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Are Textbooks So Last Century?

Last week the math textbook samples started rolling in with their grade level samples, suggested resources, “free” incentives to purchase, and press kits. Each one claimed to be the best, the most content-rich, research-based, and correlated to state and national standards. They are pretty packages with some perks to make life “easier” for teachers (notice that I didn’t say “more effective in the classroom”).  As I perused the books, I would stop and think about my preferences and why I liked them, often having to convince myself. One textbook now comes with pre-made interactive whiteboard lessons for each objective. But, then I stepped back and really thought about it. When was the last time I cracked a math book? It’s been 2 years. My student math editions have been sitting in their desks and cubbies and on my bookshelves for 2 years, just in case they are needed in my emergency sub plans. My teacher’s edition hasn’t been opened more than once or twice , although the sheer weight of its three volumes helps me justify skipping the gym on a daily basis. Why do we need more dust collectors and obsolete resources? Research says to make learning in mathematics learning more concrete and applicable to the real-world. I haven’t seen a math book that does that. I’ve seen great teachers using the resources around them to create unique and individualized lessons.

Last year it was time for Social Studies books (our state rotates textbook adoptions each four years). We didn’t want those either. As a grade level, we decided to ditch the adoptions and order class sets of literature to help teach our state standards. Our principal re-allocated the textbook funds and we chose novels, picture books, and publications from the state historical archives. Our students are doing more multimedia research and independent studies. What do you think is more engaging for our students?

So, why can’t we do the same for math books? That’s a pretty taboo area. Math books? But that’s a “tested” area, Kelly. Gasp! We (meaning MY big mouth was “voted” to represent the team) went to the principal, this time with grander intentions. This year we want laptops instead of math books. After the initial shock, my administration was all for it. She’s seen what we’re doing in our classrooms. She stops in our class at least once per day to see what my kids are working on now. The next stop for us is the central administration. Will they “allow” it? Will they think we are insane or visionary? We’ll see. Don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s my argument in terms they might understand.

In a child’s educational career in just grades 3-12, students will have approximately 5 textbooks per year. Each book is about $60, but since we’re on a 4 year adoption rotation, we’ll say $15. That’s $75 per year on textbooks or $750 in grades 3-12. Now consider these books. They are full of mistakes and certainly can’t update themselves as information changes. Think about the fact that we had just bought new science books in the year that they decided Pluto was no longer a planet. For the next 4 years, teachers have to correct that part of their text.


We could purchase each child a “netbook” at approximately $400. Being wirelessly ready, it would house all of the information/resources that they would ever need in a 3-12 classroom and save (conservatively) $350 in simple textbook funds. Consider the ability of this information to be constantly updated and supplemented and correct. Then consider the money for copy paper, copier toner, encyclopedias, dictionaries, workbooks and other consumables used every day. Then consider the environmental benefits… well, you get my drift.

So, my final question is: Why in a time of budget crises and an unsure economy are we cutting funds in technology? To make room for books? Really?

This blog post has been marinating in my head for a few days, and it has been ignited by recent tweets with some members of my personal PLN on Twitter. Thanks Twilliamson15, gardenglen and cwebbtech for helping this along!


5 Responses

  1. I would love to see similar things happen in my district. Currently, textbook money is being reallocated in my school and used to purchase Interactive Whiteboards. While I have seen tremendous benefit of having the IWB in my classroom, I’m not sure students get the full impact that would be experienced by having always available connectivity. For the sake of argument, I will bring up a few things to consider. Let’s say your school goes with the laptops…

    1) Connectivity…Having every classroom wireless would deal a tremendous blow to your school’s bandwidth usage. How does the savings in funding compare to the cost of increased bandwidth throughout the school system?

    2) Software…I’m a huge proponent of open source software. That one change would save a gargantuan amount of funding that could be allocated elsewhere. However, there are many teachers who would not be comfortable with changing to non-proprietary software. Since you quoted $400 for the cost of a netbook, that implies you’re looking at Windows based machines rather than Linux based machines. There are tons of free, and open source applications available, but without a doubt your system techs would have to be comfortable with those programs as well.
    Of course, there’s always cloud computing, which could be a viable option if the connectivity issue is solved. There are tons of legality issues on that side, as the COPPA laws restrict access to most of those sites to students who are 13 or older. In a 3rd through 7th grade environment, that’s not optimal.
    What that leaves us with is expensive proprietary software that IT might be comfortable with, but the budget may not be. Be prepared to scrimp and save here and find as many alternate programs as your IT folks can be comfortable with to get the best out of your investment.

    3) Sustainability/Service…In the first year of this program, the county is likely be fully on board. They’ll see that there is a savings each year (if in fact that is the case after all the other kinks) and will begin to find uses for that extra funding. Where does that leave this program 2 years down the road when many of the laptops begin to need replacement? The long-term use of these netbook variety laptops by elementary/middle/high students has not been examined as they are new to the market. What is the cost of service vs. replacement for the netbooks? Will additional county IT folks be required for the increase in the number of computers? What is the long term impact of this purchase on the county?

    4) Teacher Buy In…As is the trouble with many major overhauls, the few take to it immediately while the many struggle. Moving classrooms into the 21st century needs to be done, and soon, however we’re at a point where a large number of teachers are not comfortable with that move. Additionally, textbooks provide a crutch for new hires. Textbook companies design their curriculum to make it “teacher proof”. The idea is that any Joe Plumber off the street could come in and teach using their product. While we know that isn’t true, a new teacher in the county may need some of that crutch as they feel their way through the first year. A project like this needs full buy in and support from Administration to hire those who would be ready to come in guns blazing with the 1:1 project.

    5) Other randomness…an immediate question, for me, is how would you expect to handle out of class use of these technology systems? Would the netbooks be for use at school only? Or would students be allowed to take them home and work on assignments? Would that be allowed on a large scale basis or only in case-by-case situations?
    Additionally, there are school that are pursuing the use of handheld computing devices (for example, the iPod Touch) rather than netbooks, while I personally still see the personal computer being the direction to go, are we being short-sighted about where computing will take place over the next 20 years? The cost of iPod Touches is significantly lower than that of a netbook (approximately $170 cheaper) but the functionality currently remains somewhat limited by available programs.

    I’m sure there are other things that have been flowing around in my head…Twitter was definitely not the place to try and get across all these points 🙂 Thanks for giving me the opportunity to get a few of these thoughts out in the open. I’d love to know what your ideas are for each of the above questions. Wonderful thought provoking post!!

  2. I’m delighted at the ideas on how you propose to utilize other resources. Like you, I have used textbooks mainly as a source of sub lesson plans. In fact, the last textbook purchase I have in my room was 1995.

    I believe the concept of a netbook or laptop for every student makes more sense with 21st Century Skills and Learning. It is our responsibility as teachers to help students learn to identify the validity of websites and sources. Too often, it appears that we are “Expected to use a textbook” and the following logic is that we will use the “textbook ancillary materials” as they “better prepare students for standardized tests.”

    I hope that others will look closely at the idea of how we can provide students with the necessary resources.

    One area I think we, as teachers, need to focus on will be legislators (state and federal. I’m convinced that “because they used textbooks and learned from them, they may not quickly respond positively to such a change in financial focus.”

  3. I teach in a magnet program where all of the materials are teacher created. I have put all of my materials online and have the students engage in conversations via discussion boards. My only challenge is getting the materials in the hands of students without Internet access at home. The question should be how we can get technology in the hands of those who do not have it.

  4. […] Vote Are Textbooks So Last Century? […]

  5. I think researching and multimedia research and independent studies will definitely keep your students engaged. Students will have their attention focused on things they are interested in…instead of boring textbooks. I also think the idea of netbooks is a great one but one that will remain disputed for a very long time. Many students don’t have internet access at home and that can be a touchy subject!

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