Textbooks are still important

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The lowly textbook is under siege by progressive educators. Again.

Why waste money on textbooks, these educators argue, when all the information students ever need is available with the click of a mouse? Besides, they add, textbooks are hopelessly outdated and very biased.

These and other arguments were recently made by history teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic magazine. Predictably, Cutler claims over reliance on textbooks early in his career resulted in apathy and boredom among his students. Things improved substantially when he moved away from textbooks and introduced a variety of other sources to his students.

Cutler also pointed to his experience as a graduate student. None of his history professors relied to any significant degree on textbooks. Rather, they provided students with relevant primary sources and realistic case studies which helped him understand the information better than memorizing facts and dates from textbooks. Cutler argues that the same holds true for high school students.

While these arguments may initially seem compelling, they are actually fallacious.

For example, it is misleading to compare high school students with graduate students. University students, particularly those at the graduate level, are highly motivated and come into their courses with substantial background knowledge in their discipline. Often these students can already recite hundreds of facts and dates by memory. As a result, there is little need to review basic timelines and key events. Rather, graduate students can dive right in to more advanced topics.

In contrast, most high school students know little about history. Consequently, a well-designed textbook is an invaluable tool. Not only does it serve as a useful reference guide, it shows key events in their proper chronological sequence and puts facts and dates into a broad historical context.

Shaping Canada by Linda Connor, Brian Hull and Connie Wyatt-Anderson is an excellent Canadian example. As the recommended textbook for Manitoba’s grade 11 students, Shaping Canada provides a chronological overview of Canadian history and contains many excerpts from primary sources to give students a better understanding of life in the past.

While history teachers can and should go beyond the information provided in textbooks, it helps if they provide students with a book that has most of the concepts and information they are expected to learn. Furthermore, high-quality textbooks such as Shaping Canada are extensively reviewed by subject matter experts and representatives from various ethnic groups, who together identify and weed out errors and misrepresentations. The result is a book that, while still imperfect, reflects more than one author’s perspective.

As for the suggestion that widespread internet access makes textbooks obsolete, the reality is that the quality of online information varies widely. While websites are a hit-and-miss collection of good and bad sources, a well-written textbook synthesizes the most important information in a way students can easily understand. Unless students already have substantial knowledge and considerable discernment, they are unlikely to find the same quality of information on the internet.

In addition, students need to be regularly challenged by their readings. As Mike Schmoker notes in his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, textbooks provide “the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that… students need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge.” So not only does reading the dense, challenging prose found in well-written textbooks improve content knowledge, it also helps students improve their reading skills.

Unfortunately, not all teachers are equally conversant with the subjects they teach. While it is desirable for all history courses to be taught by teachers with a strong history background, the reality is that some teachers lack this expertise. For these teachers, textbooks are even more essential. It would be a shame to deprive them of this valuable tool.

That being said, while textbooks are undoubtedly useful, teachers should never rely exclusively on them. A good history teacher will, for example, use outside sources and ensure that students learn much more than what is written in their textbooks. Teachers should neither overly depend on textbooks, nor be too quick to dismiss them.

Despite the substantial attacks on textbooks by progressive educators, it is far too soon to consign them to the dustbin of history. Textbooks continue to play an important role in educating students.