Not #beyondthetextbook. #betterthetextbook

A big bunch of friends, associates, colleagues, and interesting strangers will be sitting in a conference room in Maryland this weekend, talking about the future of textbooks. This is market research, but hopefully semi-public and sharable to others. I suspect it’ll be an interesting conversation.

I’ve written before about some of what I think needs to happen when it comes to textbooks at schools. And my colleague, Kyle, is working very hard with our curriculum staff to prototype some of what our new curricular resources might look like. But I thought it would make sense to share some thoughts here, as grist for the mill of conversations in Maryland.

I’m hoping that folks’ll at least take some time to make sure they’re working from shared definitions when it comes to words like “textbooks” and “resources.” Might not hurt to define “curriculum.” The problem with those words, and others that are likely to come up in the conversation, is that “everyone knows what they mean.” But they know that differently. Shared definitions matter.

I’d humbly offer this definition for textbook – “A collection of information organized around thoughtful principles intended to provide support to instruction.” It’s not the best definition – I’m sure there are better ((Wikipedia’s isn’t bad.)) – but before you go too far into a conversation about moving beyond something, it’d be good to have a sense of what it is that you’re going to move beyond.

I might drop “book” from the word, but I’m divided on that, as I’ve learned it’s hard enough for people to consider that video or audio are “texts.” ((Wikipedia even has trouble differentiating between the format and the content in their definition of “book.” But the entry on the term still might be useful. So, too, would “text.”)) The book part really bugs people. That said, a “book” has never been a codex. That’s the delivery technology.

In your conversations this weekend, try to separate the delivery technology – the way the information gets to the people – from the information you’re trying to send. If you argue that “the Internet is the textbook,” then you have failed to separate delivery from information. You can’t completely separate the two – the way something comes to you affects what you get, of course – but try to at least be aware of the two elements. And take advantage of the right delivery tools to allow for the types of stuff you want to see your textbooks do.

Also try to refrain from overgeneralization. “Textbooks are dead,” might feel good to say, or to retweet, but is a foolish statement. No, BYOD solutions aren’t the only answer. Student 1:1 environments aren’t the only answer. There is no one size fits all answer to the problems you are trying to solve. Platform and device neutrality and Web standards are pieces of the puzzle you’re trying to solve. So is on-demand printing. Or sometimes mass printing. Paper is not the enemy, nor are screens the savior.

Don’t be afraid of relying on expertise. Expertise, after all, is what you’re looking for in a textbook. The reason for textbooks is to bring a collection of human expertise on something together. But do not let that expertise lie in a publisher’s office alone.

The best textbooks moving forward are likely those that start with small building blocks from publishers, OER repositories, classrooms, websites, movie studios, and pretty much any other source for interesting information, and they become textbooks when they are hung onto a curriculum frame by a local school district. This might be done by a committee of teachers, or a small group of curriculum coordinators in a front office somewhere, but what important is that it’s not done by a salesperson seeking to please a state official in Texas or California.

The shift that I hope is coming in instructional sources is the local creation and curation of this stuff, followed by the local distribution of it to students. Some of this local curation work will be scalable and useful to other places – that is one advantage, for both business and school interests, of the Common Core State Standards. But lots of it won’t.

If textbook companies want to sell us things for and in the rest of the 21st Century, they should be selling the building blocks of content. Small pieces. They should be selling expertise and guidance in how to create these local curriculum creation teams. They might sell the platforms that help us to put the pieces together and distribute them to our communities. Discovery actually does this now – and could lead in this area.

But no publisher can sell us monolithic books written for imaginary populations of lowest common denominators. That’s why folks are so angry with and about textbooks – in the race to create One Book to lead them all, our publishers gave us stuff that wasn’t super-duper for anybody. And we bought it.

We’ve got to better the textbook. Not move beyond it.

Looking forward to seeing what folks come up with during the conversation. I suspect I’ll have more to say on the matter.

49 thoughts on “Not #beyondthetextbook. #betterthetextbook

  1. So, I’d go one step further, no surprise, and ask for some shared language or definition of learning. If we don’t go there, I find it difficult to think that we can create curriculum or pedagogy or textbooks or anything else that can adequately serve kids in their development as learners. Maybe with a shared definition of learning, we might ask do we need textbooks at all? I mean do you and I use textbooks for our learning? Don’t we create our own as we go? For our needs as individual learners living at a moment of unprecedented options to pursue our learning, is there a commonly created text that will serve all of us according to our individual needs? Or would our time be better spent talking about the dispositions and literacies required to create our own texts, applying a shared frame for learning in the process?

    I guess I’m wondering why we would structure a different process for our kids from the ones we ourselves use.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Not a bad idea, Will. That said, we do use texts to aid our learning – sometimes we write them, other times, we rely on trusted experts and sources to create the texts we use. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that texts are an important piece of learning. And that while students should synthesize what they learn as they learn it, they’ll need some raw materials to start with, or some references to help them along the way.

      I don’t see the use of textbooks, at least those that follow the learning paths we have, as different from my learning processes.

      And I do think courses, or classes, or groups of folks, should have some common texts among them. Maybe not many, but some.

    2. Textbook, teacher, classroom, curriculum, principal–isn’t this just the tip of the iceberg. Or perhaps I should say these are the deck chairs on the Titanic and the iceberg has already rammed the ship. Many of us have already moved on. If we use textbooks at all it is in a very different form, perhaps ephemeral, perhaps only a piece of the course we are sharing with the learners. Take this for example: This is a two week unit that uses Themeefy as its delivery system. It is my textbook if I am forced to use the word. If you want to be awkward you could call it a shared learning object. I like to recall what Ken Macrorie once called his book, The I-Search Paper, a “contextbook”.

  2. ehelfant says:

    I think “texts” will be curated by individual classroom teachers preferably with the help of their students.Some of the content will be free and some paid for-and some will be traditional text driven content but some will be multimedia- You can get this now but you have to choose from resources from one publisher (if you want a single, bundled resource) and we often want a video from annenberg or gilderlehrman and a chapter from pearson and a module from an opensource solution. Some of the building blocks will be interactive elements created with programs like raptivity or or udutu. The interactivity will ultimately feed learning analytics systems to help us differentiate or even individualize- There will be mechanisms to embed “lectures” or flipped classroom style content (HW) – spaces for discussions both synchronous and asynchronous and within the class as well as with a broader audience- Texts will include activities/simulations in which student can manipulate data- space will also exist for students to reflect on where they are in their learning and where they both need (sometimes we need to learn things that are not our passion) and want to go- and we will need to get better at providing reflection time to allow this to happen- This collection of learning objects (text) will be supported with things like noodletools, googledocs, collaborative mindmaps/graphic organizers- tools that allow the learning process of both skills and content to be transparent and assessable- although for feedback and maybe not for a grade-
    When you look at all that it is hard to call it a “text” it is a dynamic collection of interactive resources that help monitor progress and further learning for each individual. We have most of it available to us now- we just have to create/curate and organize what is available and then mix up how we go about the fun of learning while being cognizant of what we do know about how the brain works.
    Whatever we do, I hope we don’t include a Table of Contents- its far too easy for that to become the syllabus when we get “busy” -it privileges content too much-
    We have very few required textbooks right now- we have lots of “sites” that include everything from interactive math worksheets to lists of multimedia resources- – but we remain traditional- so even ‘revolutionizing” the text won’t revolutionize the classroom- but it is a step in the right direction-
    I guess to some extent the text for me could be a really good list of “essential” or “Driving” questions – and then a space to monitor, collect/share, advance, and reflect on learning- and that space might not look anything like a textbook – It might even be a game type environment-
    Just my Sunday morning pre-BBall thoughts-

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Yep. You get at many of the types of raw materials I think are important. And, yes, I’d still call the collections of them texts. And I’d include Tables of Contents – but I’d start with my ideas of what I want the learning to look like.

      I can’t argue with your examples at all – they all sound likely useful. But I would say that teachers will need time if they are to curate these texts. That’s, ahem, beyond the teacher, at the moment – mostly in terms of the time to do that properly. It’s extra duty in many of the systems I’m familiar with. That said, I’m guessing that some of our independent school friends, folks who have time to be thoughtful, are going to lead in these areas. At least, I hope they will.

      1. ehelfant says:

        I think this is causing us to collaborate to create course materials more- it will be necessary to create distributed expertise that hopefully will include students as curators and designers of learning experiences- not there yet-Different teachers with different skillsets- In math I have some who can make Maple Worksheets and some who are better at geogebra or fathom activities- It means teaching is a dynamic and collaborative learning profession and I’m not sure we all get that yet- Independent schools historically celebrated autonomy of each teacher’s classroom- so the collaboration and agreeing that 10th grade english courses all do mostly the same thing took work-
        As for TOC, I guess I agree with you ifthe TOC is teacher or student generated- or is a list of driving questions-

  3. Some great thoughts here, and I hope that these things get through. I will admit, when I hear about meetings like the one that prompted your post, my first inclination is that the meeting itself is a form of extended marketing, where a company puts its vision in front of people who can help convey that vision to a broader audience.

    But that aside…

    RE: “shared language or definition of learning” – I have mixed feelings about this, as the “definition” of learning most appropriately belongs with the learner, and with the interactions that the learner imbues with greater meaning. We need texts that are flexible enough to adapt to that process, and I’m not convinced that a hard and fast definition is necessary for learning to occur.

    But, I think that this is what Will is getting at with, “talking about the dispositions and literacies required to create our own texts, applying a shared frame for learning in the process” – coming up with a structure that provides a starting point, provides a path that supports discourse and meandering as part of learning, and helps us document (aka, create a greater “text”) the learning enjoyed along the way – these should be the goals of whatever we want to call the new “text”.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      (It’s certainly marketing, Bill. But one might as well use the opportunity to fiddle with the message, no?) And yes – we should be creating texts that are entry points to learning, rather than exit points.

  4. Lessonweaver says:

    I rarely used textbooks when I taught. But I have been told by curriculum directors that reliance on textbooks is pretty typical for many teachers. When other teachers asked for my help, what they wanted something quick and dirty, like you get from a textbook. It pains me to say this, but if this group won’t think out of the box, then let’s improve the textbooks that this group depends on. Not my style, but just sayin.’

  5. Anne V says:

    May I also point out that “textbooks” should look different for different subject areas? If the object of a history textbook is to depict the most basic timeline of events (and I know that is the least of a history text) then what does a math textbook do? Math texts are inordinately difficult to follow without some human intervention to vary the vocabulary, processes, and examples… Probably why I am “ditching” that math textbook more frequently.

  6. “And we bought it.” – so, there it is.

    Anytime educators give up their power to publishers they will get sold a pig in poke no matter what the format is. This is inevitable when you tell educators that they need to make their own collections, choose their own texts, pull from primary source material – but then don’t provide time, support, or authority to actually do that. Well-meaning admins then helpfully look for resources that are pre-curated, pre-digested, and easy to purchase. Voila, you have Textbook 2,0.

    Textbook 2.0 is a manifestation of the disempowerment of teachers.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Sadly, yes. And I don’t want Textbooks 2.0 to be that same loss of agency.

  7. Simon Dring says:

    Great post. Loved the contents.



  8. Varun Arora says:

    I completely agree with a lot of stuff you have written. You might want to check out with what we are trying to do at OpenCurriculum (

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