Evidence for Textbooks? Evidence for Classroom Computers?

In the three part series on evidence for use of computer devices in classrooms I posted recently, one reader highly supportive of classroom technology questioned my focus on evidence by pointing out on his blog that  no studies had been done when textbooks were introduced so why should the introduction and use of electronic devices and their software be held to that standard. Here is, in part, what the reader said:

For instance, we spend a lot of money on textbooks. Is there evidence, research based, that paper textbooks are an effective teaching tool with today’s students? How about pencils? Pens? Air conditioned classrooms? The point is, there are lots of things we spend great deal of money on in education without asking if there is evidence to show that the program works. I have NEVER, in all my years in education, ever heard any school board or state legislator ask if textbooks are worth the money that is spent on them. And I would venture to say, that along with technology, textbooks are perhaps the most expensive purchase that school districts make. Do they make a difference, especially in the connected wireless world where the exact same information is available for free on the internet?

This is a familiar rebuttal from advocates of using new high-tech devices for classroom lessons. They  believe that it is unfair to expect researchers, including both academics and teachers, to investigate the worth of district investments in classroom software and hardware when the value of so many low-tech devices (e.g., the slate blackboard, pencil, paper, textbooks)  used for centuries have not been either researched or evaluated.  Why pick on use of software and hardware, they ask?

Here are two answers to the question.

First, when different groups inside and outside schools compete for limited resources at a time of high-intensity accountability, demands for data-driven decisions and asking for evidence of worth are as obvious and necessary as rain during a drought. But what is obvious and necessary give way to political choices since high-tech software and hardware compete for those scarce dollars with other highly-valued alternatives such as smaller class size,  teacher professional development, and school security. Faddish as they may be such phrases as “evidence-based practice” or “best practices” at least contain a non-political response that raises the standard for school decisions higher than pointing to strong political support for new technologies from parent surveys, top policymakers, vendors, and others who have unvarnished faith in the students being exposed to the next new thing.

Second, there is a historical answer. Two hundred years ago, the most basic tools for teaching reading, math, writing geography, and history in mostly one-room public schoolhouses with students ranging in age from four to twenty-one were in very short supply. Before children had individual textbooks filled with the knowledge and skills they were expected to learn, the teacher had a book–the Bible, Webster’s Speller, or similar texts–and told students everything that was on the page that they had to learn. Initially before the Civil War, parents had to buy books for their children to attend school before some city schools (e.g., Boston, New York City) began to buy textbooks for all children attending school. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century,  textbooks were the computers of the day giving students access to basic knowledge.

So questions of whether or not to have textbooks are moot. It is (and was) taken-for-granted that every student has to have access to community-sanctioned knowledge and textbooks are (and were) the answer. Even today when some districts buy licenses to load current textbooks on tablet computers or laptops, it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.

As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. Policymakers will continue to decide what gets funded based on tradition, available data, and community values. Tax-supported public schools have been political institutions from their very birth in the early-19th century. Decisions made to buy iPads or air-conditioning are, in effect, political decisions subject to social beliefs, whims, and available data. Recognizing the political nature of schools does not mean, however, ignoring or dispensing with evidence when decision-makers decide among competing choices.

20 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

20 responses to “Evidence for Textbooks? Evidence for Classroom Computers?

  1. Wilson Lambert

    Larry, you are so correct! It is no different than when you had two years on your contract remaining and the “board” changed Larry. And so did the priorities LOL..This is the “political” piece.

    • larrycuban

      I miss the connection that you are making, Wilson. Enlighten me.

      • Wilson Lambert

        HI Larry, I am so sorry! You have me in tears, dying laughing every time I read your works, and believe me I read them often/quite alot! Talking about your book (The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools. SUNY Series in Educational Leadership) the chapter concerning leaving the superintendency and returning to teaching. Some sections remind me of David Tyack “One Best System.” when talking about Cubberly. Larry you would not believe how you are an inspiration to me as Jeff Henig, Rick Hess, also. I have applied for more assistant principal positions than you can shake a stick out and turned down for every last one. I did land a principal position. I was shocked until the school district indicated to me that they were found non-compliant by the Commonwealth of PA because they did not have a principal with certification running the Alternative Education Center. So I was hired as the new principal to close the school in six months. I was hoping for a miracle but it was not to happen. So I have it on my resume that I served as a principal. I shall keep trying. But I really enjoy researching urban public schools. It was inspiring to read how you were a superintendent without being a principal. I doubt that could happen today, don’t know, maybe, but I doubt it? That is the reason that drove me to my doctorate, it was absolute rage. And as I watch the school organization in operation, at best it is a “Dog and Pony Show.” Title of my Master Thesis LOL LOL. As of late I have been doing a lot of research/reading actually on the Walllace Foundation. I have become somewhat of a patriot. So now whenever I interview I actually think that I frighten people. But my values are congruent with the icons I have studied (Cuban, Henig, & Hess). Hope I gave you a better explanation best that I could electronically….LOL

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Wilson, for making the connection.

  2. I’d like to respond to a comment in the last paragraph of your post:

    “As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. ”

    When I first started teaching chemistry in the 70s, I was fortunate, more fortunate than I could ever have imagined, to teach in a classroom that had been designed by the former chemistry teacher. That classroom’s most valuable attribute was that it had blackboards, actual blackboard, not those green chalkboards, on three of the four walls. Quite literally, those walls were entirely blackboards. I had not seen nor have I seen since a room so designed as a classroom.

    Long before it became trendy, and I might add effective, the previous teacher used all the blackboard/wall space so that the entire class of 24 students could be up at those chalkboards working at the same time. We had boxes and boxes of white chalk (yellow chalk didn’t provide the same aesthetic appeal), boxes of colored chalk (the colored Chunky Chalk designed for children to color on sidewalks – do children do that any more, or are they inside “drawing” on some form of digital/electronic device?) and erasers everywhere, and yes, they did get thrown. And there was chalk dust everywhere too. We used them everyday – even when the power went out. Particularly useful “creations” could be saved simply by writing SAVE next to it in really big letters. And for more than 30 years, not one of those blackboards EVER failed or was “down” for any reason.

    I used those blackboards as intended – the entire class could up working on them – all at the same time. Over 3,000 of my students used them on a daily basis, and they never tired of them. We used them after school to work problems or explain (again) difficult concepts and perhaps because it was the only room in the entire building like it and as such was a novelty.

    But what I remember most fondly is when kids (my students were my kids) would come in between classes, during mutually “free” periods or after school and just doodle on the boards – great colorful murals and portraits, and most all of them accompanied by a big SAVE – as we talked. It was a safe place to draw and talk, and I am certain a form of therapy that transcended artistic talent. Not only was there a visual aspect to their work, but there was a tactile component from the feel and sound of the chalk on the board and that of the eraser, and the dust as well.

    Building renovations doomed the blackboard-covered classroom and was replaced by two whiteboards and eventually a Smart board. At most, 8 students could work at the whiteboards simultaneously, and the marker dust was more irritating and difficult to clean up than the chalk dust had been. Maybe I just got used to being covered in chalk dust and breathing it. The markers were considerably more expensive than chalk and would frequently dry out if not capped properly whereas that never happened to chalk, no matter how many times it was dropped and shattered into ever smaller pieces. There was no tactile component whatsoever between the marker on the whiteboard – it just slid along, often out of control.

    The Smart board, for what by now should be obvious reasons, was still worse in terms of student engagement despite its advantages and advanced technology. It was completely useless when either it malfunctioned or was misaligned; when the software crashed or the computer hardware failed to operate properly, or when someone used dry erase markers rather than the 4 colored styli. It was strangely dark, quiet and quite useless when the power went out.

    I guess that I’m agreeing with your premise that perhaps not all change is progress and that like decisions to replace textbooks with digital technology, whether it be desktop or laptop computers, iPad-like devices or smart phones, classroom innovation is more often based on political/social values rather than on pedagogical considerations.

    Despite all the changes and “progress”, my classroom was never quite as “kid friendly” as it had been with the expansive blackboards and colored chunky chalk.

    Somewhere I remember reading a book about this conflict titled “The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses”. I think it was about ten years ago . . .

    • larrycuban

      Ah, those memories I share with you about chalk and blackboards. That low-tech device surely helped those teachers who wanted to have students participate in learning chemistry. Just like those teachers who see laptops and tablets helping their students access and understand knowledge and skills today. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Wilson Lambert

    Agree!

  4. Doug Johnson

    Hi Larry,
    Had to leave a bit tongue in cheek response here:

    http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2015/3/5/why-demand-research-for-computers-but-not-textbooks.html

    Keep on provoking us. I probably tweet your post more than anyone else I read!

    Doug

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments on the post in your blog, Doug. I enjoyed reading it and the tweaks that you gave it. Also liked the photo that you had accompanying your post.

  5. “…it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.”

    As a fairly new mathematics teacher, I am stunned at how appallingly bad most mathematics text books are these days, chock full of distracting commentary, pictures, and other kaleidoscopic and kinematic-esque artifacts that dilute the value of a subject area that distilled over thousands of years.

    Nonetheless, at the more advanced levels, I require my students to read their text and attempt homework BEFORE I mention anything about the content. I learned this at West Point in the early 1980’s using what is known as The Thayer Method, or with videos these days, The Flipped Classroom. In my day, black boards surrounded our classroom with white and other colored chalk and yard sticks in the trays for students to present their work while the “P” pondered Socratically.

    Many of my youngest honors precalculus students and their parents despise me for it. However, I know it is the most effective method to inculcate in them the necessity to engage with text, technical or otherwise, as they learn how to learn along with the calculus or precalculus.

    While I utilize a website for disseminating and displaying lesson plans and homework assignments, nothing surpasses the power of a well-written textbook as the fount of knowledge from which our students must drink.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comments on math texts, Dave.

    • Wilson Lambert

      I do not think the mathematics text books are bad at all these days. The purpose of a chock full of distracting commentary, pictures, and other kaleidoscopic and kinematic-esque artifacts is to connect to the general knowledge base of the reader. In this way the teacher helps by having students draw a “concept map” so that they can connect their learning. For example In what way do the maps, charts, and graphs connect to the topic? Most students today cannot break down non-fiction text easily if at all. Text equals literacy, and that is one of the reasons that Larry has called for research based evidence on computers because to a large degree it cannot be proved that computers are an effective teaching tool. Copying and pasting information does not in and of itself mean that someone has learned new information. One has to be able to interpret text, process information, and then critically evaluate and analyze to increase further understanding. Thanks for sharing.

      • Hi Wilson. Some modern texts are OK, and I love concept mapping exercises. However, there are a tad too many distractions IMHO. Call me old-fashioned!🙂 The need to decode technical text is my entire point.😛

  6. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    Forgive me Larry & readers…I keep forgetting to reblog a post when I comment so my readers benefit from both, and subsequent discourse…kinda like how I still hand my credit card to a clerk and he/she frowns and points me to the reader in front of me, which I rarely see…

    “…it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.”

    As a fairly new mathematics teacher, I am stunned at how appallingly bad most mathematics text books are these days, chock full of distracting commentary, pictures, and other kaleidoscopic and kinematic-esque artifacts that dilute the value of a subject area that distilled over thousands of years.

    Nonetheless, at the more advanced levels, I require my students to read their text and attempt homework BEFORE I mention anything about the content. I learned this at West Point in the early 1980’s using what is known as The Thayer Method, or with videos these days, The Flipped Classroom. In my day, black boards surrounded our classroom with white and other colored chalk and yard sticks in the trays for students to present their work while the “P” pondered Socratically.

    Many of my youngest honors precalculus students and their parents despise me for it. However, I know it is the most effective method to inculcate in them the necessity to engage with text, technical or otherwise, as they learn how to learn along with the calculus or precalculus.

    While I utilize a website for disseminating and displaying lesson plans and homework assignments, nothing surpasses the power of a well-written textbook as the fount of knowledge from which our students must drink.

    • Wilson Lambert

      Hi Dave

      I take issue with requiring students to just read their text and attempt homework? Why? Students as critical thinkers and all students for that matter, need to have purpose for their reading, and not just read for the sake of reading. Students need to turn their headings and sub-headings into questions that they need to answer as they read, so they are reading with purpose which ultimately increases their comprehension. Then by concept mapping and associating pictures, details, maps, charts, graphs, primary source etc, and other pre-reading strategies they are able to breakdown condensed large pieces of text into smaller chunks of information for processing. And while I agree with you that nothing surpasses the power of a well-written text as the fountain of knowledge from which our students must drink, the key lies in then applying one of my favorite standards; Compare the interpretation of historical events and sources, considering the use of fact versus opinion, multiple perspectives, and cause and effect relationships. Thanks for sharing, sincerely Wilson

      • Hi Wilson. I love your emphasis on connections, representations, communications, etc. They resonate with my emphases in teaching mathematics. As a West Pointer, I love history, too!

        There is a slight difference in purpose for engaging with the text in my mathematics courses versus your history course, as an example.

        Students must read to understand the concepts and procedures in the text in order to complete their homework. This is not a read for the sake of reading exercise in the least. In fact, typically, I do not discuss or show any new content with them a priori, only a posteriori. The student takes responsibility for their learning. My responsibility is to ensure they truly understand the material through Socratic questioning, student presentations, etc.

        Thank you, too, for sharing and clarifying your perspective.

        Dave

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