The Strength of Weak Ties

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

The New Dinosaur

One of my favorite Sunday activities is to turn on Sunday Morning on CBS, grab a cup of coffee, sprawl out on my couch and read the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. Last Sunday’s front page headline definitely caught my interest: Aging Textbooks Fail Illinois Kids.

As you might expect from the headline, we’ve got some old textbooks in Illinois schools. I imagine everyone does. The article cites typical examples, including a history textbook that has Ronald Reagan as president, the Soviet Union as a U.S. rival, and a humorous mention of computers as an important advance. As expected, there was no mention of the Internet. The article gives a fair appraisal of issues surrounding textbooks, including escalating costs and lengthening replacement cycles, and also throws in a very nice visual of a textbook held together by duct tape.

But what caught my eye was this quote from a history teacher from Richards High School in Illinois:

"Can you imagine teaching a history class without textbooks?”

Absolutely, sure I can, and I would say it’s about time….

The teacher continues: "My students are hardworking, but I feel that their education needs are being neglected.” (This quote was presented in the article but taken from a philanthropic site where the teacher has submitted a request for textbooks).

Here’s more. “The kicker is the class is contemporary history—and we don’t even have the fall of the Soviet Union.”

So what….

I taught for 15 years and very rarely used my textbooks. That was just my style and I’m comfortable with a teacher expecting to have the best textbooks for his or her kids, as well as actually using them. But I’m troubled by the notion that we couldn't teach history or any other subject unless we had that five pound chunk of cellulose. The textbook can be a good book, but it’s not the only book, nor is it the only resource.

The article continues:

"Like blackboards and chalk, textbooks long have been an academic staple, and educators agree that they are here to stay even though laptop computers and electronic books are popular in some classrooms."

I don’t think that they are here to stay at all, in fact, I think textbooks are dinosaur-esqe. Big. Cumbersome. Inflexible. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 130 million years (well, not probably not in every state in the US). But you know what happened to the dinosaurs….

Here are some tough questions. Who is the textbook really for? The teacher or the student? And who would be more uncomfortable without having a textbook? The teacher, or the video game generation student who, as David Warlick says, wonders "how come my textbook won't play with me?" I think you know my answers.

But now back to history class. I think I could teach history with four Web sites:

History Matters
History and Social Studies from Edsitement
American Memory from the Library of Congress
The National Archives

Throw in my understanding of history and I’m good. That’s my textbook. I also reserve the right to have access to Google to find out about things that might not be in my digital textbook, just in case.

Just in case I need to find out about the fall of the Soviet Union.


  • At 5:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Using web pages to replace textbooks would mean needing computers with internet access in every classroom as well as the home. Not all students would have access to a adequate public library to read their assignments on any given night. Now if schools invested in computers for each class instead of textbooks which become outdated, then there is no need for text books. But until then, new textbooks are a must and a likelier reality than new computers in each class.


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