Textbooks have become (mostly) pointless

by Ashish

Imagine you lived in a Google-less world.

Or, if you’d like an alternate phrasing, imagine its pretty much anytime before 1999. If you wanted students to have a reasonable amount of information about a subject that you were going to teach them, it was incumbent upon you to recommend a textbook. And anytime before 1999, this made perfect sense.

You could say that if you wanted to have beginner/intermediate/expert level knowledge about Subject A, well, then, boning up on textbook B was de riguer. You could, on the other hand, dig up fifteen to twenty papers by different authors, which collectively would be the Bible of the subject in question. But dragging up the papers would take time, arriving at a consensus on exactly which papers to read would be a huge exercise, and in any case the list would have to be updated every now and then. Plus, and this is a well known fact, papers are drier than groundwater reserves.

It would not be possible to read up-to-date musings of industry experts for free (blogs), it would not be possible to interact on a real time basis with the acknowledged experts in the field (Twitter) and updating the textbook would be an exercise that resulted in a new edition, which essentially meant higher prices for next to no reason.

But in a class conducted this year, I was able to recommend podcasts featuring Nobel Prize winning economists, blogs written by people from the same exalted category, Twitter accounts of people who were in the industry, applying the very theories we were discussing in class, and a whole host of papers that were online, for free. I was also able to conduct entire courses without once having to open a textbook – and that was a truly wonderful thing.

I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.

Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.

Except of course, all that has happened is students have gotten better at knowing part of one specific textbook about the subject.

It does not amount to knowing the subject. The blinkered approach that textbooks invoke in students is what has made me hate textbooks with a vengeance. Because the impression that students, teachers, colleges, parents and everybody else associated with the educational system  have is that the-textbook-is-the-subject.

And in a world in which the Internet exists, not only is this untrue, it is dangerously limited, restrictive and frustrating. There is so much to be learned out there, for free or otherwise, that limiting yourself to a textbook just makes no sense. Use it as a reference, use it as a handy tool to help you understand stuff that needs clarification, but do not, for the love of god, pretend that the book is all there is to it.

And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.

In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.