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Textbooks are supposed to serve as valuable learning resources for students by succinctly synthesizing the gist of the curriculum and helping them to understand and apply it. But analyses conducted in recent decades indicate that most American textbooks are not fulfilling these functions effectively. Instead of presenting networks of connected content structured around powerful ideas, they tend to address too much breadth in not enough depth. This makes it difficult for students to construct meaningful and connected understandings that they can apply to their lives outside of school. Consequently, students tend to rely on rote memorizing of disconnected bits of content that will be difficult to access and apply in the future. This research-paper will describe this problem in detail, explain how it developed, consider how it might be remedied, and suggest ways that teachers might cope with it in the meantime.
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Textbooks are intended to be key instructional resources for K-12 teachers and students. They are not designed to be the only instructional resource, and curriculum content should not be limited to what is included on their pages. Nor should they be used in ways that limit students’ school learning experiences to reading textbooks, filling out work sheets composed of closed-ended or short-answer knowledge and comprehension questions, and then taking tests featuring similar questions. These approaches to instruction rightly have been criticized as boring and restricted to lower levels of cognitive processing. But they represent inappropriate use of textbooks, not problems inherent to textbooks themselves.
When used optimally, textbooks serve as key components in much more varied and powerful programs of curriculum and instruction. In these programs, the curriculum is broader than the content of the textbooks, and students are engaged in a variety of learning activities in addition to (and where appropriate, instead of) those included in the textbooks and any ancillary materials that accompany them. To the extent that its content and activities are closely aligned with the course or unit goals, a textbook will synthesize most of the important facts, concepts, principles, and skills that the teacher wants to develop. Textbook reading and related activities can be especially valuable for providing students with an initial base of common knowledge that will be developed during class discussions and application activities, and subsequent review of the highlights featured in a good textbook helps students to synthesize and retain what they have learned. By presenting the gist of a lesson or unit in a single source, good texts make it much easier for students to access and synthesize this material than it would be otherwise.
Textbooks vary in their usefulness as learning resources in particular instructional situations (i.e., in courses taught for selected purposes and goals, at specified grade levels, to particular students). The most valuable texts possess certain characteristics. First, their difficulty level is suited to the grade level and to the prior knowledge and other background characteristics of the students. Second, their content is valid, important, and well-aligned with state and district guidelines for the course. Third, and most relevant to the issues addressed in this research-paper, they represent their content coherently and develop it in ways that support the learners’ construction of corresponding understandings.
In summary, a good textbook is not merely a content reference but a learning resource: it helps students to develop connected understandings of the course’s most important facts, concepts, principles, and skills. Unfortunately, research on American textbooks suggests that they have not been fulfilling their potential as learning resources and that the problem has been worsening in recent decades.
Problems With American Textbooks
Analyses of K-12 textbook series have produced different conclusions at different times. Authors comparing developments from the 1950s through the 1970s noted improvements such as more and better graphics; better historical coverage of minorities, women, and everyday life; more accurate and better conceptualized content; inclusion of primary source material and tabular and graphic data along with narrative text; and suggestions for a broader range of learning activities. More recently, however, such celebrations of progress have been supplanted by a spate of highly critical analyses (Elliott & Woodward, 1990; Wiley, 1977).
Contemporary textbooks have been described as flashy in appearance but limited in value as learning resources for a number of reasons. They try to cover too much, so that they truncate, treat superficially, or confuse coverage of even important topics. The writing features dry sentences all about the same length, with few adjectives to enliven the text; few examples or vignettes to give roundness to ideas; and too many paragraphs that are unclear because the material is too compressed and elliptical. Contemporary textbooks lack contexts to make facts meaningful, and excessive space is allocated to pictures and graphics of limited usefulness. All of these and other structural features of texts affect students’ ability to understand and remember the texts’ content, especially its most important ideas.
Most texts do not make enough use of the following structural features that would make them more considerate to their readers and more useful as learning resources:
- organization around key ideas embedded within chronological order, cause/effect, problem/solution, comparison/ contrast, or other logical structures
- signaling of sequences and subparts of the presentation
- discourse consistency
- cohesive elements that relate sentences or paragraphs to one another
- explication (stating things directly rather than requiring readers to infer them; linking content to previously presented knowledge; orienting readers to central ideas or purposes; clarifying new ideas with examples or analogies; highlighting and defining new terms)
- appropriate conceptual density (not introducing too many ideas too quickly; first introducing an idea, then clarifying it, then giving examples before going on to the next idea)
- metadiscourse (talking directly to readers to convey the author’s point of view or to direct them to do something such as answer a question)
- instructional devices such as tables of contents, glossaries, indexes, graphic overviews, inserted questions, diagrams, summaries, review questions, and application problems, as well as spacing, indentation, boxes, and other formatting (Chambliss & Calfee, 1989; Dreher & Singer, 1989; McCabe, 1993)
The most recently published texts usually do contain many of these instructional devices and formatting features, but often without effective organization and explication of content. Consequently, they have the appealing look of pages in weekly news and entertainment magazines, but this does not make them effective learning resources (Graves et al., 1991; Tyson-Bernstein, 1988).
Beck and McKeown (1988) closely analyzed middle school history and geography textbooks and found three common problems. First, they found lack of evidence that clear content goals were used to guide text writing with an eye toward what students were supposed to learn. Consequently, texts read as chronicles of miscellaneous facts rather than as narratives built around key themes. Second, the textbooks made unrealistic assumptions about students’ prior knowledge. Key elements needed to understand a sequence were merely alluded to rather than explained sufficiently. Third, there were inadequate explanations that failed to clarify causal connections between actions and events. These problems with the structural coherence of texts limit their value as learning resources for students, who often must struggle even to locate main ideas, let alone to emerge with a network of connected understandings. They also create motivation problems, because students’ levels of interest and enjoyment of texts are associated closely with the texts’ coherence and understand-ability (much more so than with inclusion of interesting details or a zesty, magazine style of writing; Beck & McKeown, 1988; Beck, McKeown, & Gromoll, 1989).
Brophy and Alleman’s (1992/1993) investigations of elementary social studies textbook series revealed many of these same limitations, along with additional problems with the content and other problems with the learning activities suggested in the texts themselves or in the teachers’ editions. The stated goals frequently did not appear to have been the primary considerations driving curriculum development. Few of the activities labeled critical thinking or application actually called for these cognitive processes. There was little attention to students’ preexisting knowledge or misconceptions. Captions and questions accompanying photos or illustrations focused on irrelevant details instead of connecting them to key ideas, and suggested content development questions focused on locating miscellaneous facts rather than on structuring reflective discussion of the content. There was little use of data retrieval charts or other mechanisms for analyzing and synthesizing content in ways that promote understanding. Many of the suggested follow-up activities focused on trivial aspects of the content, did not promote progress toward significant social education goals, or were unnecessarily time-consuming or complicated. Likewise, many of the skills exercises and most of the activities ostensibly intended to promote integration across subjects lacked significant educational value. Test questions were mostly limited to factual recognition and retrieval items that required little if any critical thinking, development of arguments, sustained writing, or authentic applications.
Further review of learning activities revealed that many were mostly busywork: word searches, cutting and pasting, coloring, connecting dots, learning to recognize states from their outlines, or memorizing state capitols and state symbols. Others were built around peripheral definitions or facts that had little application potential, and some distorted content representation because they were built around exotic rather than typical examples. Skills curricula often were intrusively imposed on knowledge curricula in ways that used isolated bits of knowledge as bases for skills exercises; for example, students were asked to chart or graph unimportant information that was never used or to count how many states’ names begin with the letter C. Many integration activities, in particular, were forced or pointless (alphabetize the state capitols; look up the geographical coordinates for Revolutionary War battle sites; Brophy, 1992; Brophy & Alleman, 1992/1993).
Science texts similarly have been described as overly lengthy (one first-year high school biology textbook exceeded 1,000 pages), crammed with far too much material, and yet lacking in both continuity and narrative perspective. A typical science text introduces more new vocabulary than a typical foreign language text. Examinations of science texts repeatedly have highlighted serious problems in clarity and coherence, even regarding the most important concepts and principles. Research on science learning has revealed that students have difficulty constructing clear understandings of certain key science concepts, and the main reason for this is that these concepts are not explained and illustrated clearly in the textbooks. Typically, the texts do not sufficiently take into account students’ prior knowledge, provide representations that clarify abstract ideas effectively, or include examples and exercises that would enable students to apply and appreciate the validity of the ideas. The texts present a lot of miscellaneous information, but do not provide systematic support for learning connected networks of content structured around powerful ideas (Haury, 2000; Kesidou & Roseman, 2002; Stern & Roseman, 2004).
These problems extend to include even mathematics textbooks. School mathematics texts in the United States, compared to those in other countries, are notably bulkier. This is because they address many different topics in response to the multiple demands of state and district mathematics standards, not because they develop topics in more depth. Countries that are notably successful on internationally administered mathematics achievement tests tend to select a few critical topics for each grade and then develop these topics in sufficient depth to allow their students to master them. Then they go on to new topics the following year, again developing them in depth. In contrast, American textbooks tend to distribute topics over several years rather than treat them comprehensively in any single year. Consequently, much time each year is spent reviewing topics taught in previous years, but without pursuing the topics in sufficient depth to ensure lasting mastery.
Typically, little or no space in these textbooks is devoted to discussion of students’ strategies or progressions in their thinking, and explanations of mathematical processes are frequently omitted. Instead, much of the space in the text is devoted to decorative artwork that has little connection to the mathematical content and sometimes is confusing or distracting to students. Often hurriedly produced in response to developing market conditions, these texts usually are rushed into print without sufficient pilot testing and without being assessed and certified for quality through a process set up by the federal government (no such process exists in the United States; Grouws & Cebulla, 2000; Hook, Bishop, & Hook, 2007; Kilpatrick, Swafford, & Findell, 2001).
International comparisons have repeatedly characterized American mathematics textbooks as overcrowded with topics, lacking in content emphasis, repetitious across years, and low in expectations for what students could accomplish (Schmidt, McKnight, Cogan, Jakwerth, & Houang, 1999). A study sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) concluded that only 4 of 12 middle school mathematics textbooks could be rated as satisfactory, and these 4 had been produced through major projects supported by the National Science Foundation. None of the popular commercial textbooks achieved a satisfactory rating.
How the Problems Developed
Research has demonstrated repeatedly that most American teachers lean heavily on the textbook series to provide both content bases and suggested questions and activities to include in their teaching. Yet, evaluations of these textbooks typically lead to disparaging characterizations such as mile-wide but inch-deep, parade of facts, glorified encyclopedias, or trivial pursuit. How has this situation come to pass, and why hasn’t something been done about it?
The root of the problem lies in that textbook publishers must respond to multiple and conflicting market pressures rather than to a single set of curriculum standards and guidelines. Unlike most other countries, the United States does not have a single national curriculum regulated by a national ministry of education. Our federal government does have a Department of Education that assumes responsibility for research and information dissemination, special education, and other functions, but decisions about curriculum and instruction are left to the states and districts.
As part of the culture wars that developed within American society in recent decades, political, ethnic, and religious action groups began lobbying states and districts, seeking changes in school policies. Typically, they called for changes in textbook adoption guidelines that would specify inclusion, exclusion, or officially sanctioned treatment of certain curricular topics. As a result, more and more states and districts shifted from relatively generic to increasingly specific guidelines for what is to be included in the curriculum. In U.S. history, for example, California wants detailed treatment of the Gold Rush, Texas wants detailed treatment of the Alamo, the former Confederate states want detailed treatment of the Civil War, including battles fought locally, and many states want versions of U.S. history that focus on the positive and minimize attention to the negative. Most new demands on publishers call for adding new topics without removing coverage of topics already addressed.
In their attempts to respond to all of these local demands while creating textbook series intended to be used across the country as a whole, the publishers gradually added more and more content to each textbook. In response to ever broader coverage, the textbooks became fatter and fatter. Then they became less coherent as well, as the depth of coverage of even the most important topics was reduced to accommodate still more breadth. Textbooks were saying less and less about more and more.
Coherence also suffered because some states and districts began using readability formulas or other ostensible measures of textbooks’ difficulty levels to pressure publishers to make their textbooks easier for students to read (and presumably, to learn from). Readability formulas combine measures such as average commonality of words, average number of words per sentence, and average number of letters per word to yield estimates of the grade-level appropriateness of texts. As a result of inclusion of these types of difficulty-level specifications in state and district textbook adoption guidelines, shorter but vaguer words were substituted for longer but more specific ones, and longer sentences were chopped into shorter ones that omitted connection words (therefore, so that, because, etc.). These changes made it harder for students to follow explanations and note cause-effect linkages. The texts became easier to read in the sense that sentences were shorter and vocabulary was simpler, but they became harder to learn from because specific and integrated explanations gave way to vague and disconnected content.
Treatment of controversial topics became especially vague or incomplete because of regional or local objections to certain content. Some states forbade or placed tight restrictions on teaching about topics such as birth control, evolution, global warming, alternatives to capitalism, market economics, or American interventions in other countries. These restrictions often created serious coherence problems, especially in biology or life science texts written without reference to evolution (a major organizing concept in these disciplines).
Publishers were reluctant to violate restrictions imposed by even one or two states, because this could cost them a significant share of the market. This was especially true if the states were heavily populated and among the adoption states that only allow districts to spend state funds on textbooks that are included in their official adoption lists.
Tyson-Bernstein (1988) identified an additional pressure on publishers that contributed to the coherence problem: states’ and districts’ emphasis on adopting textbooks with a current-year publication date. This forces publishers to constantly rush new editions of their textbook series into print, without taking time for careful editing and field testing. The new editions have new covers, new front matter (emphasizing the latest buzz words), and new design features and illustrations that give them a different look. But they usually do not have new content or even correction of errors in the content of previous editions.
The publishers know that teachers and other members of textbook adoption committees rarely have much time to examine their books in detail, and that adoption decisions are often influenced primarily by the books’ publication dates, their cosmetic features, and the claims made about them in their front matter or in advertising brochures. Some teachers seek curriculum packages that include ready-made lesson plans and labor-saving extras such as workbooks, test packs, reproducibles, posters, and resource books. Others favor series that they think will help prepare their students for state-imposed tests.
In summary, the emphasis on breadth over depth of coverage reflects the publishers’ attempts to cover all of the topics and skills listed in state and district curriculum guides. Problems with clarity and coherence (not to mention zest and style) in the writing can be traced to the imposition of readability formulas, constant pressures for new editions, and avoidance or sanitized treatment of controversial topics. Local adoption decisions are often made hurriedly and superficially, so that cosmetic features (jazzy layouts, buzz words highlighted in large type in the front matter, colorful photos and illustrations) get undue attention at the expense of careful analysis of the significance and coherence of the content (Tyson-Bernstein, 1988).
Although these trends have been recognized for at least 20 years, Sewall (2005) noted that the problem continues to worsen. As a result of mergers and acquisitions in the publishing industry, most school districts now purchase textbooks from one of just four remaining large companies serving the elementary and secondary market. All of these companies feel compelled to respond to the market pressures described previously, so the content of their textbooks is similarly mile-wide but inch-deep, bland, and incoherent.
Having been told that today’s students cannot or do not want to read text-heavy or information-loaded texts, the publishers have been transforming their textbooks into picture and activity books instead of clear, portable, simply designed, and text-centered primers. There are fewer words and more white space per page, and the text that remains is broken up with bright photographs and colorful formatting. Instead of producing coherent texts, publishers are focusing on staying within state and district guidelines and competing by making the texts visually attractive and offering enticements such as free samples, teacher consultants, study guides, workbooks, technology, Spanish-language versions, detailed teachers’ editions, binders, answer keys, discounts, premiums, and other enticements (Sewall, 2005).
The textbook series are attractively packaged and presented to teachers in ways that suggest they are complete curricula that have been carefully developed by experts and revised to meet the needs of students at each grade level (and recently, to suggest that using them will enable students to meet state standards). But these series are not written by the kinds of experts that teachers envision.
A writing team composed of professors and teachers with special expertise or interest in the subject matter develops outlines for the materials and provides feedback about early drafts. Most of the actual writing, however, is done by employees of the publishing company or freelance writers who are not recognized experts in the field. Also, the textbook series are not painstakingly developed and revised through successive field testings. Usually there is no systematic classroom testing at all—just revisions in response to the comments of reviewers. The publishers are interested in feedback from teachers, but their concerns about content are driven primarily by the textbook adoption guidelines established by states.
The publishers appear to have lost sight of the major, long-term goals that reflect the aims and purposes of the K-12 school subjects. Fundamental change is unlikely unless they restore the basic notion of developing curricula as a means to accomplish major goals phrased in intended student outcomes—capabilities and dispositions to be developed in students and used in their lives outside of school, both now and in the future.
Ideally, a curriculum is goal oriented and all of its components are aligned accordingly. Everything in it, the content as well as the questions, activities, and evaluation devices, is included because it is expected to promote progress toward the major instructional goals. Content is selected for its potential for life application and is developed and applied accordingly. Skills are selected and used as tools for applying knowledge in ways that promote progress toward the major goals. They are included in the curriculum in places where they are needed for this purpose and are developed and used in natural, authentic applications. Appreciations, values, attitudes, and behavioral dispositions also are developed in natural and authentic ways suited to the content being addressed in a unit. Questions and activities focus on developing understanding and appreciation of cause-and-effect relationships, and on encouraging critical thinking and thoughtful decision making about applications. Evaluation devices feature questions and assignments that call for communicating major understandings and for engaging in inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, and other higher-order applications.
Textbooks could be key components in such a well-aligned curriculum, synthesizing its major aims, purposes, and goals and presenting its most important facts, concepts, principles, and skills. This ideal is unlikely to be approached, however, as long as the current system continues. Changing it would require mechanisms to move toward establishing a national curriculum. This idea is controversial, however, especially in the United States, where education traditionally has been considered a state and local function and federal intrusion is viewed with suspicion. Also, national curricula often introduce problems of their own, such as national chauvinism and ignoring or slighting the experiences of minorities. Yet, they do facilitate the preparation of more coherent textbooks. Ideally, the national curriculum would be developed through sustained efforts over many years. It might be limited to content that achieved consensus across a broad range of stakeholders. It also might be designed to require only 50% to 75% of the available teaching time, with the rest reserved for content identified in state and local guidelines. Pending such developments, the current problems with textbooks will continue.
Coping in the Meantime
In the meantime, teachers need to make their own personal curricula as coherent as possible, and to help their students stay aware of the instructional goals and regulate their learning efforts accordingly. To make good decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, teachers need to establish worthwhile goals and keep these goals in sight as they develop and implement unit plans. This can be difficult, because as curriculum guidelines get translated into separate strands and then become segmented by grade level and by units within grades and lessons with units, the goals that are meant to guide the entire process sometimes fade into the background, along with many of the originally recognized connections and intended life applications. For example, consider the following social studies goals:
- Districtwide goal: Prepare young people to become
humane, rational, participating citizens in an increasingly interdependent world.
- Program-area goal for social studies, K-12: Enable students to appreciate that people living in different cultures are likely to hold many common values but also some different values that are rooted in experience and legitimate in terms of their own cultures.
- Grade-level goal for social studies, Grade 1: To understand and appreciate that the roles and values of family members may differ according to the structure of the family, its circumstances, and its cultural setting.
- Unit-level goal for social studies, Grade 1: To understand that families differ in size and composition.
This last (unit-level) goal is phrased in purely descriptive, knowledge-level language, and it is trite for a unit goal even at the first-grade level. It makes no reference to the concepts concerning cultures and roles that are referred to in the higher-level goals, nor to the related values and dispositions (multicultural appreciation and citizen participation). Unless the teacher has a coherent view of the purposes and nature of social education, or unless the manual does an unusually good job of keeping the teacher aware of how particular lessons fit within the big picture, the result is likely to be a version of social studies that is long on isolated practice of facts and skills but short on integration and application of social learning.
In this case, students might learn a few obvious generalities about families (they differ in size and composition, they grow and change, and their members work and play together), but not much about variations in family roles across time and culture, the reasons for these variations, or the lifestyle trade-offs that they offer. This will not do much to advance students’ knowledge of the human condition, help them put the familiar into broader perspective, or even stimulate their thinking about family as a concept.
To avoid such problems, teachers will need to identify the capabilities and dispositions that they want to develop in their students throughout the year as a whole and in each instructional unit. Then they can examine instructional materials in light of these goals. It helps to begin by reading the student text (i.e., not the teacher’s manual, which contains more guidance and information), noting places where additional structuring or input will be necessary to focus students’ learning on important ideas. Teachers then should study the manual, assessing its suggested questions, activities, and evaluation devices to determine the degree to which they will help students accomplish primary instructional goals. They may need to augment the text with additional input (or replace it with something else if necessary), skip pointless questions and activities, and substitute other questions and activities.
In addition to taking these steps to clarify major goals in their own minds and present their students with more coherent instructional resources and activities, teachers can structure and scaffold their students’ learning in ways that make it easier for them to keep the major goals in mind and regulate their learning strategies accordingly. In structuring material for students, teachers can establish a sense of purpose, connect with the students’ prior knowledge (both by building on valid knowledge and addressing misconceptions), present representations of concepts and principles that students can understand, provide varied activities to practice and apply the learning, and guide students’ interpretation of what has been learned.
For students who might be expected to have difficulty learning from even adapted materials, teachers might supplement their adaptation efforts with study guides that include questions and activities to help students recognize and note key points, as well as provide a structure for reflection. Teachers might also provide alternative reading materials or lead the students through the most difficult parts of texts, taking time to elaborate on big ideas and make sure that students understand them.
Other useful techniques include helping students to see how the textbook as a whole and its research-papers and sections are organized, emphasizing the major organizing concepts, and providing glossaries or in other ways highlighting and making sure that students learn important new terms. Teaching and providing practice in basic text comprehension strategies (summarizing, predicting, clarifying, synthesizing) is helpful in all of the subjects, not just literacy.
Wills (2007) has described how some teachers coped with both textbook limitations and high-stakes testing pressures following mandated increases in the instructional time allocated to literacy and mathematics (the focus of the state’s high-stakes testing program). The school’s principal left it up to individual teachers to decide how they would accommodate this mandate. One teacher eliminated physical education, reasoning that her students had greater needs for rich science and social studies curricula. Most teachers, though, reduced the time allocated to science and social studies to less than half of what it had been before.
Teachers who had been teaching a barren curriculum simply persisted with this approach, except that now they required their students to read and answer questions about textbook research-papers at home, so they could spend most class time going over the answers. Meanwhile, teachers who understood the value of thoughtful discourse scrambled to find ways to retain this emphasis while still addressing the full range of prescribed content.
The most successful teacher eliminated or reduced coverage of content she deemed less important so that her units still included discussions and other activities that asked students to analyze, interpret, or apply their learning to address challenging problems or issues. She made time for this by skipping certain research-papers of the textbooks and eliminating the need to work through other research-papers by providing her students with succinct summaries of key facts and main ideas. Although she expected her students to read relevant research-papers for background and occasionally exposed them to videos or other input sources, her classroom discussions were focused on the material contained in her handouts, which briefly and clearly covered the important information she thought her students needed to know. Her solution was not completely satisfactory, but it did enable her to sustain a focus on big ideas and thoughtful classroom discourse.
New teachers usually are not yet ready to make these kinds of curricular decisions, so they may have to lean heavily on their textbook series at first; however, they can take steps to speed up their acquisition of the needed expertise. To begin, they might study their state and district guidelines for the subject(s) and grade level(s) they teach, with an eye toward identifying the content considered most important. Then, to get a broader perspective, they might consult two other sets of valuable resources: (1) teacher education textbooks in each subject (elementary, middle, or secondary level, as appropriate), and (2) Web sites sponsored by the major organizations concerned with K-12 teaching of each subject (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Council for the Social Studies, and so on). Those textbooks and Web sites are especially good sources of information on each subject’s purposes, goals, big ideas, and major skills and dispositions.
Finally, rather than struggle alone, it is helpful if new teachers take steps to find mentors and colleagues to help them. Experienced teachers who already have made curricular adaptations are especially valuable, preferably colleagues at the same school. It also is helpful to form professional discussion and problem solving groups with colleagues, meeting often enough to allow for sustained and coordinated efforts. In any case, it is important that new teachers take steps to make their curricula more goal-oriented and coherent, weaning themselves from over-dependence on the textbook series as soon as possible.
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