04 March 2009

Teaching without textbooks

In the Philippines, we call it “weather-weather.” Elsewhere, it is called the inevitable pendulum swing or regression towards the mean. That worldwide and eternal phenomenon now applies to textbooks.

Before and even after the invention of printing, the greatest teachers in the world did not use textbooks. Think of Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Socrates, Jesus, and Muhammad. These master teachers taught millions of people in person or through their students, but they did not use PowerPoint, podcasts, textbooks, or even blackboards.

The rest of us mere mortal teachers fall back on textbooks as our security blankets during class days when we really have nothing to contribute to the store of human knowledge. We merely reproduce, sometimes in our own words, more often in the words of textbook writers, the ideas of others before us.

Even those of us calling ourselves “professors” very often have nothing to profess. We are mere conduits of knowledge, bankers as some say or, just as appropriately, intellectual property agents, selling other people’s ideas to younger people.

A relatively recent pedagogical theory, called transformative learning, has called attention to the ill-suitedness of textbooks to classroom teaching. Textbooks assume that all learners learn in exactly the same way at exactly the same pace. That, as all teachers know, even us mere mortals, has never been true. Every classroom is unique, and every student is unique. Nobody learns in exactly the same way as anybody else.

If textbooks are, in theory, bad for learners, what do we use instead? A new movement in the United States, still unnamed but that could very well be called “Teaching Without Textbooks,” shows us the answer.

“What would your classroom be like without your students cracking open their oversized textbooks everyday?” asks Laura Milligan in “100+ Resources for Teaching Without Textbooks”. She answers her own question: “Probably a lot more interesting, especially for the kiddies. There are so many other resources out there for teachers to use, online and off, that teaching without textbooks is becoming more and more acceptable. If you don’t believe us, scroll down this list of over 100 different resources – including websites, iPod lectures, and field trips – that will encourage you to toss out your textbooks.”

Eric Pallant of Allegheny College writes of his experience, which he mistakenly thinks is unique: “In the first class of the 2005-2006 school year, after calling roll and introducing myself and co-professor Terry Bensel, I told our students they were participating in an experiment, an experiment that, as far as we knew, no one else had undertaken. They were taking an Introduction to Environmental Science course with no textbook.”

Geoff Ruth of Leadership High School in San Francisco writes, “The students in my general chemistry class almost never open their textbook. My reason: The less I use the book, the more they learn.” He adds a typical comment he got from one of his students: “‘You don’t learn stuff from textbooks,’ one student wrote. ‘You just memorize for a test, then forget it.’”

In a 2007 article of the American Society for Cell Biology, entitled “Teaching without a Textbook: Strategies to Focus Learning on Fundamental Concepts and Scientific Process,” M. W. Klymkowsky summarizes some of the empirical discoveries so far of the movement: “Are textbooks useful, or are they an unnecessary expense or even an obstacle to robust conceptual understanding? Clearly, the answer depends upon course context – what are the goals of the course, how could the textbook be used to achieve these goals, does this use justify the cost of the textbook, and are there more educationally effective or cost-effective alternatives available? I discuss these questions from the perspective of a course I teach: Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) 1111: Biofundamentals, an introductory lecture and virtual laboratory course that uses online materials rather than a textbook.”

He continues: “There is little research on the impact of textbooks on student learning. Carpenter, Bullock, and Potter, in ‘Textbooks in teaching and learning: the views of students and their teachers’ (2006), provide a description of publisher-funded studies on textbook use in Britain. They outline two key points worth recognizing. First, textbook publishers and authors seem to have little appreciation of how students learn. Second, students are often motivated more by the desire to attain a degree rather an inherent love of, or interest in, course subject matter. At the same time, both students and instructors value textbooks, even though ‘there is no correlation between textbook purchase and the grade achieved.’ Similar results have been reported in U.S. chemistry and physics courses. Most textbooks are not written with current evidence about best teaching and learning practices in mind, so they may be difficult to integrate into the design and presentation of a course that is based on this evidence.”

The key insight of the movement is this: there is no evidence that textbooks aid learning. In this rapidly changing world where even the climate is unpredictable, it is about time we examine our baseless dependence on textbooks. Perhaps there is no need for the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) to buy textbooks, which, if we are to believe some quarters, are full of errors anyway.

(First published in The Philippine Star, 12 February 2009)