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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Should we use textbooks?

Almost all math teachers (and 63% of teachers of other subjects as well*) distribute textbooks in our courses at the beginning of September. But then four different styles emerge:
  1. Some teachers go through the textbook chapter by chapter — in order — occasionally giving other assignments. They may even (shudder) use the quizzes and tests that accompany the book.

  2. Some teachers use the textbook regularly — maybe only 40%*, maybe as much as 75%* of the time — though not chapter by chapter in order, and they supplement it liberally wherever necessary.

  3. Some teachers write almost all of their own curriculum, dipping into the textbook every once in a while whenever they can find problems that are similar enough to what they would have written themselves.

  4. Some teachers ignore the textbook entirely and might just as well not have handed it out. A variant of this category is the course that simply doesn’t have a textbook at all, so there’s none to hand out.
Let’s face it. Most textbooks are inadequate. They have to be inadequate, since a single book is attempting to address an enormously wide audience, including the statewide textbook-adoption committees in California and Texas. Furthermore, even the best textbook can rob kids of the discovery process, since all the information is there for the taking. From time to time I’ve been in category 4b, even teaching courses in the style of Build-a-Book Geometry (a fine book, well worth reading).

But I’m usually in category 2 for most courses, or occasionally in category 3 for others. The question is, what’s the value of textbooks if they’re inevitably not very good? I suppose the principal answer is that they save time for the teacher and are a comfort to the students. No one who’s teaching three different courses — or even just two courses — has the time to create every bit of his or her materials. And students want to have a source of reference where they can look things up that aren’t in their notebooks, whether they should be or not.

This use is becoming less and less compelling, now that the Internet has become such as good source of reference manual. How is the textbook going to be better than Wikipedia? Seems to me to be unlikely.

A secondary reason is that students need to learn to read textbooks as part of their preparation for college. But how many of us actually assigning reading in the textbook? I’ll do that from time to time, but most often I just assign problems. This is still a valid reason for using textbooks, but not the most compelling one. To my mind the best reasons are that textbooks reduce the likelihood of burning out the teacher (Why reinvent the wheel?) and provide comfort to students and teachers.

* Statistics invented on the spot.


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