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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why textbooks suck

I take as my starting point LIFE: The Science of Biology, since it is certainly the best textbook ever written.

LIFE has chapters that start with a question. This is very good. Here are some examples subchapter headings:

1.1 What is Biology?
1.2 How do biologists investigate life?
2.2 How do atoms bond to form molecules?
3.2 What are the chemical structures and functions of proteins?
4.5 How did eukaryotic cells originate?
7.1 How does glucose oxidation release chemical energy?
10.2 How do alleles interact?
12.4 How is RNA translated into proteins?
19.2 Is cell differentiation reversible?
26.6 How do prokaryotes affect their environment?
32.2 What is a protostome?
39.3 How do plants deal with climate extremes?
45.3 How do sensory systems detect mechanical forces?
51.5 How does the mammalian kidney produce concentrated urine?

The textbook contains very pretty pictures and diagrams and lots of self-quizzes. It does not however give me a reason to want to know the answers to any of the questions posed by the subchapters. It presumes that the simple fact that a student has signed up for a biology course is sufficient grounds to decide that the students have these questions. Or, possibly, it assumes that the professors in giving a lecture, have raised these questions in the student’s minds.

In my experience as a student, my main question was usually how much more of this stuff I had to read (the book is over 1200 pages), and maybe I could just skip it and get by.

My experience as a professor was that the most prevalent student question was what exactly they would be responsible for on the test.

My experience as a department chair was that lazy professors answered that last question by copying the self-study questions in the textbook.

We would all agree that a good course motivates the students to have the questions that the textbook answers in their minds so they can consult the textbook for the answer at their moment of need. There are two assumptions that need to be made here:

1. That professors know how to raise these question in student’s minds in a natural way
2. That the book is well enough organized that finding the answer when needed is trivial

I always wondered, as a student why professors didn’t just hand out the textbook and say “read it” and there will be a test in 3 months, since their lectures were usually irrelevant. Sometimes it was the textbook that was irrelevant. The students needed to quickly figure out which one wasn’t going to be on the test.

But if real learning is not a conscious process, as some (i.e. me) insist, then textbooks could only be ancillary to what a student was doing. But what are students doing? They are sitting and listening, which is a conscious process.

Now let’s imagine a world in which students are doing something. And, let’s assume that they want to do what they are doing and are excited by it. And let’s assume that they know what success at doing something looks like. Then the textbook in that case, would look exactly the same as it had before, except that chapters would be indexed to the goals of the students and the tasks that they were pursuing.

In other words, a textbook is like a mass of answers to questions that no one ever has. Making sure that students really are asking the questions that one might want them to ask would mean making sure that they were pursuing tasks that naturally raised those questions.

This is the role of on-line education. It can create the environment for an answer to be relevant to the pursuit of a goal by creating scenarios in which those questions naturally arise. This scheme however, eliminates an important part of the school experience.

It eliminates the instructor. No more lectures in the world I am envisioning, just mentors who help students when they are stuck.

Instructors will object. Students would not.

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