In an industrial-age system of education known for rigidity, there is nothing that screams “one-size-fits-all” more than the box of clean, new, un-scuffed, tightly-bound, inky-smelling textbooks that arrives in a teacher’s room once every five or six years, accompanied by an instruction manual about how to efficiently transfer the information in those boxes to groups of students. Like holy tomes copied by Middle Age monks, these textbooks are one-way transfer points, purchased with your precious tax or tuition dollars from a small oligarchy of publishers to whom we have collectively ceded control over what our students need to know.
The material in the book might be out of date; some of the books were written years ago and “updated” as the publishers see fit. The material in the book used by students in Maine might have been massaged or factually compromised by politically motivated state review committees in places like Texas or California because those huge, monolithic markets can drive what is actually delivered by the publishers to every school and district in every other state. Billions of dollars are spent out of the public coffers each year. Deeper learning principles are ignored or violated. Young students bend under the bulky weight of stuffed backpacks, like Sherpas on a Himalayan trail, hauling thick volumes home only to “read pages 100-106 for the quiz tomorrow” or “do the odd-numbered problems at the end of the chapter”.
The entire process is positively medieval…and it is an unnecessary, wasteful, easily-avoided obstruction to deeper learning for both students and teachers. Simply, textbooks are the instruction manuals of outmoded education. They tell the teacher, “do the exact same thing you did last year, and the year before…until we change the book for you.” They tell the students, “just learn what is in here, at the rate at which your teacher tells you to turn the page or read the chapter, know this stuff when the exam is put in front of you, and you will be OK”. They enforce a false narrative that success in the world is about mastering the art of knowing what is in a book, just like the instruction binder that used to be required reading for an entry-level worker on an assembly line in the age before even assembly line jobs required thought, judgment, and collaboration.
In my upcoming book I devote a chapter to the rise of open educational resources (OER), and the impact this tsunami will have on K-12 education. If your school is still wasting money on published textbooks, still robbing your teachers and students of the opportunities and expectations of creativity and deep interaction that come with thoughtful selection of curriculum and materials, take a look at the universe of widely-used, fully accredited, standards-based, FREE OER that are available right now through non-profits like EngageNY, CK12 Foundation, K-12 OER Collaborative, Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum, and many more. Start on your path towards a very near future when this will be the norm in schools, not the exception. Textbooks are history.
Stay tuned for much more on this rising tide!