Friday, December 16, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 8. Educational Resources

This post is part eight in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#8- We Can Transform educational resources from limited, standardized, and driving the curriculum to limitless, individualized and supporting the process of learning. 

I don't have a beef with textbooks. I really don't. But let's be realistic about what they are good at, how they are used, and where they fit in to the learning process.

Textbooks are content providers. In between the covers of any textbook is a finite amount of information that can be put to use for learning. The positives to textbooks are that they provide pre-vetted content in bulk to the learner, along with some pre-created learning prompts, pre-researched supporting information, and in some cases, ancillary materials such as pre-created worksheets, activities, audio-video resources, testing materials, and presentations.

For teachers who struggle, the textbook that is aligned to state-standards can be, if not a path to successful teaching, at least a path to competency. Beyond that, for many very successful teachers, the textbook at least serves as a useful resource and a convenient common ground for the class. Julius Caesar may not be the Shakespearean play that I would like to teach, but all of my kids have it, so we'll go ahead and study it.

That said, there are some problems with allowing the textbook to drive the curriculum. First, since textbooks are often purchased for extended periods of time, they can be deficient in terms of their accuracy, particularly in subjects that change rapidly such as science and history. Ask yourself what is missing from a Physics or Biology textbook that was written 5 years ago. 

Second, textbooks offer a predetermined path for learning based on content. This standardization might be fine in a classroom in which all students are expected to learn the same things, at the same time, via the same means, but it does not jibe well with a 21st Century classroom that is focused on student-centered learning, differentiation, and skills-development. Textbooks do a good job of telling a learner what to learn, but not how to learn. Because of this, a teacher who is too focused on fulfilling a standardized curriculum provided by the textbook, risks failing to focus on the individual learning needs of his or her students. That teacher also risks confusing content acquisition and regurgitation with growth as a learner.

Third, textbooks (when used as the primary or even sole content piece) are by their very nature limited. The fact that they are conveniently curated is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they bring a cohesive set of materials to the learner. On the other hand, any selection made is an automatic deselection of other possible content. This raises questions of culture, value, rigor, relevance, and merit. Worse, because textbooks are curated for a very wide audience, they tend to run few risks culturally, which can steer the classroom away from potentially controversial and enlightening discussions. None of this makes the textbook a bad resource, but it tends to homogenize the learning experience to the point of absurdity.This is especially true now when students have access to unlimited resources that have just as much merit, and that are more vital and compelling because the learner has selected them. 

Fourth, textbooks (with the exception of a few online resources) are lacking in the interactivity, multimedia, and choice that define much of the digital generation's learning experiences outside of school. Watch Joe's Non-Netbook for a stark illustration of this. This deficiency, more than any of the others, is problematic because it fails to take full advantage of a students' curiosity and creativity. Great content will inspire us to learn more and will enable us to apply what we learn to our lives. The interactivity and personalization of modern technology is becoming a hallmark of great content. The traditional textbook alone falls short in this regard.

Fifth, textbooks can inhibit professional growth in teachers. This may be an unintended consequence. However, by attempting to enhance teaching by aligning the content to standards, by mapping lesson plans to resources, by designing activities that on paper appear to meet all levels of Bloom's taxonomy and address multiple learning styles, by editing long works into consumable bites, and by supplying pre-tests and post-tests, textbook companies rob inexperienced teachers of the trial and error that it takes to develop an understanding of the complexities of teaching. Furthermore, it enables veteran teachers to choose a non-reflective form of teaching that distances them from the critical questions that guide professional growth. In effect, the comprehensive nature of textbooks and their ancillaries standardize teaching and reduce teachers to content-delivery tools, rather than lead-learners and experience-designers.

It does not have to be this way, and in many vital and rich learning environments, teachers use textbooks for what they are: content supplements to enhance the act of learning. Still, we have to be vigilant as professionals and not allow textbooks to be the curriculum. Too often, I have seen teachers and schools canonize the content of a textbook through unchanging lesson plans, pacing guides, mapping, and standards. As professionals we should not be letting content providers decide what is important that our students learn. Each of us should be determining what we want our learners to know and be able to do, and then we should turn to the wealth of content sources available to us (including textbooks) and determine what content best supports the learning we seek.

Beyond that, we also need to shift our thinking about educational resources to include more than just content providers. This type of thinking is based on a passive model of learning. Our list of educational resources should not only include, but should feature content creation tools like art supplies, cameras, microphones, creativity software, web 2.0 tools, and communication tools.

Unlike some, I don't feel prepared to declare the death of the textbook. Textbooks will determine that by either offering value and engagement or not offering value and engagement. I am prepared to suggest, though, that the era in which it is acceptable to build a class around a textbook is over. My job as a teacher is to help my students learn to vet resources and use them well. My job is to pose challenges to my students, and invite them to create solutions. My job is to put the process of learning at the center, and the sources of information at the periphery. I cannot in good conscience abdicate my responsibility for designing learning experiences to the textbook industry by giving in to the allure of a pre-packaged, low-maintenance curriculum that has been designed not for individuals, but for masses.

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