The Baby and the Bathwater

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

There is a movement out there that I find a bit scary.  The movement is towards doing away with textbooks.  I’m not talking about the switch from print to digital textbooks, but that textbooks, in all forms,  should be done away with.

I find this notion of doing away with the textbook misguided and is pitting teachers against themselves.

What I’m worried about is this: throwing away the textbook is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Do I agree with textbook companies making a bazillion dollars?  No.  Do I agree that one should teach solely from the textbook?  No.  However I have seen the reality – we all have.  Someone at your school (usually the new hire) is asked to pick up a math class – and that person is a language arts specialists.  It’s happened more than once and it’s the reality of our profession.

To expect this new or struggling teacher to design their program around inquiry based learning is shortsighted.  This person will be lucky to survive the year.  A GOOD teacher is someone who will learn as they progress through their career and try new approaches and refine their teaching.  These people will know themselves and the students they teach the best.

To all those of you who would do away with textbooks, I ask you this: Have you been a part of the process of developing a textbook?  I have.

I was an advisor and reviewer for Pearson’s Math Makes Sense series (7-9).  Long story short, I was asked to move beyond reading and responding to chapters and to be a participant in the organization and design of the final resource.  I was not a writer, but I was someone who gave my opinion and helped guide the process from a teacher’s perspective.  What I learned about the development of a textbook is the sheer amount of time, expertise, knowledge and debate that goes into the resource.  I recall one Saturday where the team debated the order of chapters for 5 hours.  The team members were representatives from government, administrators, universities, curriculum specialists, mathematicians, consultants, editors, instructional and graphic designers, and fellow advisors and reviewers Every inch of the book was scrutinized; field tested, and followed the basic principles of good instructional design.

The point I’m making is this; these resources are invaluable to some teachers – to most teachers.  To believe that the best practice is to move away from textbooks to inquiry based learning is simply unrealistic.

The reality is that (and I’ll eat my words should this change) we as teachers are charged with the task of meeting our curricular outcomes.  No matter how theoretical one may be, if we do not meet the outcomes we are not doing our job.  The curriculum allows us as teachers to meet these outcomes in a variety of ways.

If we follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning, we will quickly realize that an inquiry-based approach a will work well for some students, and not for others.  We must accept the fact that this is OK.  Just as inquiry based learning may work well for some, a strict, structured content-based delivery will work very well for others.  To further confuse the issue, students are constantly changing and growing. Throughout their school careers they will float on the continuum between problem/inquiry based and traditional content based learning.  As teachers, we must be flexible and willing to adapt our teaching strategies for our students, and not to paint ourselves in a corner and at the end of the day have nothing to show for it.

I commend those who try new things and are pushing the envelope with teaching and learning.  I believe that the worst thing that can happen to our profession is to stop having these debates. As we struggle, debate, and argue we  grow our profession.

J.T.

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One thought on “The Baby and the Bathwater

  1. This book is a very readable book on inquiry based teaching and learning. It is a good book for anyone interested in education… in schools, museums, or similar educational institutions. What I found useful is that the authors clearly understood the needs and concerns of classroom teachers, and were not interested in producing a purely academic textbook. They do a good job of talking about the value of using inquiry in the classroom, give practical examples, and offer a variety of lessons they have tested, that teachers can use directly, or use as models to design their own. It is an area of education that is seeing increasing interest by school administrations. I recommend this as a valuable introduction written by teachers who know their stuff!

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