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Op Ed Why Use Textbooks?

Robert Heiny

Research Scientist of Learning and Education
Flight Instructor
Why should anyone rely on textbooks, whether on paper, tablets, smartphones, or more advanced electronic communication devices? How much do they increase learning, if the teacher is informed about the subject matter instructed? Are textbooks a crutch for educators or a necessity for students to learn?

Hard copy and electronic textbooks that I've reviewed seldom follow patterns identified by experimental empirical behavioral scientists describe that people use to learn.

At best, textbooks feature discussions "about" something rather than descriptions "of" those things.

Instead, they provide learners with a pinball strategy for learning. Like shooting a ball to raise points on a game board, someone presents content that satisfies school purchasers for a teachers' manual most teachers can follow when they choose to do so, colorful illustrations, political content that satisfies watch-dog community advocates, and, then has academic content that meets state requirements.

As a fifth grade public school teacher, I was told I had to use state approved textbooks every day. My classes and I did.

We used them as door and window props, to adjust desks to fit the size of students, and as a reference library for students to compare their answers to problems against what other fifth grade students learned.

Almost all of the 35 to 37 students in the class finished fifth grade academic standards by the end of December. Those who did not complete most of sixth grade assignments, did finish all of fifth grade work, even those who did not read standard English at the beginning of the year.

All but a few students who did not enter at the beginning of the year finished at least half of the sixth grades work by the end of the fifth grade school year. These classes included at least five learners who qualified, according to psychological exams, for special education, but met the same academic performance standards as other in the class.

That leaves the question, How much do learners "need" textbooks? Or maybe it's educators who need textbooks as an institutionalized self-defense against students not meeting expected academic performance reviews? A defense against claims of malpractice or administrative abuse against educators?

Or, is the question too harsh?


Flight Director
Flight Instructor
Instead of favoring texts, I'll point to Dr. Feynman's ideas.

In 1964 the eminent physicist Richard Feynman served on the State of California's Curriculum Commission and saw how the Commission chose math textbooks for use in California's public schools. In his acerbic memoir of that experience, titled "Judging Books by Their Covers," Feynman analyzed the Commission's idiotic method of evaluating books, and he described some of the tactics employed by schoolbook salesmen who wanted the Commission to adopt their shoddy products. "Judging Books by Their Covers" appeared as a chapter in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" -- Feynman's autobiographical book that was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company.

The issue may be as simple as the knowledge of teachers. A history teacher who tells students Kamikaze pilots were involved in Pearl Harbor. A biology teacher arguing against the theory of evolution. A health teacher who tells students that blood is blue when in the veins. A literature teacher who doesn't read at least a book a week.

Are these competent teachers ? I'd prefer that they read more than bad textbooks.

Source for quote: http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm

Robert Heiny

Research Scientist of Learning and Education
Flight Instructor
Back to Richard Feynman for a moment. I enjoy reading his lectures and comments. He still makes sense. What exactly would he say is a or the problem with public school textbooks today?

Quoting from the book LPH mentioned, Feynman might say today as he did earlier that public school textbooks in mathematics were "so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples ... which were almost OK, ... The definitions weren't accurate. ... (the authors) ... were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time , for the child." (p. 292)

I remember something of the development of "new math" to which he referred and to discussions these textbooks generated. Similar challenges occurred with history and other textbooks.

This brings me back to my point, are textbooks necessary today in an era of advancing electronic communication, or are they used to cover inadequate teaching and administering of public schools?