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Reconsidering textbooks

March 6, 2007, 7:04 am

Here’s a thought that I’ve written about before:

College instructors cannot assume that students come to their classes in possession of basic knowledge. Now here’s one sure to generate some controversy: In many cases textbooks deter the pursuit of knowledge more than they help it. The sciences may be different, but at least in the case of the humanities, most of us would be better off not assigning a textbook. [...]

Most of us assign textbooks for what we always assumed were good pedagogical reasons: We wanted students to be able to fill in gaps we don’t get to, engage in fact-checking, hear other perspectives, have easy access to data, find a framework for some of our more esoteric departures, and provide students with a specialized reference guide rather than having them reach for a general topics encyclopedia. Great ideas — except that it doesn’t work that way anymore!

The author goes on to describe how, once he stopped using textbooks for his history courses, student achievement actually improved. Whole thing here.

I’ve been thinking more and more that nobody should have to pay for a bound volume containing mathematical knowledge that is by its very nature freely available. Perhaps it’s nice to have all the important ideas from a subject gathered in one place, and some books have really good exercise sets, but these days I am really having trouble justifying the expense for my students. Certainly in the case of calculus and precalculus books, the investment doesn’t really seem worth it, and I think students would exercise the right kinds of information-processing skills they need from a liberal arts education if they went out and got the material themselves from freely available web sites, monographs, or classic texts that are in the public domain. Plus, I am seeing more and more students who simply can’t afford their books, and some are even dropping out of school because of it. That just doesn’t seem right in an environment where the “free” pursuit of knowledge is the organizing principle.

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