School Is Virtual Enough — We Need Actual Textbooks, Please

Opinion: We Need Actual Textbooks For Virtual School

October 10, 2020 Updated October 13, 2020

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I had just picked up my seventh grader’s school supply kit. School-in-a-box, with folders, a protractor, a whiteboard, and everything else needed to successfully learn at home. But something was missing.

“What about textbooks?” I asked the harried staff member handing out supplies, who had already moved his gaze to the next car.

“No textbooks. They’ll get that online this year.”

I grimaced behind my mask.

I don’t know how many other schools have given up on textbooks entirely this year. But even before the pandemic, schools were using textbooks less and less, in favor of cheaper, more adaptive online learning.

I’m not a fan of this trend, and I suspect the pandemic will accelerate it. Over the years I have had numerous conversations with my kids that go something like this:

Kid: “Hey Mom, do you know how to do this kind of math problem?” **shows handout**

Me: “Maybe, if I look at an example of how to do one.”

Kid: “This sheet is all they gave us.”

Me: “So, um, you don’t have a math textbook?”

Kid: “No.”

Me: “Like, a book that introduces a new concept, illustrates it with examples, offers practice problems with some answers in back, like of the odd-numbered problems or something?”

Kid: “Still no.”

Me: “So…how exactly do you learn math?”

And that is where things grow murky. Seems that my kids have learned much of their math, science, and other subjects from a combination of online apps, some type of workbooks or journals that they leave in the classroom, and a bunch of handouts that end up crumpled in their backpacks.

My kids think it’s weird that I have an opinion on their learning materials. After all, I’m not the one in school, or the one teaching school — I’m just the occasional tutor or study buddy. But when I step into that role, there’s nothing more useful than a textbook to yank me up to speed quickly on what the kids are supposed to be learning.

Surely textbooks have advantages for students, too, especially this year. After spending a good chunk of the day staring at screens, reading on paper is a soothing break for kids’ eyes. And unlike a tablet or laptop, a textbook isn’t a glittering gateway to a universe of distractions.

Research suggests that kids learn better from actual books, in part because they read hard-copy text more slowly, which lets them pick up more details.

But I suspect the learning benefits go beyond that. The beauty of a physical book is how easy it is to flip around and find things. If you’ve ever tried to locate something in an online textbook — say, how covalent bonds work — you know that it can be a cumbersome process. In fact, you’re tempted not to do it at all. But seeking out and reviewing information is how we build knowledge. It’s how our understanding of a topic, like molecular bonding, eventually clicks into place.

Textbooks spoon-feed information to kids, in a good way. They take the universe of content on a given subject, put boundaries on it, organize it, and walk the learner through each step. This keeps kids on track. Some of my kids’ best teachers have “taught to the textbook”: it was always clear what their students were expected to learn. When course materials are a mishmash of online sources, handouts, and notes, it takes college-level organizational ability to keep track of things, which most school-age kids don’t yet have.

Of course, textbooks don’t do everything well. They can be biased (also true of online sources) and outdated. This is most likely to be a problem with social studies and history textbooks. So perhaps we can do without those, or at least supplement them heavily with other sources. But other, fact-based subjects are perfectly-suited for textbooks: basic science, math, foreign languages.

It’s also true that textbooks can’t adapt to the needs of individual learners, as educational apps using artificial intelligence claim to do. So why not use both, reaping the advantages of each?

My opinions may put me out of step with current educational thinking. As my kids like to remind me, I’m old. How old? Well, let’s just say that in my elementary school, handouts were cranked out on a purple-ink ditto machine.

No one wants to go back to those days. But as technology continues to reshape every aspect of our lives, we are going to discover that some things have unique value in their analog versions.

The other day my middle-schooler was struggling to grasp a new concept using her math instruction website. When I checked in with her a little later, she looked pleased. “I figured it out,” she said. She showed me a thick stack of paper; explanations she had printed out from the online program. “Look,” she said. “I can follow along with this while I do the problems. It makes sense now.”

She had, in essence, made her own textbook.