Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

Seth Godin thinks so:

Textbooks have very little narrative. They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

I agree that textbooks of this sort fall flat on their faces, and it sounds like textbook standards have slipped considerably. But I firmly stand by the idea of a textbook. To me a single volume that takes you from zero knowledge to thorough understanding is invaluable. Popular nonfiction publishers are less likely to approach subjects that way, because it can result in hard-to-market doorstop-sized behemoths.

But I also like Godin’s alternative proposal:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.

2 thoughts on “Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

  1. Seth’s post made me sad. I love textbooks. As an adult I buy new textbooks on a semi-regular (4-6 month) basis and work through them.

    What drives me nuts about textbooks are the publishers refuse to consider an audience beyond college students in a specific class. You cannot get teachers’ guides or solution manuals unless you are a bona fide teacher. I can work through the texts, but if I’m making an egregious (or stupid) error, I really have no way to be sure.

  2. That’s a great point — it would be nice to have “lone wolf” editions of textbooks with built-in training material. I love learning this way too.

    When I was in ninth grade, my dad (a professor) did something very un-parent-like and bought be the teacher’s edition of my geometry textbook, along with a Mac geometry tutorial program. I cruised through both and the class was a breeze. I didn’t use the back of the book to cheat on my homework — I used it to get through the material more efficiently.

    I think the problems Godin points out could (and should) be resolved by fewer bad textbooks and reform to the textbook business, along with the supplementary material of the sort he describes. I wonder if extending the intended audience to self-teaching non-students could help shift the business model.

    Re-reading Godin’s post, I noticed a potential problem with his proposed solution. If you rely on professors to write their own class texts, you’re going to get some great material, but you’ll also get a lot of terrible material. Even a professor who is a gifted lecturer may be ineffective as a writer. Most professors would probably help their students more by gathering the best of published material, rather than making their own.

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