The Medium is the Message: (3) Constraints of print textbooks

I was going to do a post on print materials in general, but then I realized there are two types of print materials that I want to discuss separately. The first is print textbooks, which are ubiquitous in public education. The other is print curriculum that is not a textbook. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, bear with me. I’ll get to it in a post or two.

So, without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the design of print textbooks. What design choices were made intentionally or unintentionally that yield the stack of books you may or may not be using in your classroom?

I’ll start with the constraints. Remember, a constraint is something that hinders. What features of a textbook hinder the users? How do they hinder teaching? Hinder learning? Hinder understanding?

Constraints – Print Textbooks

  • Content is fixed at the time of printing.Once a print run is complete, there’s no going back. What is written in the book will always be written in the book (at least until a new edition is published).
    • The teacher cannot change or update any information in the book. If she finds an error or an extra example to share with her class, she cannot modify the book in any way. Sure, she can take the effort to add a sticky note inside her book, but is she responsible for doing that to every textbook in her class? What happens if sticky notes fall out of some books and not others? Fundamentally, the teacher has no control over the content in the book itself.
    • Even more troublesome, the students can’t make any changes either. Textbooks are knowledge students can hold in their hands, but they cannot change or challenge it in any way. This may yield the unintended consequence of altering a student’s perception of knowledge, where it comes from, and whether knowledge is something that can be created. The textbook for each subject is like a bible for that subject. It’s the students’ job to…what? Read it? Memorize it? It isn’t obvious from looking at a textbook that nearly every subject is in flux in some way. There are people out in the world studying new facets of every subject, expanding our knowledge, and even creating brand new subjects to study and learn more about.
  • Textbooks are heavy.Textbooks are printed on hundreds of sheets of paper per book and they usually have a hard cover to help them last for many years. As a result, they’re heavy!
    • They are portable in the abstract, but in reality textbooks are a pain to transport. They are much larger than paperback novels and much heavier. Carrying one around can be a nuisance. Carrying around a backpack full of textbooks is even worse. The unintended consequence of this is that some students may choose not to take them home for homework. Maybe it’s not cool to be seen weighted down by a full backpack. Or maybe you have an instrument case, gym bag, and backpack to lug around. You might start making some difficult decisions about what “must” come home with you because you don’t want to carry all of it. Or maybe you don’t go home right away, or you walk home, or you ride a bike. Carrying textbooks in any of those situations makes you feel like a pack mule, and on a bike it may even be dangerous.
  • Textbooks are light…on teaching.
    • Let’s consider a math textbook. If I open my textbook to teach a lesson, I get very little support with how I should actually be teaching the concept. Sure, there are a few worked out problems at the front of each lesson and those are followed by various problem sets. Great. But how do I teach the lesson? What should I be doing and saying with my students so that they build a strong understanding? The teacher manual may include a few questions you can ask your students about the worked out problems, but beyond that there is very little pedagogical guidance. The unintended consequence of this is that it reinforces a transmission model of education. Each lesson contains information that the teacher needs to transmit to the students. By reviewing the worked out problems together, probably in a lecture format, the students are supposed to learn the skill(s) they need in order to succeed on the problem sets. Does success on problem sets mean you know math?
    • Now let’s consider a science book. Many science books I’ve seen and used are dense repositories of information. They may make great reference material, but what they imply about teaching science is an entirely different matter. The science textbook I used in my last school started out each chapter with directions for a hands-on experiment. That sounds great, but all that taught my students was that experiments are already written; you just need to follow the directions. This leads directly into numerous science fair projects that are mislabeled as experiments. They usually turn out to be demonstrations – the end result was known before the student ever started working. Beyond the science “experiment” at the beginning of the chapter there are pages and pages of text and illustrations. What does this tell me as a teacher? My students have a lot of information to learn! What does this tell my student? Science = reading. Lots and lots of reading. Usually followed by reading comprehension questions.
  • Textbooks are not good at controlling information.
    • Imagine a textbook writer. She has the best of intentions. She wants to present a really meaty problem. She creates a diagram to accompany the problem just in case students need it. Unfortunately, she has little control over the presentation of the diagram. Most likely it will be printed mere centimeters from the problem. Rather than construct their own model or diagram, students will assume they need to use the one provided in the book, even if that wasn’t the writer’s intent. The same goes for worked out problems at the front of the lesson. The answer is usually right there on the page. Students are just going through the motions everyday to recreate the answers in the book.

That’s all I have on constraints for now. In the next post in this series I’m going to take a look at the affordances of print textbooks. After talking about how textbooks hinder teaching and learning, it may surprise you to find out there are actually features that enable the same.


One thought on “The Medium is the Message: (3) Constraints of print textbooks

  1. Pingback: The Medium is the Message: (4) Affordances of Print Textbooks | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

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