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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Textbook Problem

Is It Possible to Teach World History in High School?

The other day I browsed through a tenth grade world history textbook. It was full of lush color. It offered many angles of entry into history — through the arts, politics, economics, law, social structure. It was completely even handed in covering all parts of the world in a fair, balanced, and apprectiative manner. It was filled with handy sidebars on how to take notes on the infomation, how to engage with what you were reading and derive meaning from it, how to "read" art for historical context, etc. In other words, poured into the covers of this book was the real learn of banks of professors who specialize both in the content areas and in education. And I cannot imagine anyone reading it, deriving pleasure from that, or coming to care, in the slightest, about world history.

Part of the problem is that a textbook just is not a book, it is a tool designed to make it easier for teachers to teach. It is a tool for learning, not a book to read. Fine. But is there any tool which can take kids with no or little context, introduce them to every civilization, every culture, every continent, every time period, and have it add up to anything? As I read it, I felt like I was experiencing an overwhelming assault that crushed me, not an invitation to learn, grow, care, engage. And so I wonder if part of the problem is the effort to teach world history at all.

In the old days, kids got western civ, with the idea that, grounded in one culture they could move on to others. This was hierarchical — Western Civ was us, we were better, we then could show missionary or charitable interest in others. Well we no longer have that hierarchical view — but then what grounding do kids have to surf on this tidal wave of information? I wonder if it would make more sense to make world history be an in depth view of any one culture — pick it out of a hat — tracing the real links that culture had with others, train kids in how to learn and know; then, at the end of the year, give them a hint of the riches and wonders of other times, places, and cultures. Dig deep, open minds, trust in curiosity for future courses. Or, divvy up the world, and, at the end of the years, spend a month having different classes meet, talk, compare and contrast, find connections. 

Marc

Comments

  1. DEBRA HANSON says:

    Oh Marc…how could you possibly question the value of textbooks? Teach a topic in-depth? Create links among cultures and to what’s happening in the world today? Open minds and trust in curiosity? Oh, don’t get me started on the role of textbooks! We spend millions-billions, maybe- of dollars to provide textbooks to students both at school and at home (yes, our district requires TWO books per student per subject in middle schools because we don’t have lockers to store them and they are too heavy to tote back and forth – but that’s another story entirely) and these books often are never looked at beyond the classroom. More often than not, these books turn kids off to real curiosity and learning. While learning to read for information is valuable, that can be taught with all kinds of other resources that are more engaging and more relevant to students today. I agree with you that we use textbooks as a tool to make teaching easier – especially for those marginal or “new” teachers. Somehow we believe that giving teachers a textbook and a Teacher Edition will make them better able to follow the curriculum and teach all students the same content no matter which school they attend. We have become so concerned about every student “getting the same content” that we now create academic plans that follow the textbook rather than use the standards or even common sense to help guide what we teach. Great teachers who love kids and want to help them learn to evaluate information, make connections to what’s going on in the world today, and give them opportunities to think about creating solutions for issues that affect them locally and globally are being driven out of the profession by these kinds of textbook policies and requirements.

    I rarely used a textbook when I taught high school science classes. My students used current magazines & journals, newspapers, websites, & email to find information about each topic. I suggest that textbooks should be issued to teachers as only ONE of many resources used in the classroom and not issued to students at all. Instead of using the textbook as the roadmap, engage students with open-ended questions that THEY help generate about the world they live in and how it got to be the way it is. Ask questions that require students to create answers not found in a book (but which require them to read books, articles, blogs, etc.). Create ways for them to explore the world and its cultures by connecting with people of those cultures (there is no excuse not to do this with the Internet at our fingertips these days). In the end, they may actually discover that they want to learn more, do more, engage more, simply because they are actively engaged in the process of learning and have some say in how they learn. I love your idea of having them meet at the end of the year to SHARE/TALK, because we know students make meaning by socializing/talking about what they are reading and learning. Thanks for opening up this conversation – I’d love to hear what everyone else has to say about it!

  2. DEBRA HANSON says:

    Oh Marc…how could you possibly question the value of textbooks? Teach a topic in-depth? Create links among cultures and to what’s happening in the world today? Open minds and trust in curiosity? Oh, don’t get me started on the role of textbooks! We spend millions-billions, maybe- of dollars to provide textbooks to students both at school and at home (yes, our district requires TWO books per student per subject in middle schools because we don’t have lockers to store them and they are too heavy to tote back and forth – but that’s another story entirely) and these books often are never looked at beyond the classroom. More often than not, these books turn kids off to real curiosity and learning. While learning to read for information is valuable, that can be taught with all kinds of other resources that are more engaging and more relevant to students today. I agree with you that we use textbooks as a tool to make teaching easier – especially for those marginal or “new” teachers. Somehow we believe that giving teachers a textbook and a Teacher Edition will make them better able to follow the curriculum and teach all students the same content no matter which school they attend. We have become so concerned about every student “getting the same content” that we now create academic plans that follow the textbook rather than use the standards or even common sense to help guide what we teach. Great teachers who love kids and want to help them learn to evaluate information, make connections to what’s going on in the world today, and give them opportunities to think about creating solutions for issues that affect them locally and globally are being driven out of the profession by these kinds of textbook policies and requirements.

    I rarely used a textbook when I taught high school science classes. My students used current magazines & journals, newspapers, websites, & email to find information about each topic. I suggest that textbooks should be issued to teachers as only ONE of many resources used in the classroom and not issued to students at all. Instead of using the textbook as the roadmap, engage students with open-ended questions that THEY help generate about the world they live in and how it got to be the way it is. Ask questions that require students to create answers not found in a book (but which require them to read books, articles, blogs, etc.). Create ways for them to explore the world and its cultures by connecting with people of those cultures (there is no excuse not to do this with the Internet at our fingertips these days). In the end, they may actually discover that they want to learn more, do more, engage more, simply because they are actively engaged in the process of learning and have some say in how they learn. I love your idea of having them meet at the end of the year to SHARE/TALK, because we know students make meaning by socializing/talking about what they are reading and learning. Thanks for opening up this conversation – I’d love to hear what everyone else has to say about it!

  3. marc says:

    I could not agree more. I am fine with a textbook as a handy backup, a useful tool, a kind of customized dictionary, that is used with all of the kinds of resources Deb suggests. I just cannot see how they inspire any interest in the subject they teach. Coverage is not the same thing as connection.

  4. Library1288 says:

    I think the textbook is an interesting topic. I think the obvious difference between a story and a textbook is that a textbook is there for learning about something, while the story has a plot going on and different elements in the same book that work with one another to make the story interesting. However, I don’t doubt what the textbook can do to students is powerful. In fact, I somewhat view textbooks with different elements that make up one big story that not only includes tools that will help students with their education journey, but it will also help them learn about our world. Each subject will include a certain element(s) but I feel that it is ok. For history textbook, it could be considered one big story by different plots and persepctives. For science and math it explains how something is done. A geography textbook can give the setting (and yes, history textbook can as well). They all have different elements but have the same purpose of teaching kids. Yes, textbooks may be wordy and long and your teacher may want you to read it by next class, but I think it really helps the students a lot.

  5. Library1288 says:

    I think the textbook is an interesting topic. I think the obvious difference between a story and a textbook is that a textbook is there for learning about something, while the story has a plot going on and different elements in the same book that work with one another to make the story interesting. However, I don’t doubt what the textbook can do to students is powerful. In fact, I somewhat view textbooks with different elements that make up one big story that not only includes tools that will help students with their education journey, but it will also help them learn about our world. Each subject will include a certain element(s) but I feel that it is ok. For history textbook, it could be considered one big story by different plots and persepctives. For science and math it explains how something is done. A geography textbook can give the setting (and yes, history textbook can as well). They all have different elements but have the same purpose of teaching kids. Yes, textbooks may be wordy and long and your teacher may want you to read it by next class, but I think it really helps the students a lot.

  6. marc says:

    I would be happy to believe that, and I do think they offer many hand holds. But they turn knowledge into chore — they take out any sense of pleasure, of discovery, of the unexpected. They give history or science or math as settled matters, not as ongoing inquiry. At least that is what I have seen so far.

  7. marc says:

    I would be happy to believe that, and I do think they offer many hand holds. But they turn knowledge into chore — they take out any sense of pleasure, of discovery, of the unexpected. They give history or science or math as settled matters, not as ongoing inquiry. At least that is what I have seen so far.

  8. C. Ortiz says:

    You have a great idea, Marc. Now can you/we just persuade the educational powers that be to get on board? It would be amazing. Imagine real inquiry learning, in depth learning, sharing what’s learned and not worrying about what’s on the next test!