March 5, 2013

The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Textbook! – From Shawn McCusker

At EdTechTeacher, we are privileged to work with a host of talented educators from across the country including Shawn McCusker (@ShawnMcCusker) co-leader of #sschat, creator of #1to1techat, and organizer of both EdCampChicago and EdCampSocialStudies. In addition to being one of our featured instructors for the iPad Summit and our EdTechTeacher Summer Workshops, this year, he is teaching in a  1:1 iPad pilot at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois and recently proclaimed:

The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Textbook! What 1:1 is doing to Traditional Classroom Resources

Yep I said it. The days of the traditional textbook are over. The moment I brought devices into a classroom the textbook fell from its revered place as a THE respectable source of information and was revealed for what it is, a simplified and incomplete narrative of the past.


Teachers need to accept some blame for the fact that textbooks ever had this status in the first place. While we brought in primary resources, we necessarily relied on the textbook because of its convenience. We overstated the accuracy, thoroughness and status of the textbook because its structure gave us comfort and a place to turn when we were absent. We basked in the glory of being able to provide historical facts beyond the book. This made us seem really smart. The enticing worksheets that came packaged with the text provided neat questions and a structure that was perfectly mirrored in the text. Our students grew comfortable with this and while we all knew that it should be different, and though we often did make great lessons that spat upon the folly of the worksheet, at some point, we found our way back.

My Matrix, Red Pill moment came last year. It started with a lesson called “Fact Checking Your Text Book.” The assignment was exactly that. Use the Internet to check the facts, see what is missing, look for bias, and assign a grade to a passage from your book. It looked like this.

I expected students to find some problems but overall I just hoped they would at least give the textbook a good deep reading. Yet my class found our textbook, a book that to this day I think is a good textbook, to be riddled with problems. As groups presented, our unit became a discussion of bias, perspective and viewpoint. It was amazing.

This year, my classes equipped with iPads, I set out to create other lesson frameworks that would also generate a discussion in class and if possible get students excited about digging deep and experiencing history.

I wanted to start by letting the students look for sources on a topic and then discuss how good they thought those topics were. I had no rubric or framework so I asked students to rank them 0-5. Students worked in groups to discuss what was a good source and what was not. I was impressed by how they are savvier than we give them credit for. The assignment looked like this. The students eventually found and evaluated over 250 sources. But they needed an anchor. When set loose they had nothing to build upon or out from.

My next framework grew out of that last assignment. We outlined the textbook and then researched online to do “Historical First Aid.” We included what was left out. We gave breadth to what was simplified and we expanded on value judgments that the book made. The Topic was Good Emperors and Bad Emperors during the Roman Empire. We set out to give it the paddles and breathe life into it.

By this point in the year I had started to struggle with how to unify all of the varied learning that takes places when students are researching and pulling together sources that I am not entirely familiar with. I needed to get control, or at least enough control to bring the lesson together and drive home a point.

My solution was to have each group of students work together to create a thesis statement that summed up their overall impression of the topic. It was a serendipitous stumble into success. Students shared the grade they had given the book and discussed the discrepancies that existed between them and the sources they had found. Then they finished the presentation by writing their thesis statement on the board. As the bell rang we had our 6 thesis statements and a better sense that the history of the Roman Emperors is bigger than the one page of the book could effectively contain. It looked like this.

My next framework was “Textbook Smackdown.” Using copies of old textbooks I put them into direct competition. Students collaborated to summarize two versions of an event. Then they debated which was better. They said things like, “how could we know?” But they had already started to revert to their past research activities and were checking facts. Choosing the winner was not always easy. The books were selective in the narrative they told and they weren’t typically “wrong.” They often just took different paths through the events. Sometimes they chose to focus on a different part of set of events. Other times they chose to focus on different themes. Ranks were given but it wasn’t always easy.

Students were getting their hands dirty doing real research. They were elevating events from the 2D versions in their books to something closer to the 3D reality. They used the textbook as a launching point.

And then it hit me like a brick to the face. Despite my assault, the textbook was still just as much a part of my class as it used to be. I had smashed the pedestal and knocked it to the ground and gotten in a few good shots. It pages were tattered but it was there no less.

So the textbook is dead. Companies may try to keep it alive for a bit longer. They can animate it and insert video, create web links and interactivity, much like they did with pictures and graphs in the late 90’s, but even that will not place it where it once was. We simply have too much access to too many sources and too many facts. The world has changed and we can’t go back.

But long live the textbook. In its pages lie beautiful examples of how the age of information is changing the world and I will use them to show just how much we have moved on. In a way these activities have been therapy for my classes, a transition that demonstrates clearly that they can move on and move beyond.

If a textbook is ever elevated and put upon a pedestal in my class again, I can assure you that it will be because my students have written it themselves.

Footnote A: Further activities are planned. One I also plan an activity to compare historical versions of events and if possible regional versions that will reveal values in what they choose and choose not to address. Another activity will have the class aggregating the information from a collection of 8 textbooks. Oh how they do reflect the decades in which they were written. Finally this year, I want to have my students create their own textbook chapter. If I can pull this off and they can use resources to create their own, then truly and finally, the “Age of the Textbook” will be over.

Footnote B: My humblest apologies to any of the many textbook producers who may have read through to this point. You performed a public service and took on a difficult task. You deserve more credit than you will likely get. It was your work after all that created in me a deep love for history. But like the whalers who’s oil lit our country’s lamps through the early years of our nation, shift (and petroleum) happens. (Ironically, I never learned enough to make that analogy make sense from a textbook. There was no room for it.)

To learn more about Shawn’s experiences, come hear him present in Atlanta at the iPad Summit or instruct during our Summer Workshops in Chicago and Boston.