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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Out With Textbooks, In With Learning

It's time to rid classrooms of superficial and unreadable textbooks and start providing a balanced diet of good reading.

Out With Textbooks, In With Learning - thumbnail
Credit: ©2014 Susie Fitzhugh
While visiting a Chicago high school recently, we looked through the stack of textbooks assigned to all of the juniors. Man, were they massive!
British Literature—1,152 pages
Biology—1,164 pages
French—624 pages
U.S. History—982 pages
Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry—790 pages
Each book weighed enough to break your foot if you dropped it. Really. According to the TIMSS international comparison of mathematics and science education, students in the United States have the heaviest and thickest textbooks in the world (Budiansky, 2001). And the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (2001) has recently warned about the rising incidence of spinal injuries among young people toting an ever heavier burden of textbooks in their backpacks.
U.S. textbooks are jammed with facts, lists, charts, information, photographs, places, dates, formulas, problems, sidebars, study questions, and still more study questions. And much of it is carefully aligned with hundreds of local, state, or national standards. Is that why textbooks hold a seemingly unassailable place in our classroom practice—and in school budgets? What exactly are the benefits of these ubiquitous and potentially injurious objects? What are students risking their backs for?
We are sorry to kick education publishers in their already well-bruised shins, but most textbooks are unreadable, superficial, chaotic, authoritarian, and inaccurate. And worse, every minute a student spends with her nose in a 1,000-page textbook is another minute lost from real reading, the kind of reading that thoughtful, curious people do outside of school, that can kindle a lifelong reading habit, and that nurtures genuine curiosity about math, science, history, literature, or art. In short, smart grown-ups don't generally read school textbooks. Instead, they read news-papers, magazines, and other nonfiction materials, and often talk about them with their friends, coworkers, and families. We think school should imitate life in this very important way.


Ever wonder why Algebra II has never topped the New York Times best-seller list? Or why no one ever buys a chemistry textbook and stays up all night reading it straight through? (“I just couldn't put it down!”) Maybe that's because textbooks are reference books, not novels or nonfiction books. Most school textbooks belong in the reference category, along with encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses. They don't attempt to provide the kind of narrative coherence you get from a Time magazine article or a good popular biography or exposé. Their primary job is not to be comprehensible or even to pay much attention to the reader's morale. Instead, textbooks are designed mainly to store huge amounts of information.
In the field of reading research, school textbooks exemplify “inconsiderate” or “unfriendly” text. They are storage systems for information, giant compendiums of data. They are intentionally “content-overloaded” with facts, dates, formulas, and taxonomies. They introduce vocabulary and concepts at a blinding rate. Highly structured and orderly, they pack information into carefully labeled slots as densely as possible. Of course, being highly organized does not necessarily make a textbook any more comprehensible than the typical “well-organized” VCR programming manual.
There is nothing wrong with reference books. Personally, we love them, we use them, we cannot live without them. But in the world at large, people use reference books when they have an immediate need for a certain chunk of information—what the U.S. Constitution's Third Amendment really says, how the colon works, or how to compute the surface area of a sphere. In school, we pretend that textbooks aren't reference books at all, and we expect students to plow right through, cover to cover, remembering and passing quizzes on the stacks of information stored therein.


It may seem odd to accuse 1,000-page textbooks of being superficial. They certainly seem complete, and they do provide an avalanche of data, a staggering amount of detail. The trouble is that these textbooks contain too much material. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which has taken the lead in evaluating educational materials,Today's textbooks cover too many topics without developing any of them well. Central concepts are not covered in enough depth to give students a chance to truly understand them. While many textbooks present the key ideas described in national and state standards documents, few books help students learn the ideas or help teachers teach them well. (Roseman, Kulm, & Shuttleworth, 2001, p. 56)
In the drive to include everything, the biggest ideas fade into the background, never get successfully communicated, or simply don't stick with students.
The problem with excessive content coverage, and its resulting superficiality, has been exacerbated by state legislatures and politicians seeking “tougher standards.” And “tougher” often just means adding even more material to an already overstuffed curriculum. But what are textbook publishers supposed to do when the states mandate “covering” every possible topic in a field, sanctifying what Alfie Kohn (1999) calls the “bunch o' facts” curriculum? The safe move is to cram the book with every possible factoid—even though everyone knows that the students won't remember a word of it beyond the statewide test.


In recent years, publishers have worked hard to make textbooks more visually interesting and engaging. They are aware that real-world nonfiction has changed dramatically in recent years—think of the evolution of the weekly news magazines from endless blocks of gray to today's lively columns, graphics, and features. Publishers of school textbooks also know that they must compete with the hyperworld of video games and the Internet, where students live much of their lives. After all, how are you going to keep their noses in the chemistry textbook after they've played “Grand Theft Auto”?
But these postmodern designs backfire. Instead of inviting students into the material, many of today's textbooks dissolve into visual chaos. As high school English teacher Sara Kajder recently lamented,The publishers try to make these books attractive, jazzy, and up-to-date. And I understand, with all the boxes and gimmicks, that they are trying to give students multiple points of entry into the text. They are trying to make it feel like a computer or a video game, where the students feel some control. But those pages end up just being confusing and overwhelming. And it's the worst for my struggling readers. They can't make any sense of those pages at all. (personal communication, July 10, 2003)
The American Association for the Advancement of Science concurs. The AAAS, which counts both working scientists and science educators among its members, has been critically appraising science and math textbooks for several years. In its recent examination of middle school science texts, the AAAS found their design to be “hyper-kinetic” (Budiansky, 2001). Reviewers complained that the text was “full of sidebars, boxes, and other presumably eye-catching special features bearing such titles as ‘Flex Your Brain,’ ‘EXPLORE!’, ‘Find Out!’, and ‘Minds On!’”—features that distract from, rather than enhance, the content.


In many schools and subjects, a single commercial textbook constitutes the entire curriculum for a specific course. At the fictitious Benedict Arnold High School, for example, the U.S. history course may simply be The Americans by Danzer and colleagues, or the Algebra II class might be nothing but Advanced Algebra by Senk and colleagues. In these courses, there may be no other readings, with the possible exception of a companion workbook (called a “consumable” in the business and prized for its profitability). Then, to make this exclusive franchise official, a teachers' committee types up the textbook's table of contents and slaps a cover on it, emblazoned with “Benedict Arnold High School Curriculum Guide: U.S. History.” Or, more often these days, the textbook sales rep does that copying job, supplying matches between his company's book and every single state standard that the school labors under.
For a country espousing democracy as its form of governance, such sanctification of The Textbook provides a strangely incongruous apprenticeship. When we rely on a single source for all of a course's content, we are teaching students to accept one view, one authority. We are saying that it is right to depend on a single voice, even on complicated, value-driven questions. But smart and free people don't read this way. Instead, they recognize that most of life's biggest questions have not yet been settled and that science, technology, and even culture proceed on the best theory to date, not on some Final Truth. That's why mature readers use multiple sources to get a balanced view, hear the alternate theories, and make up their own minds. It is un-acceptable for schools in a democracy to teach young people that only one view is sufficient—or permitted.


Textbook companies work very hard to make sure that their products are both timely and accurate. They have teams of fact-checkers scrupulously verifying information, and writers constantly creating updated editions every few years, to make sure that the textbooks include new findings, breakthroughs, or emerging theories. But it is not humanly possible to keep current—or correct (Raloff, 2001). In Physics Today, Hubisz (2003) reported on a study of textbook accuracy. In 12 physical science textbooks, Hubisz and his colleagues cataloged 500 pages of errors. A typical blunder: One textbook announced that “sound travels faster through warm air than through cold air,” and 12 pages later noted “but sound travels faster in cold air.” Some errors were trivial; others were grave. But, as Hubisz warns, all run the risk of making science appear confusing or even nonsensical to students.

Toward a Balanced Diet of Reading

If you share this concern about over-dependence on textbooks, what can you do? As a classroom teacher, you can supplement your textbook with other readings. As a principal or curriculum leader, you can help your faculty make this change by providing encouragement, funding for new materials, and staff development on reading in the content areas. And if you are feeling really adventurous, you can step away from textbook-centered courses, at least for part of each year.
That's what we are doing at Best Practice High School, a small public school in Chicago that we helped design and open in 1996 (see Last spring, our entire senior class spent five weeks reading about the fast food industry and how it affects U.S. health, agriculture, values, laws, economy, and society. A cross-disciplinary team of teachers representing science, social studies, English, and special education designed the course, with help from faculty in math, technology, and art.
Like other thematic units at Best Practice, the Fast Food Project assumes that teenagers should not be “getting ready” to be lifelong learners—they should be acting like them right now. So the students read widely and dig deep. First, each student read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2002). Reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but taking a wider aim, Schlosser's book is an old-fashioned muckraking exposé that lambastes every link in the chain of industrialized agriculture, up to its ultimate crudescence in fast food restaurants.
But the book was just the start. For scientific background (and also because the citywide curriculum mandates it), the students read the biology textbook's chapters on nutrition, digestion, viruses, and bacteria. Each student also chose among several magazine articles, among them a Fortune magazine piece about lawsuits brought (and dismissed) against fast food restaurants for causing obesity; one from Science magazine, debunking the “fat myth” and arguing that fat may actually be good for you; and another from Harper's about how fast food companies intentionally target poor urban neighborhoods. Students read six short articles about animal cruelty that they downloaded from the Web site of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sparked lively discussions about whether, for example, harvesting eggs or milking cows is really animal abuse. The more the students and teachers dug into the topic, the more relevant sources seemed to pop up everywhere. One great find was the National Restaurant Association's (2003) stinging rebuttal to Fast Food Nation, a press release quoting the book's negative reviews and arguing that Schlosser wanted to deny Americans “the food items that they love.”
Lots of classroom and community-based activities grew out of and extended these readings. Students made anthropological observations at fast food restaurants, interviewed restaurant workers, kept personal diet journals, searched the Web for nutrition information, and joined in two elaborate simulations, one about life as a teenage employee in a fast food restaurant and another that dramatized the unionization of a slaughterhouse. The outcome of all this reading and investigating was 80 students with a lot of questions, concerns, and opinions. The final projects required students to perform some kind of social service around the issue of fast food. These ranged from polite letters to legislators to in-your-face leafleting at fast food restaurants around town. The self-reflections at the end of the unit showed how many students (not all—hey, this is a real school) were thinking more seriously about what food they ate.
If we want students to actually remember information and care about the subjects taught in school, we must change what they read. We need to use textbooks more appropriately (and sparingly) as the reference books that they are, and we must also infuse the curriculum with authentic, real-world nonfiction—the kind of informational, expository, persuasive texts that adults read.
Luckily, the world is full of fascinating, important, debatable, and sometimes inflammatory nonfiction, from partisan magazines to primary source materials to stirring biographies to revisionist histories. If you join us in this quest for “real books” that can bring life and excitement to the classroom, you may also enjoy a personal benefit: rediscovering reading for yourself. When we educators make time in our crazy lives for reading, we don't just enhance our own enjoyment and find good books for classroom use. We also become a genuine (and humble) model of lifelong learning. Students need to know teachers who actively read, both in and beyond their subject fields, and who talk with genuine enthusiasm about what they are learning.

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. (2001). Kids and backpacks [Online report]. Available:;=Spine

Budiansky, S. (2001, February). The trouble with textbooks. Prism Online [Online journal].

Hubisz, J. (2003). Middle school textbooks don't make the grade. Physics Today, 56(5), 50.

Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

National Restaurant Association. (2003). The truth about Fast Food Nation. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Raloff, J. (2001, March 17). Errant texts: Why some schools may not want to go by the book. Science News Online, 159(11). Available:

Roseman, J. E., Kulm, G., & Shuttleworth, S. (2001). Putting textbooks to the test. ENC Focus, 8(3), 56–59. Available:

Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast food nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Harvey Daniels has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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