By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved considerably over the last fifty years and even somewhat in the previous fifty years. I even have one, A Text-Book of Physics, on my bookshelf beside me that was printed in 1891. It has some line drawings and no color. Its size is about 5”x8”. Today, textbooks have lots of colorful images, plenty of side bars, and lots of engaging questions sprinkled about on their heavy-weight glossy paper stock. They also have tons of advice to teachers on how to use them effectively. They’ve gone about as far as they can go with paper as the medium.
The word “textbook” originated in the 1720s, almost 300 years ago. It’s had a good run and is ready to retire. Those who argue that you cannot learn well without a textbook ignore the centuries prior to 1720 when lots of people, not everyone of course, learned and learned well with no textbooks anywhere.
Some will say that books were around even if they weren’t textbooks. The movable-type printing press was invented around 1439, only 180 years before the word “textbook” was coined. Before that all writing was done by hand or by engraving an entire plate for each page making books very expensive. Yet, people were learning long before 1439 or 1720. Even stone-age tribes passed on learning from generation to generation. Some argue that having a repository of knowledge is one reason that our species evolved longer life spans than chimpanzees and Neanderthals.
You can learn without textbooks. That’s certain. And you can learn well. But why should we bother to change something that’s worked for 300 years? Many deliver the verdict in a single word: technology. That’s way too simplistic.
We’ve seen film loops, overhead projectors, motion picture projectors, machine scoring of tests, and a myriad of other technological innovations in classrooms, but the textbook remains. No, technology alone will not end the reign of the textbook. It takes something more, and that became available in the 1940s as a new technology, the programmable electronic computer. Here we are 70 years later with plenty of textbooks visible. The programmable electronic computer was not sufficient by itself.
The next big change began with ARPANET in the 1960s. This foundation led to the Internet, which became generally available around 1995, in just the last twenty years. Its growth has been simply phenomenal. But a widespread communication medium is not sufficient to dislocate textbooks either. Inexpensive computers, easy-to-use interfaces (GUIs), and ready access to the Internet all contribute.
Fine, say many. But the textbook publishers are putting their books online. They are creating e-textbooks. So, textbooks live!
This argument misses the essential difference between earlier education technology and the present, other than mere cost. Computer software can be interactive. Previous education technology was, like textbooks, rather passive. You can read the experts on learning and see that active learning is far superior to passive learning, so much so that it’s not a step, not a leap, but a rocket-propelled launch past old-fashioned learning. And that will make the difference.
Just look up the definition of “textbook.” One source (Collins English Dictionary) has it as “a book used as a standard source of information on a particular subject.” Basically, it’s a reference book, something to which you refer if you have a question. Wikipedia plays that role for us now. The pictures in textbooks can be found, along with many more, by simple Internet searches. Videos explaining just about anything are readily found on YouTube and in other places.
It’s the mental engagement with something that determines whether you learn and how well. Everyone certainly has had the experience of attempting to learn from a textbook, of reading and rereading to grasp the gist of what’s being explained and being frustrated. You cannot ask a textbook a question, and textbooks don’t notice which pages you’ve read or how much time you spent reading them. They’re totally passive.
The new online textbooks being promoted by textbook companies are billed as being interactive, but what is the interaction? It’s being quizzed. You aren’t really engaged, you’re being drilled. Textbook companies are run by people who spent their entire careers in the book publishing business. Everything looks, to them, like a page in a book. They’re used to ten-year plans and twenty-year obsolescence plans for books. They have trouble thinking in Internet terms, of grasping the difference between what they’re used to and what the future is bringing at breakneck speed.
While many suggest that the ability of software to adapt to individuals will be what ends textbooks, it’s clear that textbook companies anticipate this issue and are building or buying companies who build quizzing systems that adapt and that can provide remedial work to help students gain full understanding of the current topic. Yet, this approach remains mostly drill and mostly passive.
The really big change will come when students can jump into online situations that are more like real life, and software for this is coming at us now from every direction. It’s still in its infancy but growing fast. This is real active learning. Reading, watching, and quiz drill are not. Students must see their every action as having consequences and must learn from those consequences. Those actions must be similar to the real world and not the classroom world.
Here’s how this commentator sees the future of education. Students will be able to use a variety of devices to reach the web and become part of the learning community. They will be guided by a combination of human mentor and machine analysis. They will have learning goals known by all involved in their education. They will acquire knowledge and skill at hyper speed compared to most of today’s students. Furthermore, diagnostic analysis of their work will tell mentors when students are ready for certain learning and, more importantly, when they’re not for reasons of preparation or maturity.
I had two important life experiences that taught me much about our potential for learning. The first was being skipped over third grade in elementary school. It took me one weekend to assimilate all of that third-grade learning that the teachers thought was necessary and one week to catch up with all of the rest. Yes, one entire year’s worth of learning was capable of being assimilated in one week with adequate motivation. While I was an above-average student, I wasn’t so far above my fellows that they would have taken even a month to do the same as I.
The second was college. I was fortunate (and cursed in a way) to be accepted by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The next four years were so intense as to be almost a blur. Surviving seems a miracle in retrospect. I went on to one of the top five graduate schools in my field and obtained a PhD in just over four years with little effort compared to my classmates due to that undergraduate experience. They had to learn things that I had already learned.
You can learn faster and learn more than you think you can. Textbooks do not tap into our brains to realize that learning potential. New software that uses true active learning will. By so doing, it will eliminate textbooks of all forms, both printed and online, both passive and so-called interactive. Today, the textbook is a zombie. It’s just waiting for that wooden stake or silver bullet to put it to a well-deserved rest.
Filed under: Instructional Resource |