Why Textbooks Suck

person in white shirt with brown wooden frame

Some things need innovation. Some do not. For example, cellphones are certainly easier to use than carrier pigeons. But sometimes we innovate just because we think we have to or because we can or percieve that we have to. We clearly do not. Some things are better left to their truest form. Education is one.

person in white shirt with brown wooden frame
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Textbooks suck. Not the old traditional anthologies of literature or old time math textbooks with pages and pages of problems, but the modern day “innovated” “here to make money for someone” textbook. The ones with the glossy pictures that attract management to buy and weak teachers to drool.

It is amazing that we still have the wheel. I imagine it started off as an oxen or slave pulled sled until we figured out the basic physics of forward momentum. Things in motion stay in motion. Once the wheel is turning; it is easy to keep it turning.

The history of education is for some reason not like this. We learned from the masters of the past that there are two keys to education: dialogue and repetition. It is sad that we have veered so far away from these keys and it is clear that we need a u-turn and a reversal of this trend.

Go back in time a 100 years or more and education was less formal and more productive. Why? Easy. THere were simply masters and apprentices. If we wanted to become a master, we found one and gave our time in the form of an apprenticeship. Then after some time, we ourselves became the master. Baking. Medicine. Teaching. THeater. What have you.

But today we want the magic pill. The easy path to the answer. The reward so to speak without the journey. And textbooks enforce this pattern.

I have been a teacher on and off ever since I was a windsurfing instructor on the beach in Miami when I was 18. Thirty plus years I have given myself as an educator to help others learn content, be the best version of themselves, win races and be applauded after a performance. It is part of me. So much so that I sometimes don’t know that I am teaching.

Teaching is not the teacher telling the student to open up to page 26 and do problems 9-45. No teaching is getting to know each student and meeting the needs of each student in real-time. An almost impossible task yet master teachers seem to do it with ease or precision.

Textbooks don’t help. They hinder in many cases because they rely on the author’s story or life or background knowledge. Textbooks do not account for real-time so they are someone else’s version of how a lesson works in the environment in which they know.

We know this to be true. Books vs Film and TV. Read a book. It is your story. Watch a film or TV and it’s the director’s story. Textbooks are the same. They rely on likeness and homogeneity too much. 

Take a noun. You just either thought of one, defined it or saw an unfamiliar word. Go into almost any middle school class and ask the kids to write down a response to the word noun and you will get one of the three. 

Child A will give a list of 20 nouns. Bike. Girl. China. Pen.

Child B will give you the definition. Person, place, thing and maybe idea.

Child C will draw a picture, return a blank page or guess.

By middle school, parts of speech should be automatic meaning all students fall into category A or B. This is not the case yet textbooks expect that all students do and most teachers expect that students can keep up with the textbooks, since it is age and level appropriate, and is told by prior year teachers that students know this information.

This is bollocks. It is the great educational lie. There is an inherent difference between knowing and owning. Marzano and Bloom would agree. Knowing means that in the moment you can regurgitate the answer for the teacher for a lollipop or a star sticker or an A. Owning means that forever you will be able to pull out the tool and use it.

The owning phase of education is missed for most in textbooks except for the students for whom the textbooks most resonate like a book, film or TV show. Few of us are blessed or cursed with a photographic memory. Try to remember what you had for breakfast last year on this day. It is a fool’s errand. 

Yet, we expect students to be able to recall at a moments notice what they learned prior while their parents were going through a divorce, their bodies were changing painfully, world issues like wars and elections were across their media streams, their peers were trying to get them high or to get into their pants all the while being told that if they make a mistake now, their future will be bleak. 

Only the most middle mediocre well-adjusted kid can make it through this time period unscathed yet they are also required to understand at a recall and use level what a noun and verb is when being used in a sentence, replaced with a pronoun or when using conditionals. Again, bollocks.

The wheel is a great thing and, other than materials, has gone unchanged since its inception. My question becomes why didn’t we follow the same path for education? Again, dialogue and repetition.

Kids know how to use technology. Why? Simple. It’s repetition. For them to be part of their peer group, they need to meet basic benchmarks like knowing the difference between TikTok and Reels. Two products doing the same thing much like Nike and Adidas but one is in vogue. One is cool. One is not.

Textbooks don’t account for this. They teach like they are the masters of universal education, but they are not. The masters of education will and always will be repetition and dialogue, and with dialogue comes the ability to critically think including asking and answering questions. 

Textbooks don’t allow for this. They have a vision and plan that in most cases does not align with the teacher, the students or the classroom or school culture yet they are bought and used as though they are the magical cure-all replacement of the wheel. And BTW, the wheel doesn’t need replacing.

So what is the solution? Simple. A return to the basics. Instead of designing a system where only the Micheal Jordans or Albert Enisteins or Oprah Winfries succeed, we redesign the system so that all who are interested can play the game.

Basketball is a thing. It is not something else. It is a game that is played in a very specific way. It has rules and those rules create the foundation to the sport. All subjects are like this. Science and Entertainment and Math. Yet, the textbooks don’t take into consideration the foundation and rules.

A writer cannot write without knowing how to craft a sentence just like a scientist cannot perform an experiment without knowing how to interpret the data. But textbooks do. They require the students to learn the second conditional without having a clear idea of verbs. They require students who have a disinterest in music to spend 6 weeks discussing music to reinforce verbs and adjectives and to learn new vocabulary. This is not productive unless you want most to feel inadequate, many to fall through the cracks and to only allow those who buy into a homogeneous society developed by someone else’s vision to succeed.

I am not for this. Benchmarks should be the norm. Think of HomeDepot or Lowe’s. Each part represents a piece of education. At the end, all students should know what each part is and how it is used. Leave it for creative assignments to build the house or story of their dreams.

This may seem boring to an adult but to a kid who is trying to figure out life, this is what they want. Tangible tools in hand that they know how to use to craft what is in their minds. Not vague descriptions of tools used to interpret someone else’s story.

Stop dumbing kids down. THey are smart and capable. More so than many adults. I have yet to work in a classroom in which the kids, aged 10-13, can’t find workable and manageable solutions to world problems. They have the answers. They just need to learn the correct name for the “thingamajig” and to know how to use it. Noun. Verbs.

But textbooks will continue to be textbooks until education ends and the voices of the future like Greta Thunberg are silenced or wiped away. We are dumbing down humanity by reinventing and innovating a tool that simply does not need to be innovated. Success in education is simple. Repetition. Dialogue. 

Teach the students how to wield the tools of mastery so that they can rise above the master. Not force them to only play at the current level and in someone else’s view of how the game should be played.


2 responses to “Why Textbooks Suck”

    1. Hello. Hope all is well. Thanks for the read.


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