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When schools closed this spring, many parents, including me, felt overwhelmed and underwater trying to help our children participate in distance learning. Every day seemed to usher in a new way for my husband and me to fail at reading emails, managing logins, printing worksheets, troubleshooting tech problems, photographing assignments, and keeping track of class Zooms. Being an educator as well as a parent gave my experience a particularly nightmarish quality, as if I were somehow both the driver and pedestrian in this collision. As a teacher, I participated in a flurry of trainings on using various apps to make videos, find e-books, host meetings, use data, and share student work, but as a parent, I could not keep up.
It doesn’t have to be this hard. School closures brought a cascade of serious problems, from declining maternal workforce participation to child hunger, many of which will require broader government intervention to solve—but streamlining remote instruction is well within schools’ institutional capabilities. A viral video of an Israeli mom venting about the nonstop barrage of communications her kids were receiving from their school spoke to the frustrations many families felt trying to keep their heads above water in a fast-moving stream of assignments and online resources. That’s not a problem that is going to be solved by adding another app to the mix, but there is a tool that can help, one that works even if the internet cuts out and isn’t full of distractions a click away. It’s not new, and it won’t disrupt education as we know it, but in a time of upheaval, steep learning curves, and decision fatigue, there’s a lot to be said for the familiar. As districts invest millions in distributing Chromebooks and helping families secure internet access—a necessity for keeping kids connected to their teachers and to school—they should also make plans to invest in and distribute another essential learning tool: the textbook.
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For 150 years, the textbook was a mainstay of American classrooms. Their progenitor was the McGuffey Readers, of which an estimated 120 million copies were sold between 1836 and 1960. Written by frontier teacher and scholar William Holmes McGuffey, the original Readers contained literary selections that promoted Calvinist ideas about salvation and piety, while later editions were secularized in keeping with the nation’s changing mores. These days, the Readers are better known for their role in shaping American identity and culture than for how they changed teaching and learning. But although they seem stuffy and moralistic to contemporary eyes, the Readers represented an important pedagogical step forward in their time and spoke to the real needs of students McGuffey witnessed, first as a roving teacher who began working in schoolhouses at age 14 and later when he tested his textbooks with groups of neighborhood children in Ohio. The Readers were organized into levels across which students would progress over time, from phonics, through basal stories, all the way up to selections from Milton. Vocabulary was taught gradually by repeated exposure to words in context instead of being doled out in a list for memorization. Unlike their predecessor the New England Primer, which was designed to put the fear of God into children, the Readers were designed to be appealing to children, and incorporated helpful, clear illustrations.
Crucially, the McGuffey Readers also guided teachers, who at the time were often poorly prepared, educated only a year or two beyond their pupils, and working with large, mixed-age groups of students. The Readers embedded good pedagogy on the page by including questions for teachers to ask their students, and numbered passages so students could take turns reading aloud. Imagine—a year’s worth of assignments, compiled in an appealing edition, accompanied by instructions for what the poorly prepared adult in the room can say to help. Sure sounds like something that I, a woman who misled a 5-year-old on number bonds for three whole months, could have used this spring.
At their core, textbooks are a way to distribute the essential content of a class to a massive group of students in a way that is standardized and economical. A good textbook is clear, appealing, and organized in a predictable way. It’s not just paragraphs of text, but it also includes extratextual features such as reference materials, answer keys, sidebars, and key terms to aid students in their comprehension.
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For cash-strapped districts, cheap Chromebooks and software licenses are often less expensive in the short term than purchasing sets of hardcover books. It isn’t just wealthy districts that are making these investments in technology. But the phasing out of print textbooks in favor of online texts and learning software has been driven by ideology, too. Since 2015, textbook sales have declined year over year while the EdTech sector has ballooned into a $252 billion business. In 2019, Pearson sold off its textbook arm in order to focus on its more lucrative educational software business. In a 2012 article (which in hindsight reads as overly optimistic not only about online textbooks but about algorithms, the internet, and the future in general, but was very much in line with the zeitgeist in education at the time) Megan Garber writes of Apple’s e-textbooks, “They create a kind of kaleidoscopic experience: video, text, audio, all whirring and whirling into each other in a self-guided tour of history or chemistry or biology.” To my tech-fried pandemic brain, that seems like a bit much. In 2020, I’d like to pass on teaching sixth grade language arts—or helping my child understand second grade math for that matter—through a widening gyre of multimedia experiences.
Link to the rest at Slate
PG suggests that kids who are digital natives do just fine with ebook versions of textbooks.
He’s also skeptical about paper vs. screen comprehension studies that have been conducted using children who are not digital natives.
FWIW, PG’s own experience is that his comprehension for long-form texts is somewhat better with a Kindle Paperwhite screen than an iPad screen. However, he doubts his comprehension of textbook-style pages would vary in the same way.