Future Tense

In Praise of Textbooks

Especially now.

A woman holds a stack of books.
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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.

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.

But for all their helpful features, textbooks have been thin on the ground. To some degree, underfunding may be the culprit. During the #RedForEd teacher strikes, a photo that went viral showed the decrepit condition of the textbooks in a teacher’s room. Though I teach in a well-resourced district for California, I once had a student pick up a textbook and find it had been used by his mother, who had passed through the same classroom 20 years or so earlier. Aged textbooks are not only gross and demoralizing but often contain information that is outdated, inaccurate, or racist.

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.

Just because a piece of media or software is available online doesn’t mean it is easily accessed. Introducing new technology to students, as any classroom teacher can tell you, requires more hands-on help, as students are not born knowing how to use digital resources but need explicit instruction in each one. Once students can read, they can use a textbook, but each new software program must be learned from scratch. This challenge is especially serious for poor students whose only home internet access may be through a phone. Doing assignments on the computer also tends to obscure schoolwork from parents, who can’t easily see at a glance what their child is working on or if what their child is doing on the screen is schoolwork at all. When graphics such as maps and photos are hidden in links, pop-out windows, or drop-down menus, most students never take a look at information they would have, at a minimum, glanced at on a page.

Students do need education in computer skills and digital literacy, but doing everything on a screen can make learning other subjects more difficult, especially for students who struggle with executive function (arguably: everyone in a pandemic). Research also shows that students read differently on a screen than on paper. When interacting with texts on a screen, students tend to reread less, comprehend more shallowly, and overestimate their understanding. Recall, especially of nonfiction, is worse.

None of this is to say that teachers shouldn’t use online texts, videos, and educational software where appropriate. Learning software can provide adaptive instruction that is especially useful for students who need individualized instruction that teachers don’t have the class time to address, and some students need the accessibility features of digital texts, such as text-to-speech or translation features, to access the material. But digital resources are best used in conjunction with old-fashioned paper.

Some parents have begun advocating for the textbook’s return. In two communities that stopped using math textbooks—Berkeley, California (where I teach middle school English), and Raleigh, North Carolina—groups of parents have pushed back against the curriculum from the Mathematics Vision Project, a nonprofit that, with funding from reform-minded, tech-funded philanthropic organizations, produces free Common Core–aligned materials. Though MVP’s classroom pedagogy may be sound (I don’t know, I’m not a math teacher), the program’s lack of a physical textbook presents a real challenge for students. As it turns out, even for so-called digital natives, a channel of YouTube tutorials cannot replace a comprehensive textbook that includes instructions, examples, and an answer key.

Textbooks are, of course, no silver bullet for the hardships brought on by school closure, and not all textbooks are high-quality. The politicized Texas state adoption process has produced history books that whitewash American history, for instance, while many science textbooks downplay the scientific consensus on the cause of climate change. But there is also no guarantee that the digital products that replace textbooks will be an improvement, and schools do their students a disservice by not providing physical copies of books for students to refer to during a video lesson or work from with the computer off. While some see textbooks as boring and antithetical to creative and authentic learning, the mere presence of a physical book has never prevented a teacher from supplementing or substituting where doing so would be an improvement. Plus, speaking as a parent, I’m honestly not sure how much more creative, authentic learning my household and mental health can withstand.

Schools that have textbooks collecting dust should be making plans to distribute them, perhaps using the same systems developed in spring for passing out laptops and lunches. Schools that don’t have textbooks should think about which online resources could be printed and distributed on paper to ease the burden of doing everything on a screen, at least for those students who choose it. And at the next purchasing cycle, taking into account research and community preferences, districts should reevaluate whether the benefits of learning software or electronic features outweigh the stability and ease of access of print.

Textbooks were designed to distribute essential curriculum under any circumstances. This is “any circumstances.” During normal schooling, textbooks are one tool of many that a skilled teacher can draw upon, but right now, with so many other tools difficult or impossible to implement, they are essential. It is not fair or reasonable to require children to access every learning material on a screen. Troubleshooting streams of multimedia being sent out through opaque portals is more than most families can handle. Throw us a bone. With a Zoom class and a textbook, I can muddle through. Maybe, on an ambitious day, I can ask a few questions some thoughtful textbook author has put in a sidebar. During a pandemic, that is OK. During a pandemic, that should be enough.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.