Against language arts and social studies textbooks

Here’s a little argument against language arts and social studies (e.g., history and geography) textbooks. We need to get rid of them. Period.

Prima facie, we don’t need textbooks to teach a subject. Other pedagogical methods include chapter (trade, library) books, short readings, computer software, videos, lectures, worksheets, projects, etc. So what are textbooks for?

Well, consider what they are: Textbooks are systematic, book-length presentations of information for purposes of introducing students to a subject, systematically covering every aspect at some level. All information that is needed is presented. Modern texts include supplementary media, not just photos and charts but also, for example, videos and interactive widgets. Texts often have accompanying exercises and workbooks. In short, a modern textbook system is an end-to-end multimedia introduction to a subject at a certain level.

Textbooks make perfect sense for certain subjects, including—especially—math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming. These subjects are suitable for textbook presentations because it is deeply important, first, that students of those subjects learn certain topics adequately before moving on to other topics and, second, that all the basic topics be covered in adequate depth. The textbook method is lends itself very nicely to both requirements. First, textbook readings, accompanying media, and exercises all structure information in a logical fashion so that the more fundamental information is mastered before moving on to the more derivative information. Second, textbooks marshal all the relevant information within chapters, and can cover the whole subject by simply making the book longer.

Most textbooks are so darned meaty and substantial-looking, it seems hard to argue against them, especially if you are someone—like me—who believes that absorbing a lot of knowledge is what school is primarily about. But actually, it’s easier than it might look. You see, there are excellent reasons why certain subjects lend themselves to textbook presentation, while others do not.

There are a couple of very good reasons why math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming lend themselves to textbook presentation. It is because the information in these fields lends itself to a logical, bottom-up structuring. You cannot learn certain things about math—and upper division science, and foreign language, and advanced grammar, and programming—before you have mastered certain other things. You’d better not tackle the subjunctive in Latin before mastering the indicative, or division before multiplication, or subordinate clauses in English grammar before adjectives and prepositions. Moreover, at a given level of mastery, we can agree that certain topics must be included, or the method is simply incomplete. If you have learned Latin noun declensions but not verb conjugations, you haven’t learned Latin. If you have learned about processing loops but not about data storage, you haven’t learned programming. If you haven’t learned the Circle of Fifths, crack open that music theory book again. Textbooks seem necessary because they help guide the student (and the teacher!) so that the information is presented in the right order, and all of it (at a certain level) is presented.

Assuming there’s a real phenomenon here, we may for shorthand refer to math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming as structured subjects. (A couple other structured subjects are music theory and economics.) And we may also for shorthand refer to the logical dependency of one topic on another, within structured subjects, their foundational structure, while the tendency of certain topics to be needed for a complete presentation of a subject, the subject’s completeness.

In short, then, my proposal is that textbooks are particularly useful for structured subjects, because such subjects exhibit a foundational structure and completeness (within a level of mastery), and the textbook approach can (if well executed) elegantly mirror the foundational structure and completeness of those subjects. All well and good. You don’t have to use just a textbook, but I won’t argue with you much if you do.

I now come to my point:

Subjects that do not exhibit foundational structure or completeness are very bad candidates for textbooks (dammit!).

Such subjects include:

Science at the elementary level. It manifestly does not matter what order you teach little kids science in or how much of each subject they learn (as long as they learn certain basics before they get to more advanced science).

Reading and writing. There is nothing less structured than literature. There is nothing less foundational or complete than writing. These are not bodies of knowledge to master. Literature is made up of narratives and great language to come to grips with, not logical structures. And reading and writing are both skills to practice, not to study in the systematic way one studies math or foreign language. Literature does not exhibit completeness. It does not matter whether you read certain books, although I think a good education will be heavy on the classics. “Reading comprehension,” spelling and vocabulary exercises, integrated grammar, directed writing, and all the other claptrap that makes up a modern “English Language Arts” textbook-based program—it all positively obscures the beauty and appreciation of actual literature. It is decidedly not required. The only thing that is really required, I think, is copious reading and writing. All that textbook drivel is much more effectively and efficiently learned simply by reading and occasionally discussing great books, and writing copiously about anything that strikes your fancy (and sometimes about what you read) and getting occasional feedback on your work.

History. Now, it is true that history exhibits a kind of completeness; to be fully educated you have to have some exposure to, say, Roman history and the Renaissance and (in this country) the War of Independence. But it does not—not really—have any foundational structure. It doesn’t matter what order you go in, or in what depth you cover various subjects. Again, I think that the more of it you cover in considerable depth, the better—but history is, in short, pretty much the opposite of a structured subject.

Geography. Same analysis as history. You’ll want to cover certain basic topics for sure, but what order you go in, how much depth you go into, etc., it’s all arbitrary.

Many other subjects also are not structured subjects, either, including the rest of the topics that go under the heading “social studies” in U.S. schools, art history, art and music appreciation, general computer literacy, etc.

Textbooks and textbook programs are, at best, necessary evils. Why? Because, especially for children, they are boring, unmotivating, and therefore less efficient than reading real books and other methods of teaching. Why? Let’s see:

A single source. You read all year from one source, who or (worse!) which has one style, however brilliant, one point of view or bias, etc. That gets old before too long.

Human brains, while capable of great rationality, enjoy randomness. I am one of the biggest rationalists (depending on the sense of “rationalism” you mean) you’ll find. But learning minds, especially young ones, love to leap from topic to topic. If you want to keep a student’s motivation up, you have to change things up.

Texts are totalitarian. Of course I’m being facetious, but I do have a point. By being careful, orderly, and complete, students are forced to study certain things in a certain order. This is necessary (to some extent) for structured subjects, especially as one gets into higher and more technical aspects of subjects. It is decidedly not necessary for unstructured subjects.

Texts are often badly written, by committee. Enough people have complained about this that I don’t have to.

Various educational practices delight or irritate me to various extents, but a special place in my personal hell is reserved for the practice of inflicting lame language arts texts on students through the eighth grade. In addition to turning off generations of school kids to reading and leaving them poorly prepared in their own language, the worst thing about such textbooks is the opportunity cost. Ironically, too much time is spent about reading about the reading, doing busywork exercises, and studying for and taking exams the point of which is to make sure one has understood everything taught so far. That all seriously cuts into the time spent actually, you know, reading something worthwhile.

I wish I could hear back from some language arts teacher or curriculum designer. Explain this to me, please. Let’s suppose your poor students spend, in and out of class, 100 hours reading your groan-inducing textbook (sorry, but that really is how I feel) in a school year. At an average of, let’s say, 6 hours per book (faster readers might finish them faster), those students could read about 17 great children’s books. So, do you really think reading your  textbook all year long will teach and engage your students better than 17 shorter, more interesting chapter books?

The problem with history texts is different. History becomes seriously interesting only when one studies the narratives that make it up in some depth. Textbooks consist of, basically, a series of Cliffs Notes versions of historical narratives, cut so short as to be incomprehensible. Students should be reading chapter books and long meaty history books—not textbooks—in order really to appreciate and get something out of history. The whole idea, after all, is supposed to be to understand how human nature and society operates through the study of examples. If you don’t study the examples closely enough, if you’re just memorizing names and dates willy-nilly, you’ll both forget them and fail to appreciate the purpose of the subject.

 

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

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