Is the Textbook Dead?

It caught my eye, this headline/story posted on EdWeek recently. Seems there was a panel at a conference that was supposed to debate what they obviously thought would be an attention grabbing, contentious, and controversial topic. Their conclusion: NO!

All I can say is: “You have got to be kidding!”

Now, I know that textbooks continue to play a central role in most of our schools across the grade levels. I know they have done so for centuries, I collect antique math textbooks. And I know that both the textbook publishing community as well as the school community believes that paper textbooks will slowly morph into online interactive versions. Textbooks are so ubiquitous, so standardized, so traditional that most of us cannot imagine school without them. So is it any wonder the panel came to its conclusion: the textbook, designed for print on paper (text is derived from the Latin for tissue) will always be with us. And while many expect paper to morph into tablets, few imagine fundamental change in form. So, I continue to ask: “You have got to be kidding!”

In 1962 by Thomas Kuhn published a revolutionary work called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introducing the term paradigm into our lexicon. Kuhn argued that science changes for the most part continuously “normal science”, but the history of science is punctuated (to use Stephen Jay Gould’s term) with “revolutionary science.” We need only note the Copernican Revolution, the Newtonian Revolution, Maxwell’s Field Theory, Einstein’s Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics in the world of physics. These scientific revolutions introduce new paradigms, fundamentally new ways of thinking that change the focus and direction of a scientific field.

I would argue that technology, like science, grows in the same way. Most of the time it normally grows by small incremental changes, improvements, but every once-in-a-while its history is punctuated by revolutionary changes. The iPhone was not a mere smaller version of a corded or a better cord-free phone. It was a fundamentally new experience, a transformative experience that changed the ways we communicate. The integrated circuit changed the way we work. The Web revolutionized the way we learn.

So, the textbook, as we know it, an invention enabled by cheap printing in the middle of the 19th century, provided a way for large numbers of students to “take a teacher home.” Its lack of interactivity meant it did not replace a teacher, but for perhaps half of the student population it provided an effective supplement of class time with additional practice and information. It was not so much a tool for learning as a tool for practicing what you hopefully learned in class.

Digital technology with its amazing interactivity, its dynamic communication capacity, and its opportunities for collaboration, gives students powerful tools for learning. What if… we could use digital age technology to enable students to learn on their own without the direct instruction of a live teacher? What if… the new paradigm for the student’s learning tools was not dependent on text or repetitive mind-numbing practice? What if… we placed, into every student’s hands, the interactive power of the Web to imagine all learning as a science experiment.

At What if Math, over the past several years, we have been reimagining a math education, indeed a STEM education, designed for the digital age. Over the past several months we have made substantial changes to our content and our website as we have come to understand learning in the digital age. Over the next several weeks we will be rolling out the last of these changes.

This is not a new textbook for the digital age. The textbook is dead. This is a new way for students to learn. It is the way we believe, someday in the not too distant future, all students will learn. We look forward to your thoughts.