexibility, just for the record!).

Don’t get me wrong, I think many (if not most) of the textbooks are horrendous and should be gotten rid of. The hugely over-bloated, let’s put every concept at every level in every book so that we hit every possible market and can say our book is “one-size-fits-all” books should go away.  The books that haven’t changed much in 40 years (this article is one of my favorites…showing how editions of the same text over 4 decades does very little to address the misconceptions about the processes of science that they perpetuate!) should go away.  The textbooks that present disconnected chapters of content to student that do not apply the content to real life, do not connect concepts together and worry more about passing the “flip test” during textbook adoptions than about presenting content in ways that correspond with what we know about how our minds work and how learn information should go away.

But it’s not the concept of a “textbook” that needs to go away.  People that are proponents of getting rid of textbooks often discuss the idea of teachers curating their own teaching materials from the vast array of material that is now available online or through other technology-supported means.  For teachers that can do that and do it WELL, go for it…more power to you…I salute you!  However, I have some issues with that being the blanket suggestion for every teacher out there (which is what getting rid of textbooks/curriculum is essentially saying) – I have trouble with there being nothing available for the teachers to rely on that can’t curate their own course material.  Why should we provide them with nothing and just have them recreate the wheel?

So here are my reasons why not every teacher can curate their own course materials:

  • It is not easy to develop a cohesive course.  Finding content from many sources and piecing it together in order to assure that prerequisite content for each new content has already been covered, that over-arching themes are tied together, that labs are cohesive and a part of the instruction rather than being an add-on, that inquiry and performance assessment are in place and that it all just works together is not easy.  It can feel pieced together and students can struggle with seeing big pictures and connecting things together.
  • Many teachers are not prepared to seek out and curate their own resources for an entire course.  According to the report of a survey completed during the 2007-2008 year, less than 50% of the teachers teaching chemistry and physics majored in it and 30% of chemistry and physics teachers don’t have a certificate to teach those subjects.  And please keep in mind that certification standards vary widely from state to state – some states only require 1 or 2 semesters of a science sub-discipline to be certified in that sub-discipline.  So even those 70% of chem/physics teachers that are certified might have been so after taking 1 or 2 semesters of an intro course in college, any number of years prior to them teaching that course in high school.  And this problem is only going to get worse as the aging generation of chemistry and physics teachers retires and the initiatives to produce more STEM teachers hasn’t had time to catch up yet.  Frankly, being certified to teach a course does not mean that you have the content background and content pedagogical understanding to curate an entire course-worth of material.  I’m a chemistry major that taught chemistry and physics for 10 years and I know very darn well that I could not do that for any other sub-discipline of science despite my “general science” endorsement on my license that legally allows me to teach those subjects.
  • Many teachers simply do not have the time to curate materials for all of the courses they teach.  According to that same survey, more than 75% of the teachers with English, Math, Science or Social Studies as their “main assignment” taught ALL of the courses in their main assignment.  That doesn’t mean they teach all the science courses in one year (although living in Kansas, I certainly know many rural teachers that do just that – they are THE science teacher in the building and have to teach every course), but they might teach different courses each year as the number of students needing them changes from year to year, as teacher turn-over happens, or simply to make it “fair” (many schools rotate teachers in and out of courses over the years so that everyone takes their turn with the less desirable courses and the “better” classes).  I highly doubt that a teacher has time to curate curriculum for that many courses.  In general, I would choose to work on a single course out of my 2-3 courses I taught at a time (I’d say “this year I’m really going to focus on developing the chemistry course and do pretty much the same thing I did last year in my physical science course, etc.).  AND it most definitely cannot be done (along with all the other things a teacher needs to do) in the standard “planning period” even if you do have the where-with-all to do it!

So if textbook/curriculum shouldn’t go away, what should they be like in order to warrant their continued purchase and use?

  • Relevant.  Content should be relevant – immediately…not with a token project at the end of the chapter or unit that applies content to students’ lives or real problem.  Content should be introduced, taught, thought about and in general wrapped-up in relevance.
  • Organized in a way that makes sense to the novice.  I wrote a blog post a while back about how we view the progression of content in a course after many years of working with the content versus how a novice might see the progression.  Just because content “A” has always come before content “B” and they’ve always been in separate chapters doesn’t mean we have to continue to do it that way.  Content should be organized in need-to-know manners that support the relevance point above!
  • Focused on process and problem-solving.  Whether it’s problem-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry, performance assessment, engineering, application-based…whatever you call it, have it be about the processes and the skills rather than facts and memorization!
  • Cohesive.  Content should flow.  There should be interconnections between chapters or problems or projects or themes or however it’s going to be organized.
  • Concise and up-to-date.  We don’t need to include every topic in everything that’s ever made.  What do students really need to know at that moment?  Is it the same as it was 5 editions ago (or even 1 edition ago)?  If not, then change it!  There are people that look at the chemistry textbook I wrote and automatically assume it’s not “college-prep” simply because it’s skinnier than all the others on the market.  Nope, I just cut out a lot of junk that kids didn’t need anyway.  It’s realistic, manageable, approachable and can be covered in a year – give or take depending on the level of the student.
  • Varied.  I say let’s get rid of the one-size-fits-all curriculum.  My goal is not to have my textbook in every chemistry classroom.  I don’t try to push down the other application/theme-based chemistry curriculum out there.  Instead, I point out the differences between the few that are on the market and say “choose the one that fits your needs and your students needs the best.”  Sometimes that’s mine and sometimes it’s not.  I personally believe that the more students that are taught chemistry with a thematic/applied, inquiry-based curriculum the better and I’m realistic to know that mine isn’t going to be a fit for every teacher and every situation so I’m a “the more the merrier” kind-of person when discussing my “competition” in the market.  I think we should have more options rather than a single option (or 3 powerhouse publishing companies’ “single” options…you know what I’m talking about!).
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