Textbooks–The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I was reading through a couple of blog posts by Garth Flint earlier today. I’ve been using some of my vacation time to catch up on blog reading and had put off reading some of Garth’s posts until I had time to do it right. Garth is one of those people who uses his blog for self examination and the working through of ideas. It’s always a great read. In fact a perfect example of how educators can share ideas and thought processes with each other. In both of the posts Garth mentioned textbooks.  In one context he talked about the difference between his current projects and what it was like when using projects from textbooks. In the other post he talked about struggling with teaching Alice without a textbook. Now as someone who has written textbooks and taught both with and without textbooks this got me thinking – again. I often think about textbooks. (Yea I’m weird like that.) So I thought I would try to put some of my thoughts down in print at this time. Besides I don’t want to clean my office.

The good of textbooks is probably that they contain a lot of information – more than one can probably cover by lecturing. Students can use them as a reference for information and for explanations. Hopefully the explanations are good ones. For teachers the textbook contains projects, review questions and other teaching resources that the teacher doesn’t have to create themselves. We’ll talk more about that in “the ugly.” At their best textbooks help students learn and even explore on their own. They give the teacher an extra tool in their toolkit. Teachers who are just starting out will gain a scope and sequence from a textbook. It will help them create an order for their course.

The bad is that sometimes the book does too much or too little to help the students. A step by step instruction can be a crutch that prevents students from learning or at least some getting the information into long term memory. I’ve used books like this and I am not proud of it. They are in some ways the lazy way out. Too much detail in instruction is the same as “copy these lines x times.” Old school and not really effective. In one of his posts Garth points out that when he was assigning projects from textbooks there was too much cut/paste sharing and student projects all look the same. This is a real risk with textbooks. Some teachers like that all the projects look the same and they want enough instruction detail that they don’t have to do much handholding. Others would rather do the extra handholding if the end results were both better long term retention and creative solutions. Textbooks are written for lazy teachers though. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh because I know that few teachers see themselves as lazy. Perhaps the better way to say it is that textbooks are written for teachers who don’t have time to do everything that is required of them. So a textbook that saves them time and makes things easier is highly valued. Almost no one has time to write their own textbook or even create all the teaching materials they need for all the courses they teach. Especially in teaching computer science where most teachers have far too many preps than is reasonable. Sometimes lazy is just a nasty way to say efficient. Smile

I will admit to being lazy about how I taught applications courses. My priority was the programming and real computer science stuff. I just couldn’t put as much time into the applications courses as perhaps they deserved. So a textbook that didn’t require me to think a lot was “good” by some definitions of good. A bit ugly in hind sight though and not something I am proud of.

The most ugly is probably those review questions that you have to have at the end of the chapter. I really hated writing those. Really. Of course I hated writing tests and quizzes in general. Someone may love doing that but not me. Not the multiple choice, true/false and short answer questions anyway. You can’t write a textbook without them but I suspect that I am far from the only textbook author who hated writing them. Now I am not saying that all end of chapter review materials are horrible. Not at all. Even some of mine are pretty good. The ugly part is that they may not always reflect what was actively taught in class. They are not customized to the reality of the course they are used in. Largely they are a club to beat kids into reading the textbook with. That we need to use a club to make them read should be a warning about something. People tend not to read textbooks for fun. (Note I have bought a couple of textbooks to read for personal interest which may or may not meet your definition of fun.) Projects I loved writing BTW. Hard to make them as open-ended and original in a book as they things that come up naturally in class though.

Ultimately textbooks are a tool. They can be used for good or for evil. Some textbooks are better than others and all have parts that are better (more useful) than other parts. The art of teaching is knowing which is which and using the tools appropriately. Some people can teach without textbooks and using materials of their own creation. Others need the help and support that a good textbooks can provide. Neither is always right or always wrong. Teaching is an art and people are different. Selecting textbooks may be one of the hardest things teachers do. Well besides trying to get students to read them that is. How do we fix that problem and create textbooks that more students want to use? Ah, well that is the real question isn’t it?

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