Open Thinkering


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.


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!