Op-Ed: Traditional Textbooks Make No Difference in Your Child’s Learning. Let’s Change the Model.

There is a dirty little secret that textbook publishers don’t want the people in education to know. That little secret? Textbooks have little to no impact on student achievement. You read that right: Little to no impact on student achievement.

Those books that states, districts and schools spend $7 billion dollars on each year don’t make a pile of beans difference in how your child does in class.

Of course, any classroom teacher with more than a few years of experience under their belt probably knows this to be true, or at least has suspected so. That is why entire school systems can interchangeably switch periodically from one publisher’s text to another when an “adoption” is made.

Pedagogy and content in many courses does not change substantially from year to year. Those prepositions that you had to memorize in your high school English class are the same prepositions your child or grandchild has to memorize now.

That multiplication table hasn’t changed too much in millennium, and the Constitution hasn’t all of a sudden changed its wording for the new millennia. The 90 degree right angle you learned about in elementary school is still 90 degrees.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at the recent study by Harvard’s Thomas Kane that found that traditional printed textbooks, in a six state research project had and I quote “…near-zero relative effects on achievement measures.”

Near zero.

And while that study was just about Math textbooks, similar studies have found similar finding in Science, Language Arts and Social Studies textbooks in K12 as well.

Dirty little secrets. Now you know.

And while the publishers have forever simply responded to the beck and call of the state education agencies and published to whatever “standard” de jour the states have decided to come up with, perhaps it is time that we reexamine the use of the traditional textbook in a modern classroom.

It has become obvious that the business model of printing paper texts is fast coming to an end. And while the above research certainly doesn’t bode well for publishers and adds another virtual nail to the coffin, there are game-changing organizations out there that are rewriting the rules of textbooks.

Open Education Resources (OER) such as Rice Universities “Open Stax” project create college-level and AP certified digital textbooks that are free, sharable, and every bit as “authoritative” as traditional paper textbooks.

The advantage of OER of course, is that no one single entity owns the material and texts can be augmented, reorganized, and rewritten to fit the needs of the user be it a single classroom teacher or an entire statewide adoption.

No big time textbook publisher that I am aware of has that kind of model in place. OER is a disruptive, money saving, and shifts the power away from the publisher and towards the teacher and student.

Consider the recently released “modEL Detroit Project”, a complete online OER course in English Language Arts for Kindergarten through 8th grade. Over 1700 downloadable presentations for graded K-8 that include lessons, differentiated instruction and more that are designed to reduce planning and prep time for teachers.

ANYONE can use it. Anywhere. You don’t have to be a teacher in Detroit to be using it. A teacher in El Paso or El Segundo can just jump on the site and use away. Indeed, the website actually encourages the widespread use of the lessons, instructing users to simply change the name on the slide decks to match their needs.

These are simply examples in a large and ever growing OER ecosystem that is designed to push the traditional view of textbooks out the window. Organizations such as “Open Up Resources” have created entire online courses that teachers anywhere can use for free.

Indeed, the OER Open Up Math and Language Arts curriculum have consistently ranked tops in the nation , winning multiple awards.

When was the last time your kid’s textbook won an award?

Perhaps no organization is more embedded in the OER space as the world famous CK12.org.

CK12.org produces not only OER digital textbooks that can be modified by anyone including students, but also online learning games, simulations and study guides. Just last year, Ck12 released their “Flexbook 2.0” which combines ALL of their multiple online resource into a single online textbook space.

Essentially they have created an entire course-in-a-book that, like all good OER can be modified and shared for free. A student can read a passage, watch a related video, conduct a simulated laboratory, take a short formative assessment, all without leaving the Flexbook.

At a recent conference, Miral Shah, CTO of Ck12, said that the “Flexbook 2.0 is not a tape, it is a CD…you can chose the play sequence yourself.” He explained that a textbook, like an old cassette tape, had to be digested in sequence, Chapter 1 to 2 to 3 and so on. Because it was printed, the sequence could not change, like the music on cassette tape.

When CDs came along, you could program the sequence to fit your mood or hit “shuffle” and hear the songs played at random. Personally, I believe the Flexbook 2.0 is more like Apple Music, where the user can personalize the playlist not only to match the mood, but time of day, location and more.

You can even see what playlists your friends are listening to, much like the Flexbook 2.0. Over 200,000 Flexbooks have been created, remixed and shared in the years since CK12 began.

All of these OER organizations are disrupting the traditional textbook model, and I suspect that in a few years, they and others like them will force the “big time” textbook publishers to become online content providers who will simply slip away from the business of printing paper textbooks.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see that in the very near future, the idea of the “traditional textbook” will pass away, and online courses will be personalized to the exact needs of a student, much like genetic cancer treatments are personalized to the DNA of the patient.

Then, the headline and research will say that textbooks will indeed make an academic difference to students and learning. OER will lead the way because free, well done, and available to everyone is a hard business model to beat.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.