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The Purpose of Textbooks – Part 2

I do not think that holograms are on the near horizon, but one can wish

So, continuing from my last blog article, if the answers to our questions are changing and they are constantly available to us, and helping our children learn to find, validate and use valuable information/media has become a central defining component of literacy, then of what use are textbooks.  If stripped of the content – the right answers to questions – then what is left and to what purpose.

In my opinion, quite a bit is left.  I took one of those remedial classes in my first year of community college, something like “Improve Your Study Skills.”  I remember the professor telling us what to do upon receiving our textbooks each semester.  We should scan through and register key items and sequence of ideas in the table of contents and also scan the index, looking for names, words and phrases that stand out.  Each of these textbook elements provided anchor points within the content, giving it shape and meaning.

If the teacher or learner is starting without a packaged and provided collection of content, then a locally maintained table of contents (outline) and index (list of essential terms) become something quite different.  Instead of anchor points, they provide idea magnets, serving to help draw together the most contextually relevant and defensible information in a sequence and shape that provides the deepest meaning to the content.  It is, in a sense, a skeleton that gives shape to what might otherwise be an ugly bag of mostly water. (I always wanted to use that phrase – Geurs, Sanchez & Sabarof, 1988)

I had originally written a long technical examination of metadata here, but it would be one of many avenues to this sort of learning tool, and who am I to suggest how this might technically work.  But what comes closest to being my personal and professional textbook today is Flipboard, a magazine-forming social network aggregator for both iOS and Android.  I’ll be attending the upcoming Educon at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy this week.  In preparation, I’ve configured Flipboard to grab all tweets that are hashtagged with #educon, as well as the resources that are shared by those tweets.  The effect is a new chapter to my textbook, capturing content from others who will also be attending or simply paying attention to the event via the social network.  My textbook (Flipboard) is a carefully arranged, personal and constantly evolving set of information magnets, that attract the content that I need or want to see.

Might the day come, when a subject to be taught, is conveyed as a flexible outline of tags (so to speak).  The job of the teacher would be to locate (or cause to be located) and attach content (both open-source and/or commercial), in any appropriate format, to that arrangement of scope and sequence-forming tags and constantly filter and refine that content based on changing conditions and newly available content?

What might this process look like as an integral part of teacher education?  Might the act of starting their own flexible digital textbooks be a part of learning to teach.  (Is “Flexbook” trademarked?  How about “flexibook?”)

My point is that we have every reason to conclude that learning tools that assume a static, centralized and standard arrangement of content is irrelevant to the needs of today’s learners – and that today’s prevailing information environment provides for us some pretty compelling opportunities.

  • That teachers can easily construct and refine learning tools based on local and universal conditions and individualized to the circumstances of specific learners.
  • That learners can personalize their learning tools based on their self-discovered learning styles and their evolving personal interests.
  • That these learning tools need not be turned in at the end of the course, but carried on, edited, adapted and grown.
  • That learners can graduate with more than a paper diploma – that they might take with them a personalized digital library or network of content that they continue to maintain and evolve based on their continuing needs and interests.
  • That this action of personal curation can become an integral part of formal education, further shifting it from

Something that is done to children


Something that we learn to do for ourselves.



Geurs, K. (Writer), Sanchez, R. (Writer), & Sabarof, R. (Writer) (1988). Home soil [Television series episode]. In Roddenberry, G. (Executive Producer), Star Trek: The Next Generation. CBS Television Distribution. 



  • Casey

    “Something that is done to children
    Something that we learn to do for ourselves.”
    - You (har har)

    Anyway, I agree with this style of thinking and feel that social studies education would thrive with this mantra. However, I do feel that a textbook could still serve as a source of information and a supplement in this quest of self attained knowledge. Students need not be told what to deduce from the textbook, but like any other source, have access to the information to answer the question(s) that they seek. Additionally, students who lack organizational skills and/or the ability to effectively differentiate a “good” source of information from a “bad” source can greatly benefit from using textbooks. The textbook serves as a starting point from which they can (hopefully) transition into deeper inquiry of other sources.

  • http://flemingkatelynedm310@blogspot.com Katelyn Fleming

    I found this post, I guess series of posts, to be very interesting. I love the idea of a “flexible digital textbook.” I wish I could have a ‘textbook’ that changed with me and showed the knowledge I have gained. However, I also agree Casey, who commented before I did, that textbooks are nice springboards which can help students leap into a load of information. Therefore, textbooks cannot be thrown out entirely.

    I also believe that there are many students who don’t want to be “skillfully, resourceful, and responsible learners.” They refuse to take in more information than what we give them, in other words, the textbooks. Perhaps these students need these flexible textbooks to make them learn something rather than burping up what information was put into their heads.

    You can find me on twitter @KatelynLFleming and my class blog flemingkatelynedm310@blogspot.com.

  • Philip Caccamo

    I am constantly asked why I work out of a text book as a math teacher. I think text books are a great tool should they be used just as that a tool and not as a course curriculum like some might believe. I am personally tired of searching for Math problems on dittos or have to print them out. A text book provide lots of questions for me to provide to the student. I provide my own lesson plan with out to inform the students of the content. I am big on changing the lessons the textbook provides to cater to my students individual needs.

  • Lori MacConnell

    Great thoughts, as usual! Have you looked into the “flexbooks” by CK-12 Foundation? It seems like part of what you envision is already happening.

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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