Tag: textbooks

Beyond the Textbook?

A couple of days ago I noticed #beyondthetextbook emerging on Twitter. It turns out that this hashtag related to an gathering sponsored by Discovery Education in Washington D.C.

My (remote, somewhat helicopter-like) contribution, was pretty much summed up by the following:

The problem isn't the textbook. The textbook is a symptom of a problem around *assessment*. #beyondthetextbook

After reading Audrey Watters’ post about the gathering (as well as those by others), I’d like to expand up on that and highlight some thoughts from others with whom I’m in agreement.

Trojan textbooks

I want us to weigh classroom practices, power, authority, politics, publishing, assessment, expertise, attribution, and the culture(s) of the education system. I would argue that the textbook in its current form — and frankly in almost all of the digital versions we’re also starting to see now — is tightly woven into that very fabric, and once we tug hard enough at the “textbook” thread, things come undone.

(Audrey Watters)

The textbook is easy to talk about. It’s a physical thing that people have known as students and, for some, as educators. The trouble is that, just as with any technology, it’s difficult to separate the thing from the practices that surround the thing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with textbooks – especially if you define them as Bud Hunt does as “A collection of information organized around thoughtful principles intended to provide support to instruction.” I’m not so keen on the word ‘instruction’ (I’d substitute ‘learning’) but like his basis in ‘thoughtful principles’.

Getting assessment right

One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of badges for lifelong learning is that assessment is broken. I don’t mean ‘broken’ in the sense that a bit of a repair job would fix. I mean structurally unsound and falling apart. Liable to collapse at any moment. That kind of broken.

It’s a problem I felt as a classroom teacher. It’s an issue I had to deal with as a senior manager. It’s evident in my sector-wide role in Higher Education. The hoops through which we’re asking people to jump not only don’t mean anything any more, but they don’t necessarily lead anywhere.

To me, that constitutes a crisis of relevance. So when we’ve got textbooks solely focused on providing content in bite-sized chunks in order to allow people to pass summative tests, then we’ve got a problem. A huge problem.

But let’s be clear: the problem is to do with the high-stakes assessment. It’s akin to the current attacks on the efficacy of teachers. The problem isn’t with (most) teachers, it’s with what you’re asking them to do. Likewise, with textbooks, it’s not the collecting of information in one place – it’s what people are expected to do with that information.

Open content and the blank page

I’ve seen many state their belief that the best kind of textbook is the blank page. By that, they mean that textbooks should be co-constructed. I certainly can’t argue with that, but we must always be careful that we don’t substitute one form of top-down structure with another.

Back in 2006 I wrote a couple of posts on my old teaching blog. One covered the idea of teachers as lifeguards, and other focused on the teacher as DJ. In the former I talk about the importance of teachers ‘knowing the waters’ so that they can allow students to explore the waters, growing in confidence (but be there when things go wrong). In the latter I discuss the similarities between teachers and DJs around ‘tempo’ and ‘playlists’.

Both the lifeguard and DJ analogies work with textbooks, I think. The difficulties are always going to be around time and competency. It’s all very well for those new to the profession, willing to burn the candle at both ends to remix the curriculum and create their own textbooks to move #beyondthetextbook. But that’s a recipe for burnout.

Conclusion

As usual, I’ve more questions than answers, but if I have one contribution to the #beyondthetextbook debate it’s that our current use of textbooks is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. It’s difficult to debate nuanced things online, and even more so via Twitter.

I think we need a renaissance in blogging – and the kind of blogging where we reference other people’s work. If we’re going to debate problems in education, let’s do so at length, with some nuance, and in a considered way.

Thanks for reading this far. I’d love to read any comments you have below!

More on Teaching as a Subversive Activity

As part of my ongoing research for my Ed.D. thesis on the concept of digital literacy and what it means to be ‘educated’ in the 21st century, I’ve been revisiting musings on the purpose of education.

One of my favourite education-related books of all time is Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Whilst some of the examples in the book are no longer so culturally relevant, the main thrust of it was so ahead of it’s time that today, nearly 40 years later, we’ve still not caught up!

Here’s my paraphrase of one of my favourite sections. It comes towards the middle of the book in a chapter entitled ‘New Teachers’. Postman and Weingartner set out to ‘put before you a list of proposals that attempt to change radically the nature of the existing school environment.’ (p.137):

1. Stop buying textbooks

I’m absolutely with Postman and Weingartner on this one. As they put it, ‘texts are not only boring but based on the assumption that knowledge exists prior to, independent of, and altogether outside of the learner.’ The authors were writing in 1969, before the Internet. How much more is this the case in 2008? Of course, as with most things discussed here, such a move would have to be done en masse – either whole-school in the case of an independent school or academy, or local authority-wide in the case of state schools.

2. Get teachers to ‘teach’ subjects other than those in which they are ‘specialists’

I like this one. I teach ICT, although I don’t particularly enjoy teaching it. I’ve also taught English and Geography in my four-and-a-bit years of teaching. My degree was in Philosophy and my MA in Modern History. I think it’s really important for teachers to see the ‘bigger picture’ and not develop a parochial attitude towards their subject.

Postman and Weingartner talk of ‘the desire of teachers to get something they think they know into the heads of people who don’t know it’ and how teachers teaching subjects other than their specialism would put a stop to this. I think there’s less of the lecturing and narrow-mindedness these days due to there being more of a focus on skills, but I still think things could be shaken up a bit.

3. Transfer all primary school teachers to secondary schools and vice-versa

This would be great! Not only would we get much more of an insight as to what goes on, but we’d get a chance to experiment with different approaches. I read the blogs of a few primary school teachers (including Tom Barrett’s) and my wife teaches part-time in a primary school. I have somewhat of an insight, but I’d love to have an opportunity to teach, say, Year 5 or Year 6 for a week. I think that’s all it would need to be to still be an eye-opener! :-p

4. Make every teacher who thinks they know their ‘subject’ well to write a book on it

Thankfully, I don’t think this is necessary in the 21st century. Those who feel like they need to force their opinions on others can just blog… 😉

5. Dissolve ‘subjects’ and ‘courses’

Hmmm… not entirely sure about this one. I can see the reasoning behind it – it would potentially ‘free [teachers] to concentrate on their learners’. As I was reading recently, the lack of trust of teachers has led to a situation where anything that can’t easily be measured and assessed isn’t valued. That needs to stop in order for us to bring creativity back into the average classroom.

6. Limit the amount of words teachers are allowed to utter in declarative and interrogative sentences

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I can see the point.

7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to

This would lead to a vastly different approach to teaching and learning. To use an awful phrase, the teacher moves from the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’. That is to say that the teacher wears his or her learning credentials and ability on their sleeve. With the type of (online) real-world publishing available these days, there’s no need for rote and stale learning.

8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades

Hallelujah! I’m forced to teach to the test. My GCSE History results were poor last year, therefore I’ve got to focus on exam skills, hammering home content as well week after week. At Key Stage 3 we have at least three tests per year for which I’ve got to prepare students. They’re very content-heavy and I see most classes for one 50-minute period per week, so I’m somewhat hide-bound.

Comment-only marking and fewer, lower-stakes tests would liberate me. I’d really start to enjoy my teaching again, seeing it as a learning journey with students. 😀

9. Require teachers to undergo some form of psychological counselling

At first this sounds like Postman and Weingartner having a dig at teachers. That’s actually not the case. I like to think of myself as a fairly reflective person, having studied Philosophy for most of my adult life. One does come across colleagues, however, who seem to have chosen teaching for all the wrong reasons, or have stress/relationship/other issues. As the authors put it, the purpose would be ‘to give teachers an opportunity to gain insight into themselves, particularly into the reasons they are teachers.’

10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public

Harsh! In the USA, some states pay teachers more based on the qualifications they hold. Independent schools in England certainly take it into account when employing people. Qualifications have only a tenuous relationship to ‘intellectual ability’ (whatever that is) but at least it shows a willingness to continue learning.

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students

This is a great idea! It would mean that teachers would have to stay up-to-date (in some respects) with youth culture, which would in turn inform their teaching. 🙂

12. Make all classes optional and withold teacher’s pay if no students choose to go to their classes

They do this, I believe, at the controversial Summerhill School. As with some of the other points above, it would require a whole different mindset and a debate on the purpose of education which we haven’t had for a long time. It could have the negative side of making teachers who pander to the whims and fancies of teenagers the most popular. However, if there are some sort of checks and balances, I suppose it could work…

13. Require teachers to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in a field other than education

Postman and Weingartner pour scorn on those who ‘simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as teachers)’. Well, I’m one of them. I’d love to have experience in another field, but find it difficult to know where to look and feel it would damage my career (such as it is) were I to come back into teaching. Such a scheme would, as the authors state, ‘evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.’ Of course, one has to define what ‘reality’ is and I’m not so sure that the authors’ recommendations of ‘bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter’ are so relevant these days… :-p

14. Make teachers provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being

Well… I can sort of see the point. But really?

15. Require all the graffiti found in schools to be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls

These days, especially given the current fad for ‘student voice’, learners have lots of opportunities to voice their opinions. I don’t believe this particular suggestion would be helpful! 😮

16. Certain words and phrases should be prohibited

The authors suggest the following: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.

I’d add the following: Ofsted, value-added, Fischer Family Trust, performance management, and residuals

CONCLUSION

I enjoyed going through this list again. My 3 recommendations from it:

  1. Allow more flexibility in teaching – primary teachers in secondary, and vice-versa. Teachers from one subject sitting in and team-teaching where appropriate in subjects where they are not ‘experts’.
  2. Create meaningful assessments, ones that don’t reward regurgitation and aren’t high-stakes.
  3. Stop schools’ reliance on textbooks. I’d plough the money into 1-to-1 netbook programmes for all students!

What are YOUR thoughts?

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