Tag Archives: affordance

The Medium is the Message: (4) Affordances of Print Textbooks

In the previous post in this series, I analyzed a few of the constraints of print textbooks. Today I would like to look at some of the affordances. Remember, an affordance is a design feature that enables. In this case, what about a textbook enables a teacher to teach? Enables students to learn?

Affordances – Print Textbooks

  • The scope, sequence, and pacing are done for you. Before you ever got the book, someone made difficult decisions about what topics to include in the book and how many lessons to devote to each topic.
    • On the surface I know this rubs some teachers the wrong way. “How could someone else know better than me how to plan for my students?” My answer is someone with a lot more time than you to devote to planning the scope and sequence. One of my first posts talked about the differences in workload between being a teacher and being a curriculum designer.  Teachers can definitely be curriculum designers, quite effective ones in fact. But they are required to also do a lot of other things that make demands on their time. Teachers have to make many more decisions daily about how to use their time wisely and think about the trade offs that entails. A curriculum designer, on the other hand, needs to be good at curriculum design, and that’s about it. There are not many more facets to their job. As a teacher, it can give me peace of mind to know that one aspect of my job is already done. Now, as the expert of my particular class, I can and should make modifications to suit the needs of my class, but the textbook scope and sequence at least gives me a starting place.
    • This point might be even more important for novice teachers. They haven’t taught an entire year of anything yet. They might have ideas of how long to spend on various subjects, but they’ve never seen it in action. Having a plan from a textbook can help those teachers as they develop a sense of appropriate pacing. “Let’s see, I have spent 4 weeks on fractions. The textbook has 2 weeks’ worth of content. Maybe I should be moving on…”
  • Practice, practice, practice. For math textbooks in particular, print textbooks are basically just pages and pages of problem sets.
    • Again, going back to the demands on a teacher’s time, it can be quite a time saver to have so many problems already written. And you can do whatever you want with them. If you’re determined to skip the textbook and teach math concepts through exploration and discussion, go for it! But you might realize one day that your students just need some practice before taking a test or moving on to a new topic. Lucky for you, your textbooks are sitting there full of problems that your students can use to practice. While it might not be a central component of your instruction, don’t ignore its value as a resource.
  • Textbooks as a reference. Speaking of textbooks as a resource, they can be a valuable reference source for teachers and students.
    • While textbooks can be heavy, that doesn’t stop them from being portable. Students can take them home and use them as a reference as they are working on homework and don’t have access to their teacher. While the worked out examples at the front of a lesson can hinder teaching, they can enable students to figure out why they’re getting stuck in their work. Looking at an example, walking through the steps, and looking at any diagrams might help the student figure out where they are going wrong.
    • Textbooks also usually include glossaries, which I know helped me numerous times in high school when I needed to look up the meaning of various literary terms.
    • My math textbooks also included answers for the odd-numbered problems. Obviously the teacher avoided assigning us many odd-numbered problems, but assigning a few is helpful. If I solve those, check my work, and see that I’m right, then I feel more confident moving to the even-numbered problems. If I see that I’m not correct, I can keep going back to my work until I figure out what I was doing wrong. This requires some motivation on the part of the student, but the fact is that this feature does enable this interaction to happen.
  • Modeling questioning and differentiation techniques.
    • I mentioned in my last post in this series that textbooks are light on teaching. One thing they do provide, that I have to give credit for, is modeling questioning techniques. Throughout the teacher’s edition, there are questions the publisher suggests the teacher ask at many different points of the lesson. This does not mean the teacher can’t come up with questions on his/her own, but they are a resource that can help improve the discussion. Not all teachers are created equal. Some are great at fostering discussion with rich questions, and others honestly need help.
    • Textbooks also usually offer multiple resources for differentiation. It may take the form of differentiated practice activities. For a teacher strapped for time, it is awfully convenient to have three leveled worksheets for every lesson. The teacher’s edition also usually includes suggestions for small group activities that can be done with different ability groups. These activities tend to be hands-on and provide more pedagogical guidance than I’ve seen anywhere else in the textbook.
  • Textbooks are usually just one component.
    • If you’ve ever witnessed a textbook adoption going on at your school, you’ve likely seen the large display cases advertising one textbook. While the textbook might be the core of a publisher’s curriculum, they are by no means the only component. Textbook publishers tend to offer a multitude of additional workbooks and resources to accompany their books. I’ve met some teachers who ignore the textbook, but they rely heavily on specific supplemental components. These components may include additional practice workbooks, additional hands-on activities, songs on CD, games, differentiated instruction/practice, suggestions for working with English language learners, etc. All together, these resources provide teachers additional choices for how they work with their students.
  • Cost = $0
    • This isn’t entirely true. Someone is footing the bill for textbooks, but the important point is that it is not the teacher. (I’m speaking from my experiences teaching in Texas. Maybe this does not apply where you live.) It doesn’t mean you have to love them, but you can’t deny that you are getting a lot of materials for free. The system where the state pays for textbooks enables every teacher and every student to have instructional materials in their hands.

So there you have it, some of the constraints and affordances of print textbooks. If you have any more you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments. I’d love to hear what other people come up with. In the next post in this series, I will take a look at print materials that are not textbooks.

The Medium is the Message: (2) Laying out my perspective

So what started as an interesting topic I’d like to entertain is quickly ballooning into something that will likely take me several blog posts to thoroughly explore. I’m okay with that. If you ever meet me in person you’ll learn that I can (and like to!) talk at length about education matters, so really this is no surprise to me.

Source: Amazon

I’ll be up front that I’m going to approach my analysis from a user-centered design perspective. If you are unfamiliar with user-centered design, I encourage you to check out the provided link for additional information. I also highly recommend the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It was one of the first books I read in grad school, and it had a tremendous impact on my thinking with regards to designing curriculum materials and instructional technologies. Here’s a quick summary of user-centered design from the Wikipedia article I linked to:

“The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.”

Now, I’m not saying that any curriculum materials were designed according to this perspective, but they are definitely worth analyzing from this perspective. The end users – teachers – often have very strong opinions about the materials they use with their students. Throughout my posts you’ll hear me refer repeatedly to constraints and affordances. These are key ideas from Donald Norman’s book. I’m probably not using the terms exactly as Donald Norman did, so I’ll give my working definitions.

A constraint is something that hinders. For example, a constraint of a wooden pencil is that it has a finite supply of lead. Once you have exhausted the lead, you need a new pencil.

An affordance on the other hand is something that enables. For example, the casing of a mechanical pencil enables you to use the same pencil continuously because you can add lead any time you run out. (Granted this quickly raises the constraint that if you run out and have no supply of extra lead, then your mechanical pencil becomes just as useless as the wooden pencil.)

In addition to constraints and affordances, I also foresee myself talking about assumptions and unintended consequences. I’m writing this post before I’ve written any of the meat of this blog series, but I’m interested in both topics so I’m sure they will come up as appropriate. For example, what assumptions does a textbook publisher have about the teachers who will use its product? Or, what are the unintended consequences of introducing digital curriculum materials in a classroom?

And with that question, I’d like to close this post with a quote that sums up the work of curriculum designers:

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry…”

Or if you have a more cynical view of the relationship between publishers and teachers:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”