Textbooks Are Still Important in School

March 21, 2021 Updated: March 21, 2021

Commentary

I learned a lot about Canadian history when I was in Grade 6. Unfortunately, it had little to do with what happened during class.

Rather, I came across an old discarded Canadian history textbook in our school library and started reading it during my breaks. It taught me far more about the history of our country than colouring title pages in the assigned workbooks, filling out simple worksheets, or working with other students on projects.

What sparked my interest was the textbook author’s ability to interweave disparate aspects of Canada’s history in telling a comprehensive story about how our country came to be. I learned an awful lot about the interpersonal conflicts between the rulers of New France, the risky military decisions made by the British General James Wolfe, and the daring adventures of the coureurs des bois.

To be clear, this textbook was far from perfect, something that I only learned later. Its depiction of indigenous people left much to be desired, and the author made no secret of his pro-European bias. Nevertheless, in reading this book I began to grasp the broader narrative of Canadian history.

Imagine how much more I might have learned back then if my teacher had made regular use of this textbook during classroom activities. The teacher would have provided students with content-rich instruction while counteracting some of the biases in the textbook.

Sadly, textbooks are becoming even less common in schools today. That’s because teachers are now being encouraged to pick and choose from a variety of sources. The assumption is that learning is more authentic when students are exposed to more than one perspective and teachers are being charged to provide diverse positions on historical instances. Besides that, who’s to say that a textbook author’s opinion is any more valuable than anyone else’s opinion? Students might actually learn more if they spent time finding their own sources on the internet and not paying attention to their teachers’ perspectives.

This reasoning is consistent with modern-day educational thought and respectful of the diversity of viewpoints. But it is absolutely wrong.

The reality is that one source is not as good as another, particularly in established subject areas such as math, science, and history. There is a world of difference between a carefully researched textbook and a random blogpost on the internet. Any textbook publishing company worth its salt ensures that its textbooks are factually accurate and written at a level that students can read and understand. That’s because if word gets out that their textbooks are filled with errors, or that students can’t make sense of them, their sales will drop.

Of course, a well-designed textbook is an invaluable tool for both teachers and students. For a subject like history, not only does the textbook serve as a useful reference guide, it shows key events in their proper chronological sequence and puts facts and dates into a broader historical context. The same is true of science and math textbooks that show students how to build from one concept to the next.

Obviously, teachers can and should go beyond the information provided in textbooks. Students should be encouraged to read widely and to bring the questions they ask to the classroom for discussion and debate.

Nevertheless, it helps when teachers provide students with a book that contains most of the concepts and information they are expected to learn. Furthermore, high-quality textbooks are extensively reviewed by subject matter experts and representatives from various minority groups, who together identify and weed out errors and misrepresentations. The result is a book that, while still imperfect, reflects more than one author’s perspective.

As for the argument that the internet makes textbooks obsolete, the reality is that the quality of online information varies widely. While websites are a hit-and-miss collection of good and bad sources, a well-written textbook synthesizes the most important information in a way students can easily understand. Unless students already have substantial knowledge and considerable powers of discernment, they are unlikely to find the same quality of information on the internet.

However, while textbooks are undoubtedly useful, teachers should never rely exclusively on them. Good teachers will always supplement textbooks with other information and will encourage students to question everything they read. Blindly trusting a single source is never a good idea no matter how reliable it appears to be.

Textbooks are still important in schools today, and they will remain important in the years ahead. I think my Grade 6 teacher would agree with me.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.