Another dot in the blogosphere?

The cost of textbooks and lessons about teaching

Posted on: October 31, 2016

This tweet from author John Green highlights one major problem with university textbooks.

Like the prices of the other good and services, the cost of book production has gone down over the last 20 years. However, the cost of textbooks has steadily risen.

I did a bit of digging and found the source of the graph. The same site also had a feature a month later that focused solely on the rising cost of textbooks.

Rising cost of college textbooks (1998-2016).

Textbook publishers have a virtual monopoly and they will fend off alternatives and threats like open educational resources (OER), and paperless or e-resources. Where they also control electronic versions of textbooks, content management systems, or question banks, these publishers might also have a nasty way of holding students’ assignments for ransom.

We might not have as serious a textbook price crisis here in Singapore, but there is a far more insidious cost of textbooks — teaching to the text, the text as truth, and pedagogy based on textbooks.

Most teachers I know today do not teach solely by the textbook nor do they regard what is published as absolutely accurate. However, practically every teacher has been taught the textbook way: From general to specific, from easy to difficult. That is, they have been taught to teach in a deductive manner.

A good example of this internalisation is how teachers mistake the descriptive model of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a prescriptive one.

This is the expert’s view of how to teach. The expert thinks that this is how best to teach a novice because the expert wants to remove as much difficulty and struggle in a bid to be more efficient. However, efficiency does not make for effectiveness; it often removes context, struggle, and thinking skills.

One reason why schooling is accused of not being real-world or authentic is because content is removed from context. The what and official how to solve a problem might persist, but the why is often stripped away. Alternative tools and methods like Googling or using mobile apps to solve the problem are not encouraged, and neither are critical and independent thinking.

The oft cited reasons for the textbook approach to teaching are that the content is complex and that the learner is not mature or experienced enough to handle the problem. My response to this is that life rarely presents textbook problems and solutions. The processes we engage in are more inductive. We are presented with complexity, disorder, and specific scenarios in context. Our human response is the reduce, categorise, and conceptualise.

Teaching requires both deductive and inductive methods. However, textbooks tend to encourage the former because there is no human teacher to discuss with or consult. Teachers, and even teacher educators, unconsciously internalise this insidious method and we do this to the detriment of our learners, perhaps more so than the financial cost of textbooks.

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