Textbooks have a bad rep which isn’t entirely unearned. There are a lot of bad textbooks and there are a lot of things that are bad in textbooks but they also have a lot of merit that is overlooked or outright ignored.
First, this opinion comes from a social studies perspective. I have participated in a textbook adoption (that I actually took seriously unlike others at the table) and have participated in a textbook analysis (one of the most interesting and enlightening things I did as a teacher) but my professional textbook experience is exclusively social studies.
Second, I am not going to get into a long review process of all the bad things about textbooks. We all know them. I understand them and mostly agree with them. This is going to be dedicated to what is good about textbooks.
Teachers Do Not Have Time
It would be wonderful to hire a teacher that could teach without a textbook. Imagine that teacher being able to pull from endless primary sources and secondary sources. Imagine the teacher being able to build lessons on note taking and graphic organizers and Socratic methods and everything else academic based on those primary and secondary sources. Imagine those same teachers being able to create games and simulations and activities and projects based on those primary and secondary sources.
Now think about the actual time allotted. NOT POSSIBLE!
Sure, teachers that have taught several years would have a fine library of resources but a new teacher right out of college wouldn’t have that.
It sounds egalitarian that the school would share those gathered resources from previous years with all new teachers but that doesn’t always happen. Either teachers hoard the resources or the school doesn’t have a way to store and share the resources. Most schools do not have resource specialists on hand to help find and organize the resources either. So the tasks fall entirely on the teachers and they simply do not have the time.
Unpaid summers (yes, really, they are unpaid), limited planning time, and mandatory professional development. There is no time!
Textbooks consolidate all of the information into one format that is presented in a concise and consistent manner. Are they too concise? Yes. Always. But that is why we hire social studies teachers who know social studies – they fill in those gaps.
Textbooks should never be used as the only resource but it is often the best guide for especially young teachers.
Textbooks Align with Standards
Aligning with standards isn’t difficult yet I cannot count how many teachers seem to find this to be an impossible task. Textbooks do this for you. If you teach the information from the text then you have aligned your lessons with the standards which is what many schools focus on.
As stated above, teachers should absolutely be supplementing the information because textbooks are too concise but they have done the hard work – aligning to standards.
Textbooks also include workbooks that provide note taking and comprehension exercises, display questions that are remarkably similar to the questions on standardized tests, as well as more involved activities like graphic organizers. These are important skills that students should be working on in social studies classes and these workbooks contain the exact information from the textbook which helps students organize and understand.
Should teachers be relying entirely on the textbooks and workbooks? NO! But there is nothing wrong with a day spent using the textbook and workbook.
Teachers Don’t Know Everything
When I began teaching world history, I could get through anything European and American with no problems. I could teach 75% of Middle Eastern history and about 50% of ancient history.
I do not mind admitting that I knew nothing. I had never taken a class on Asian history and in my entire college career there was one – let me repeat – ONE Asian history class offered and I didn’t take it. (It didn’t fit in my schedule.)
I completely relied on the textbook for all aspects of Asian history. It showed me what the most important events and people were. It sequenced all of information and organized it.
I would have been lost as to what to teach, in what order to teach, and how it related to the bigger picture of world history (which is not about factual knowledge and is absolutely about concepts).
My first year, the textbook was my entire Asian history curriculum. I began the process of learning Asian history but did not contribute anything new to it. My second year however, I taught all of my own information. With the guidance of the textbook I knew what was essential and my entire summer break was spent learning and building Asian history curriculum.
I am now proud to say that my love of Asian history (especially Chinese history) is because of textbooks.
Textbooks Provide Excellent Images and Maps (Sometimes)
This is obviously all dependent on the individual textbooks but the newer textbook, the more likely it is to provide great images. These are safe for students to view, fit the lesson, and are always available without internet or electricity.
My personal preference are for the maps provided in textbooks. A good historical map that is designed for students who have no idea what they are looking at is always found in textbooks. The complex maps that historians love to include in their own books or research were created for people who know what they are looking at.
But students are learning! They don’t understand how to read maps with troop movements or advancing time periods. They are not accustomed to looking for context clues in maps of places they have never seen. But textbooks choose appropriate maps and other images.
Textbooks Standardize the Learning Experience
Normally, educators see this as a negative but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, it is necessary for educators to be reminded that students are not experts, do not always care about the subject or the skills, or that students are not prepared for the level. When the materials are standardized, it is easier to spot the deficiencies students come to your class with.
I was a first-year white teacher from a rural Pennsylvania background when I was hired at an urban school in Florida. It was a failing public school that the state monitored for progress. It was a majority Latino/Hispanic population school with an enormous ESL population. There were also gangs present in the area that many students were increasing their involvement with.
Then, as if that were not enough of a culture shock, I was hired in 2010 – the Great Recession. 50% of the student was homeless.
NOTHING LIKE MY BACKGROUND! NOTHING LIKE MY EXPERIENCE! NOTHING LIKE MY TRAINING HAD PREPARED ME!
The standardization of the textbook was awesome. It was a reminder that these students were not always prepared for work, let alone, high-level work. They had real-life issues to deal with and world history was NOT a priority.
I was able to rely on the simplified text and workload while I figured out how to work with the student population. I had to figure out the methods to reach the students and to get them to care about learning about this subject. I also had never had to work with ESL students and the hypothetical learning in my master’s program did not prepare me for the real thing.
Standardization in education is also important because although I am surrounded by people who have computers and phones connected to the internet all the time, many, MANY people do not have access. There are actual towns in this country with NO internet. Not all students will have access to school work online. Not all students are going to be able to take advantage of the school library subscriptions to read the assigned article in a magazine or newspaper.
But all students could have a textbook. All students can work from a textbook.
Do NOT mistake that with the idea that students should only use a textbook. No. That is not what I am saying. But we tend to assume that students have access to everything we do.
I hope that if you have continued to this point, I have raised some points you haven’t considered before. I don’t expect to make you a textbook advocate because I certainly am not but I would never advocate to remove them from most schools.
As school continue to suffer under the austerity measures of the last 30 years, textbooks may be the last school supply still provided to teachers. Don’t push to remove them. Embrace what they are, use what you can, and move on from them when you are ready.
In addition to this blog, Integrated Social Studies is a TpT store that produces social studies curriculum for all grades. Support a small shop today.