Should We Use Textbooks or Not?

  • 13 June, 2010

I just read some emails on a literacy listserv that I subscribe to. They were arguing about whether to use textbooks in science. Some of my reading colleagues who are pro reading, and who are even pro reading in science, expressed animosity towards science textbooks. There were all kinds of reasons for this, some stated, some not. For one thing, they were sympathetic with science educators who want hands-on-science, and let's face it, hands on experiments can be cool (let me tell you sometime about burning up my classroom trash pail with a volcano).

  The most basic reason these educators oppose science textbooks is their philosophical opposition to textbooks and commercial instructional programs. But that position makes no sense in a science class.

  A big part of science instruction is to get kids on board with normal science—to bring them to terms with what is already known. Thomas Kuhn once wrote that science textbooks were not a good resource for learning science history, but that they played an important role in normalizing science (in unifying the conceptions drawn from research).

  This is so important that when we interview scientists they indicate that we should not be stressing critical reading much in science books. Instead, they tell us that it is important that kids approach science books as truthful, if not always accurate, descriptions of the natural world as conceptualized by science. So, science being science, textbooks play a critical role in the teaching of science.

  This is very different from the situations in history and literature. In history, it is evident from talking to historians that history books are the enemy. Historians see history books as anti-history as they suggest that these books convey the idea of a single correct story—rather than of an argument based on perspective. They would be willing to accept multiple textbooks (with varied positions), but not single text perspectives; that's just the opposite of history.

  And, what of literature? For the most part literature textbooks are irrelevant as long as they are faithful anthologies. You could teach literature with tradebooks or with those same tradebooks combined in a literature anthology. Textbooks are neither integral to nor antithetical to the teaching of literature.

  We shouldn’t be allowing educator’s philosophies and biases to determine whether students are taught from textbooks. That should be determined by the nature of what is being taught. Science must have textbooks, history needs multiple books, and with literature you can do it either way without fault. Disciplinary literacy, indeed.


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Should We Use Textbooks or Not?


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