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Education 2.0: Why the Textbook Must Evolve

Since the first PTA meeting, parents have been complaining about the education system, usually to little effect. That all changed in the San Francisco-area Fremont school district two weeks ago. After a successful petition, the school district decided to halt the implementation of a s*x-ed health book slated to be in use this year. 

There is always some controversy around textbooks used in s*x-ed. The book in question, ““Your Health Today” is no exception. According to CBS local:

The book has advice ranging from drinking and driving, to bondage and masturbation, which parents deem too risqué for ninth graders.

The “risqué” nature of the book is not the only matter in question. It is also the accuracy of the content. CBS quotes parent Jeffrey Spencer as saying:

We know now that the textbooks that have been used for the ninth grade health classes are inadequate and in fact inaccurate. If we delay implementation of this new text book, does this mean we will have inaccurate text books going home?

The question lingers in the air and demands an answer, not just about one s*x-ed book in a California school district, but for all textbooks in every district. The obvious answer that Jeffrey Spencer was not prepared for is a resounding, YES! Everyday, our children come home from school with textbooks that are inadequate and inaccurate. 

The article mentioned that the new textbook was chosen as a replacement for the older one due to the older one not meeting regulatory standards. Presumably, those standards changed after the books were purchased. 

Textbooks are not the only part of the education system that is failing our children. Almost every aspect of the education process has been scrutinized. However, textbooks as the primary delivery system for academic information has gone largely unchanged and unchallenged since they were first introduced. Here is why it is passed time for us to reevaluate our dependency on textbooks:

Standards Change

Even if there are no inaccuracies, textbooks are based on standards set by the government. Textbooks that do not meet those standards will not be used in a publicly funded classroom. When we buy a textbook, we are buying into a set of standards as if they were carved into stone. 

But those standards seem to change with every election. We have to use books that are the most adequate for the time. But we should also not be committed to them. Making a purchase almost demands a commitment. We need books that we can use without commitment, and shift when they are no longer adequate. 

Textbook rental services help cut through this conundrum. As long as we are stuck with textbooks as our primary information delivery system, renting is the best option. We can get what use out of it we can for only the time we need it. Not only are students not stuck with a lifetime of books they will never reference, but they always have access to the timeliest information available. As long as regulators can obsolete a textbook on a whim, renting makes a lot more sense than owning.

Knowledge Should Never Be Codified 

One of the worst things that can be done with information is to codify it into an unquestionable law. That is exactly what we do the moment we elevate the status of a book to a textbook. It is no longer just a generic source of information, but “the” source of “truth” on the matter. 

Like a holy book, textbooks cannot be questioned. If your test answer does not align with what is written in the book, you are considered wrong, and are graded accordingly. When I was in school, there were nine planets in our solar system. I can dig up the textbooks to prove it. Today, if you ask Siri or Google Now, eight will be your answer. A free phone on contract can give you more accurate information about the universe than the universal standard of education from just a few years ago.

All knowledge should be held loosely, and measured by its utility of conveying the best information we have at the time. We don’t want textbooks to become bibles. There will always be a place for books in the classroom. The problem comes when we elevate certain books as the authoritative truth on the matter, rather than treating them as just another source of information to be evaluated and used. Students need to be taught how to evaluate information, not presented with the one, true source of correct information. 

Information Should Always Be Current

I understand all of the reasons why Wikipedia cannot be used as an academic source. But understanding does not equal agreement. Wikipedia has something that a bound copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica could never have: immediacy. 

The fear of open-source information is that it might be inaccurate. That happens in printed encyclopedias all the time. Studies show that Wikipedia is just as accurate as the Britannica. Furthermore, a Wikipedia inaccuracy can be corrected immediately. The errors in your bound volume will remain a source of misinformation for the lifetime of the product. 

Textbooks, especially old ones, are even worse than encyclopedias. They are not written with accuracy as the guiding star, but sales. If a school district demands textbooks friendly to the dictates of Intelligent Design, someone will write those books. As a commercial enterprise, customer demand is far more important than informational integrity. That is a dangerous business model for something that represents unquestionable, unchangeable truth. 

There are alternatives to textbooks that do not get considered because the textbook industry is so deeply embedded in the education system. Renting is going to almost always be better than buying. But the ultimate solution will be one that can be updated with changing standards, held loosely as useful ideas rather than certain laws, and represent the most current knowledge we have at the time. Whatever that turns out to be, it will not be a textbook as we know it.

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