The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Textbook! What 1:1 is doing to Traditional Classroom Resources.

Yep I said it. The days of the traditional textbook are over.  The moment I brought devices into a classroom the textbook fell from its revered place as a THE respectable source of information and was revealed for what it is, a simplified and incomplete narrative of the past.


Teachers need to accept some blame for the fact that textbooks ever had this status in the first place.  While we brought in primary resources, we necessarily relied on the textbook because of its convenience.  We overstated the accuracy, thoroughness and status of the textbook because its structure gave us comfort and a place to turn when we were absent.  We basked in the glory of being able to provide historical facts beyond the book.  This made us seem really smart. The enticing worksheets that came packaged with the text provided neat questions and a structure that was perfectly mirrored in the text.  Our students grew comfortable with this and while we all knew that it should be different, and though we often did make great lessons that spat upon the folly of the worksheet, at some point, we found our way back.

My Matrix, Red Pill moment came last year. It started with a lesson called “Fact Checking Your Text Book.” The assignment was exactly that. Use the Internet to check the facts, see what is missing, look for bias, and assign a grade to a passage from your book.  It looked like this.

I expected students to find some problems but overall I just hoped they would at least give the textbook a good deep reading.  Yet my class found our textbook, a book that to this day I think is a good textbook, to be riddled with problems.  As groups presented, our unit became a discussion of bias, perspective and viewpoint.  It was amazing.

This year, my classes equipped with iPads, I set out to create other lesson frameworks that would also generate a discussion in class and if possible get students excited about digging deep and experiencing history.

I wanted to start by letting the students look for sources on a topic and then discuss how good they thought those topics were. I had no rubric or framework so I asked students to rank them 0-5.  Students worked in groups to discuss what was a good source and what was not.  I was impressed by how they are savvier than we give them credit for.  The assignment looked like this.  The students eventually found and evaluated over 250 sources.  But they needed an anchor. When set loose they had nothing to build upon or out from.

My next framework grew out of that last assignment.  We outlined the textbook and then researched online to do “Historical First Aid.”  We included what was left out.  We gave breadth to what was simplified and we expanded on value judgments that the book made.  The Topic was Good Emperors and Bad Emperors during the Roman Empire.  We set out to give it the paddles and breathe life into it.

By this point in the year I had started to struggle with how to unify all of the varied learning that takes places when students are researching and pulling together sources that I am not entirely familiar with.  I needed to get control, or at least enough control to bring the lesson together and drive home a point.

My solution was to have each group of students work together to create a thesis statement that summed up their overall impression of the topic.  It was a serendipitous stumble into success.  Students shared the grade they had given the book and discussed the discrepancies that existed between them and the sources they had found.  Then they finished the presentation by writing their thesis statement on the board.  As the bell rang we had our 6 thesis statements and a better sense that the history of the Roman Emperors is bigger than the one page of the book could effectively contain.  It looked like this.

My next framework was “Textbook Smackdown.”  Using copies of old textbooks I put them into direct competition.  Students collaborated to summarize two versions of an event.  Then they debated which was better.  They said things like, “how could we know?” But they had already started to revert to their past research activities and were checking facts.  Choosing the winner was not always easy. The books were selective in the narrative they told and they weren’t typically “wrong.” They often just took different paths through the events.  Sometimes they chose to focus on a different part of set of events.  Other times they chose to focus on different themes.  Ranks were given but it wasn’t always easy.

Students were getting their hands dirty doing real research. They were elevating events from the 2D versions in their books to something closer to the 3D reality.  They used the textbook as a launching point.

And then it hit me like a brick to the face.  Despite my assault, the textbook was still just as much a part of my class as it used to be.  I had smashed the pedestal and knocked it to the ground and gotten in a few good shots. It pages were tattered but it was there no less.

So the textbook is dead.  Companies may try to keep it alive for a bit longer.  They can animate it and insert video, create web links and interactivity, much like they did with pictures and graphs in the late 90’s, but even that will not place it where it once was.  We simply have too much access to too many sources and too many facts.  The world has changed and we can’t go back.

But long live the textbook. In its pages lie beautiful examples of how the age of information is changing the world and I will use them to show just how much we have moved on.  In a way these activities have been therapy for my classes, a transition that demonstrates clearly that they can move on and move beyond.

If a textbook is ever elevated and put upon a pedestal in my class again, I can assure you that it will be because my students have written it themselves.

Footnote A: Further activities are planned.  One I also plan an activity to compare historical versions of events and if possible regional versions that will reveal values in what they choose and choose not to address. Another activity will have the class aggregating the information from a collection of 8 textbooks.  Oh how they do reflect the decades in which they were written. Finally this year, I want to have my students create their own textbook chapter.  If I can pull this off and they can use resources to create their own, then truly and finally, the “Age of the Textbook” will be over. 

Footnote B: My humblest apologies to any of the many textbook producers who may have read through to this point. You performed a public service and took on a difficult task.  You deserve more credit than you will likely get. It was your work after all that created in me a deep love for history. But like the whalers who’s oil lit our country’s lamps through the early years of our nation, shift (and petroleum) happens.  (Ironically, I never learned enough to make that analogy make sense from a textbook. There was no room for it.) 


15 thoughts on “The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Textbook! What 1:1 is doing to Traditional Classroom Resources.

  1. I have ditched textbooks in my classes. We read a variety of sources for Modern World & have a monograph for US History.the organizational piece can be challenging for students at first, but we post readings on Moodle and keep a LiveBinder. I can no longer justify the cost to families. I like what you are doing to broaden their views and bring the textbook down to size, but I have always felt obligated to use one when I have had it. I really do not miss it.


    1. The transition to 1:1 will be nice in the sense that we will not have to rely on our textbook and can pull from so many other sources, but in the mean time, I use the textbook mostly for students to review before assessments to help them “fill in the gaps” of the story they may have missed in class.


  2. I have plans in the works to do something similar this year. I am teaching an instructional design course to high school students who will be building their own interactive online Marine Biology course. They will earn a dual technology and science credit. I am in the process of securing a volunteer marine biologist to check for content accuracy. I hope to report great success at the end of the experiment.


  3. I am now an instructional designer, but I spent 28 years in the classroom teaching freshman English. When I started technology consisted of a ditto machine, an IBM typewriter, and a 16 mm projector. Most of the teachers I knew unreservedly embraced innovative technology and incorporating it into our classrooms. By the time I retired in 2010, the handwriting was on the wall- textbooks were on the way out. Every teacher I knew thought that was a good thing. Please don’t blame teachers for holding up this process.


  4. (Text)books are just a resource, like any other. While I agree that they shouldn’t be revered as some infallible spring of objective truth, there is a difference between taking them “off their pedestal” and throwing them out like a baby with the bathwater.

    I admire the exercise you conducted and the epiphanies it evoked in your students (and you!), but consolidated archives of information (aka: textbooks) still have a clear place in student’s lives and classrooms, just as pencils and paper do in this age of electronics and the Internet. No one should regard textbooks (or pencils) as the only/right/best tool for all situations, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still hold value. It’s all about finding their relative merits and drawbacks, based on the situation and goals at hand, and acting accordingly. After all, couldn’t your ‘Footnote A’ exercise be repeated (endlessly) by the next class, who take those student-created textbooks and poke holes in their biases and gaps? (or perhaps that’s the whole point… to show that despite the previous classes attempt to overcome the faults of the source textbooks they used, NO resource is ever going to be regarded by all as totally correct/exhaustive/objective? I can definitely see some value in that!)

    All information is colored and biased to some degree (regardless of whether it’s captured in electrons or slices from dead trees), so your beef may be more about the limitations of the printed page (can only practically hold so much and it’s ‘frozen’ in time) when compared to online resources that can link endlessly and be updated with little effort (which has some drawbacks, too (ala Wikipedia), but that’s another topic for another day…)

    A good thought-provoking article! Thanks for penning it.


    1. Finding the holes and biases in narratives is exactly the point. Developing the students sense of analysis so that they can begin to evaluate any narrative, whether historical or otherwise, is the point. In essence the a-ha moment for many of the students and for other teachers that I have discussed this with was “we can afford to be critical of our resources.” The economy of information has shifted. We are now awash in sources. We have access to PRIMARY sources. We can interpret them and them analyze each others interpretations of their meaning.

      There is a place for the textbook, just not one that is so central and authoritative as it once was. A next generation textbook that framed interpretations and contained frameworks for historical thinking rather than a canned narrative would be welcome.


      1. Great response, Shawn. Thanks for providing the additional context.

        I agree with the points you are bringing out (critical analysis is a vital skill that is (largely) under-emphasized; we have access to resources in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined; the textbook’s place is (rightfully) shifting to be less in the spotlight). I may have gotten distracted by some of your more provocative statements in the article (“So the textbook is dead…” paragraph and the one that followed, for instance, left me feeling like the only place for the textbook was as an artifact of the past, to show how far we’ve progressed, akin to a museum case with medieval medical instruments).

        I attended my 7th-grade son’s school Open House last night, and his science teacher told us that they weren’t going to be using a textbook this year – that she can gather web links to illustrate and teach the points to be covered each day – she only used the textbook ~5 times the previous year and realized it wasn’t necessary. In this case, (it sounds like) the teacher is doing (most of?) the critical sifting rather than the students (boo), but it may speak to the general shifting tide you speak of….

        Thanks for the exchange and for nudging my brain to continue to grow with new ideas.


    1. That is the entire point of the article. There will always be textbooks but their place in the classroom has changed completely. The need to compile info in textbook form was the product of a lack or print copies of resources. Why not now have textbooks constructed from compiled primary sources? Why not make textbooks that allow students to contribute their analysis of events into the actual textbook? Why not create textbooks that encourage students to write the textbook. Efforts to “Update textbooks” by adding links and videos in place of footnotes and pictures are not really all that ground breaking.


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