Do we still need to buy textbooks?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 2nd 2014

Fisherman of lettersI estimate that each year in our district we spend well over $4 million on Learning Resources. Resources that we would define as textbooks, library books, digital media, software, manipulatives and other forms of resources that directly support teachers in their instruction. A significant amount of these funds go to what I would call traditional textbooks. These non-interactive linear texts are very similar to the ones we all used in school and they have been core to the classrooms across our nation for years. But in an era of the explosion of digital media, when is the tipping point where we start to ask the basic question of not how much we spend on “learning resources” overall but why would we continue to invest substantial sums of money in textbooks when there certainly are other options at our fingertips? Should we buy textbooks? If so, what type of texts? How should we use them?

I tend to believe that the most important thing about the learning resources that teachers want and use is the resource’s relevance to the daily work of teachers and to their instruction. If this is true, then what would be the risk involved in stepping back and investing in our own local teachers and their expertise? It would be a leap of faith. For us, a million dollars would be about a 25% reduction in learning resources budgets for a year. What if we redirected those funds to a team of about a dozen teachers? An in-house curriculum design team. The hope in the end would be that we would end up with a substantial team of curriculum and content designers who create and share resources for all teachers. The sharing doesn’t just have to be to Surrey teachers, it could be all teachers who want to use the resource.

I am not for a second suggesting that the creation of quality learning resources is easy work. It is skilled and detailed work to create resources that not only support instruction but allow it to move forward. If our teachers are to do this work, they would require support and guidance as well. My point is that if we are spending X dollars on textbooks that aren’t really meeting our needs, is that investment better made elsewhere and most importantly a consideration to invest in our people? It may be that if we did, our first task would be to create the capacity to do this work and do it well.

I do wonder what a hybrid model would look like where we continued to invest in some essential resources but we moved away from others. Where does the E-learning.  Tablet pc and textbooks. Education online.purchase of mobile technologies fit? Would we use some of our learning resource dollars to arm every teacher with a mobile device to support their teaching and allowing them to connect to online resources? What happens to the students, are we relying on them to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)? What if they don’t have their own device? What about areas of poverty? Would we only be expanding the digital divide? Would we give every child a tablet or smart device? It certainly appears that there is a necessary congruence between our conversations about interactive digital media to support learning and mobile technologies. We already allow for a portion of learning resources to go towards technology but we need to ensure that these devices themselves connect to quality learning supports.

As the above paragraph shows, I certainly have far more questions than I have answers. I simply believe that more and more I see a tipping point on the horizon and we need to prepare for the conversation. I believe publishing and software companies will move quickly and deeply toward a further push to mobile technologies and digital content. Where are the educators in these conversations and how can we ensure that the voices of our teachers play a prominent role in defining this future? If we sit back and wait, I have no doubt that the future will be designed for us and a late response from us simply won’t allow us to shape what is coming.

I also firmly believe that we all benefit from a vibrant and healthy Canadian publishing industry. As large publishing firms from the US begin to dominate the coming landscape, where will that place the future of the industry on which we have certainly relied for years. It is difficult to believe that a diminished presence for Canadian publishing firms is a healthy thing for the content we see in our schools. In many cases these Canadian firms have been our long time partners in learning and instructional growth.

If we really believe that learning occurs in varying ways and at different rates, then one of the most substantial stumbling blocks to moving toward this vision for more flexibility in texts is a school timetable that is bound in 75 minute chunks and a curriculum that is so Scan-tronoften appears to be defined by a textbook. The world has obviously moved on and many teachers have as well. Learning already is demonstrating that it can happen anywhere at any time and the quality of some of the online resources is simply phenomenal. We also know that the quality of some online resources is abysmal. Just as we want our students to be critical consumers of digital information, our teachers need to be highly critical consumers as well. How do we find the right balance between online and “traditional” resources and what does that look like? How can we empower varying learning rates and non-standard resources while attending to standards of common assessments tied to specific annual timelines?

The explosion of digital resources and mobile technologies presents exciting opportunities. It also presents considerable challenges. I believe that the people who are best suited to help us understand these challenges and prepare to adapt are in our schools right now. If they are not, then creating these skills and abilities in our teachers should be a high priority rather than outsourcing this work. We should be acting to facilitate and support these conversations as soon as possible. If the answer is money, we have it right now. We might just not be thinking that we have the flexibility to make substantial changes in our spending patterns. However, I sit and wonder whether or not the only thing holding us back may actually be ourselves and our reluctance to take a bold step toward a preferred future. That bold step may first be taken by us considering to “just say no” to our long established patterns of spending and to carefully consider other options that give our teachers and learners what they need.



Note: I wish to express my appreciation to Elisa Carlson (@EMSCarlson), Pat Horstead (@pathorstead) and Karen Steffensen (@kstef2) for their contributions and insights toward this blog post. Your work makes it richer. Thank you.

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