Textbooks or no textbooks?

I had the opportunity to attend and present at ECOO 13, a conference that brings together passionate educators who want to provide learning opportunities for our students where the focus is on changing the learning environment, supported by technology and digital resources. This change leads to greater opportunities for our students to think, create and engage in relevant learning experiences both collaboratively and individually.

I participated in two panels on that day, each asking a provocative question. The first panel asked about the future of the textbook. The second panel asked, if we believe in the importance of teaching 21st century learning skills supported by technology, why is it not happening in every classroom? I will share my reflections here.

In terms of the textbook, I shared that a different yet related issue was actually more important from my perspective. I am more concerned about the teaching and learning environment that exists in every one of our schools. I am concerned about the tasks that students are asked to complete. I am wondering about how often students have the opportunity to create a focus for their learning or to create a problem they wish to explore in the context of parameters set by the teachers. This focus or problem provides ample opportunities for our students to meet curriculum expectations, or better yet exceed them!

I believe this type of learning environment is better served by technology and digital resources. Though there is information in textbooks that I am sure is accurate, I worry that the textbook becomes a tool that creates a different kind of learning environment than the one I described above. We have all experienced the task to “read Chapter 5 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” Again, there may be nothing wrong with reading a chapter and answering the questions. Yet, might there be more dynamic ways of allowing students to explore a topic, analyze different sources, synthesize available information and critique that information? Instead of simply reading and responding, might our students have the opportunity to take ownership for their learning by drawing on information that may be found in a textbook, but is also supported in other enriching ways?

This takes me to the topic that was discussed in the second panel. We have been talking about the learning environment I have described above for many years. Why is it not happening? We often hear the argument that there are not enough funds. I would suggest that we have the funds, but we need to use our resources differently. In order to use our resources differently, we need to invite teachers to move into this digital, technological world by first supporting them as learners who are creating dynamic learning environments for their students. By supporting teacher learning, and by assisting them to see this relationship between teacher and student differently, I believe that digital conversion and technology will be seen as necessary for instruction. Digital conversions means that we are moving away from paper-based resources in order to embrace more dynamic resources that will allow students to explore their interests and teachers to meet students’ needs more effectively.

By creating a culture where teachers see themselves and are supported as learners, by providing access to digital resources and technology for the purpose of changing the learning environment, and by setting a clear system direction that we are moving into this new world, I will believe that a few years from now we will be walking as opposed to simply talking.

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12 Responses to Textbooks or no textbooks?

  1. Aviva (@avivaloca) says:

    I absolutely love this post of yours! Right now, as a school we’re focusing on student choice, student voice, and differentiated instruction, and your words here definitely align with this goal of ours. While I think that admin, learning resource teachers, other support staff, and the instructional coaches can help support teachers on this journey, how else can we support them? What do you think helps best bring about change? This is something that I’m always thinking about, and I’d love to know your thoughts on this!

    Thanks for helping to create this amazing learning environment for students in the HWDSB!


    • John Malloy says:

      Hello Aviva, I do not have an answer to your question yet, but we hope that by supporting every teacher in 7 schools in the North project, we will learn the way to assist the entire system move in this direction…..


  2. Roxanne Hibberd says:

    Hi John, I agree with the 21st century learner and how we design the “rich” tasks to support dynamic learning environments. Enjoyed reading your article and I agree that we need to use our resources differently. I am attaching a link that is titled “Augmented Reality Brings New Dimensions to Learning” which I think you will enjoy.



  3. Paul Clemens says:

    Great perspective, John! We have been having a lot of dialogue and discussion at our school about how we best support student learning and take more deliberate steps toward inquiry learning. The use of single-source resources such as text books is definitely a hinderance when we are encouraging students and staff to “explore” topics. The other thing that we have experiencesd is that when students are engaged and asking their own questions, they rarely follow the sequential, predictable path of the text. Their excitement and intersts take them in directions that are often a surprise to their teachers. It is almost impossible to take a divergent path when using a convergent resource. Thanks for sharing your thinking!


  4. Cyndie Jacobs says:

    Great to see your reflections and summary of both panels on which you participated John!

    We’re thinking of a panel similar to this year’s focus, so put the dates in your calendar! Nov 5-7, 2014. #ecoo14


  5. Ian Fox says:

    I really agree with your position on this topic. I find myself constantly trying to persuade others of this different angle on teaching. I think we as teachers have to break the habit of always teaching from the front of the room and telling students the answers or where exactly to get the answers. We have to try and get students to explore and try to find the answer with the teacher just facilitating and asking questions to further their thinking. This will help them in the real world because as students grow up answers will not always be found in one sources or in one location.


  6. Judi Davies says:

    As you know John, there is no better example of differentiated instruction and dynamic learning than the self-paced, self-directed model. It is a wonderful way to challenge students to own their education and it results in truly engaged teens who are not afraid to take a chance and try something new. Maybe it is really time to explore more self-paced programs in the HWDSB.


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