' I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder how we could have tolerated anything so primitive.' John W Gardner
A little over three weeks ago I was sitting around a room at Discovery Education’s headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland with nearly twenty of some of the most progressive and well-respected educators in North America. I have been struggling to write this post since then because I honestly felt like I was out of my league. I wasn’t sure what value I was able to add to the conversation that began on that day. But the more I think about it I think I was included in the mix because of my somewhat unique background. I want to provide some background, but I promise to tie it together at the end of this post.
I have taught at a very small alternative high school in Nebraska since 2005. I was hired to teach social studies. Then at the interview I was told that I would have to teach a “little bit of science.” After I was hired I found out that I would also be responsible for teaching “some English.” Keep in mind that this is an alternative program so there were not issues with teaching in areas where I was not certified. My first concern was what materials were available for me to use, namely a textbook. I was only a second year teacher and I felt like if I had a textbook then everything would be fine. Over the next three years I created a number of courses using book-based materials as well as web based content. At some point in there I was introduced to Moodle. At first, it was a place for me to house my activities, lesson plans and resources. I voluntarily used it for over two years before I was forced to dive in and use it with students.
In the summer of 2008 I was given the task to develop an online US History class and an online World History class. I searched and searched for resources. The classes were supposed to incorporate a variety of digital tools. The idea was to use engaging materials so that the classes did not look like traditional brick and mortar classes. (This was a complete disaster for a variety of reasons which aren’t terribly important to this post.) I was able to locate some descent resources for US History, but I found nothing that I felt comfortable with using as a framework for my World History class. I finally decided to base my course on a traditional textbook because I was running out of time.
I have learned some incredibly valuable lessons about creating courses from scratch. First, as much as many educators despise textbooks they serve a purpose. They provide a jumping in place for many teachers. As I have gained more experience and confidence I am able to use textbooks less and less, but I am willing to bet that many teachers, experienced or not, would not be willing to give up their textbooks. (For all of the data junkies who read this- I do not have stats to back this up. It is just based on the conversations I have had with the “average” teacher.) Another thing I learned is that it takes much more time to plan a course that it does to actually teach it. Seat time was a concern when designing the online classes. Since the typical student is in class for approximately 17 weeks and spends about 250 each week in class I had to plan about 70 hours work of work to cover the “seat time” requirement. This took approximately 3-5 times as long for me to create. People who have never developed an online course have no clue how time consuming it is. (Teaching it IS NOT the same thing!) My classes ended up being a mix of readings from the book, videos, activities based on websites, and different projects. Needless to say my family did not see me during the summer I was building my classes.
I shared my story because I think it sheds some light on why teachers react negatively to the idea of giving up textbooks. I enjoy the tedious work involved in creating courses, but most teachers are not interested in doing that type of work. One of the things that came up at the Beyond the Textbook forum was that the ideal “textbook” might have some familiar elements associated with a traditional textbook such as reading passages, but it would include a variety of multimedia and lesson plans which were contributed by other educators. These ideas came out in our morning group discussions prior to Discovery revealing their Science Techbook to us in the afternoon.
When we got our first look at the “Techbook” I wanted to jump up and down because it was EXACTLY what I had been searching for ever since 2008 when I began creating my online courses. It provides the readings, lessons, multimedia, and project ideas all in one place. There are also various options to adapt the lessons to fit classrooms that are outfitted with different types of technology. The techbook isn’t really a book at all, but calling it something completely different would only lead to confusion.
Many people have called for districts to abandon textbooks altogether, but what would replace them? While there are more and more teachers who are willing and able to do this many teachers are required to use specific books which have been adopted by their state. Most teachers simply don’t have the time to go out in search of resources to use to replace their textbooks. One of the points I was most interested in discussion further at the forum was the idea of gathering lesson plans in one central location. Angela Maiers shared a project out of Vail School District in Arizona called Beyond Textbooks. It is a project that allows teachers to find, create, and share standards based lesson plans. It is a simple yet brilliant idea.
My closing thought is something that has been bothering me ever since I started teaching. Very early in my career I was given more latitude in course development than most teachers can even dream about. I am concerned that if we force teachers into a position where we take away what many of them see as their most valuable resource they will be forced to start over. This, of course, could be a good thing. It would force teachers out of their comfort zone and it would require them to come up with fresh ideas. It could also be a very bad idea. When teachers are told to not use textbooks, where do they go? Google, right? What do you suppose they search for? Bingo! Worksheets! We aren’t really making any progress, are we? I also don’t know if the average teacher is qualified to develop entire courses from the ground up. I certainly had no idea what I was doing when I started and I still feel like I have so much to learn. Maybe I am off the mark, but I don’t know if it is reasonable to expect the average teacher to have these skills.
This discussion about where the textbook is headed is just beginning. I am excited to see where it goes.