Text books or school books play a huge role in school, but in much more subtle way than grades and class tests. They are just equipment and at a glance don’t seem to be as relevant. But as with anything, a closer look reveals some of the pitfalls of these “books of knowledge.”
One central question is if text books are supposed to be the guideline everyone has to follow or if they are just a resource which the teacher can use for his lesson. The reality shows that in many (I would say most) cases, the first is true. It is not uncommon for teachers to argue that they have to do a certain topic, because “it’s in the book.” Not few lessons follow the ritual of “Please open your books on page” again and again, slowly working towards the end. In language lessons, the books are often divided into units and there is no doubt anywhere that the goal is to work through each unit. Just recently a parent angrily asked me, how I intended to finish our text book since we had only been half way through (in less than half the time of the year, so the logic wasn’t water-proof). But that is the thinking for many parents and teachers, “We have to get through the book because only then it is guaranteed, we are teaching everything that is necessary!”
I hope the problem (or one of them) becomes obvious. If teachers rely too much on the books they use, they abandon one of the most important teaching tools: their own mind. It is problematic enough that lessons are teacher-centric (more on this in a future post), but if they are book-centric any purpose of people interacting in school becomes void.
Blind allegiance to the writings can be just boring or almost dangerous. Another big problem of these books is that they are often dated, trying to pick new and “hot” topics that are often already dated when the books arrive in classrooms. I don’t want to explain to my students what MySpace was or discuss with them pictures of teenagers that look like strangers to them. Also, most topics are completely irrelevant to students. This of course somehow concerns the curriculum (again, another future post), but what teachers have in front of them is the book and since many just use what is in there, students often have to suffer. Ask students how many of the topics in the book are interesting to them and you’ll see that not much comes up in any given class. There are always some hits, but nothing compared to the misses. Note how students during lessons often page through their book, scanning everything, finding one or two pages that seem interesting, but barely able to focus on what is discussed at this point.
We also can’t forget that these books don’t exist in a vacuum but are part of an industry. As a teacher you constantly get free copies of books by publishing companies and they are not doing that because they are nice people. They want to sell, so for every subject there are various books you could use. And for each book there are new editions coming out every couple of years (and teachers will always complain that the old edition was better). So, publisher have a big interest in getting their books selected for schools and often the focus lies on making it teacher-friendly (which means giving them lots of supplemental material and guidebooks, so that they don’t have to prepare very much).
I’m not even talking about mistakes in books or the question who determines which topics and content are in them, like the fact that a very specific worldview is mostly sold, that doesn’t really endorse critical thinking. Or that in many schools (like mine), you don’t have a choice, you have to make the students get the books and therefore are supposed to use them, because there is a state-based support system for poorer families, meaning the school has to decide which books everyone gets and then everyone has to get them. So even if I think there is a better book for my lessons, I can’t use it and am stuck with the same book every year. Or how many books students have to carry to school every day, the sheer weight that has made 5th-graders using suitcases with wheels a common sight.
As with anything in school, it depends on how you deal with it as a teacher. To me, there are three different ways I use schoolbooks. Either I just pick the topics I consider interesting and use the book as much as necessary, but often supplementing it with my own material. In some cases the books actually prove to be useful. Or, when I really have to work with the whole book (like in middle grade English lessons), I do use it, but make my objections very clear or discuss with the students if they think the book is well done or realistic. Or I simply don’t use it. No one has complained about that yet and I enjoy producing my own material so much, that I have never missed it, just the opposite. In fact, I notice I’m working with the books less and less each year because relying on myself is a much more satisfying teaching experience for me and the students. But you know what happens, when another teacher is interested in a topic I'm teaching and I tell them I have a lot of my own material they can use? They smile politely and say no, because they don't trust anything that doesn't have a publisher's logo on it, ensuring they won't have to actually work with the topic themselves.