Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history. In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources. I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects. The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students. In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers. On the face of it I agree with Bill. Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly. The crux of his argument is as follows:
No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet. A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation. As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own. A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.
To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook. I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.
Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point? On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet. My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so. Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken. If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0. It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.
The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access. As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another. Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock. It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation. I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks. They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach. Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons. Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule. Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom. For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes. In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.
It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion. Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past. The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught. The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right. It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use. My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms. In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information. I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information. What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers. The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education. A few questions come to mind:
1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?
2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?
3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?
4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?
5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?