Vol 6|No 8|May|1997


In Defense of Textbooks, Lectures
and Other Aging Technologies

by Jamie McKenzie


The old technologies still have a place in the classroom. We can ill afford to throw away the textbook or banish the lecture. They serve a purpose. They filter, they focus, they organize and they deliver complex subjects like U.S. history and biology in manageable, digestible chunks and bites.

The challenge facing schools in an Age of Information is finding the right balance between these time-honored delivery systems and the more student-centered learning styles which are made possible by the new information technologies.

I. The Advantages of Textbooks and Lectures

Schools cannot take the time to study the entire American story "from scratch." We need secondary sources. We need reliable, trained interpreters. We need editors who will provide some degree of quality control.

Textbooks . . . What do good textbooks do for us?

They compact and synthesize immense bodies of knowledge. They simplify and condense the story. They organize and translate complex disciplines.

They provide teachers and students with a clear path, a learning TripTik, if you will.

They take us on a quick tour of subject matter which could easily occupy a lifetime. "Start here . . . go there . . . read this . . . look at this picture . . . read this segment of a diary . . ."

Lectures . . . And what do good lectures accomplish?

They (like textbooks) compact the immense and complex into small, bite size meals which fit into 40 minute class periods like a hand in a glove.

Done well, they translate academic material into the language and terms of Today.

A good lecturer transforms the events of an April Morning at Lexington and Concord into terms which awaken the interest of 15 year-olds. Something cold and old becomes hot and lively as the lecturer breathes life into the material. The best lecturers bring artistry and fireworks to the classroom. They can light fires.

Good lecturers do tons of extra reading and research into the topic before us. They save us the trouble of doing our own exploration, having "turned down the corners" on the best pages. They synthesize, summarize and report the "best parts." Knowing their audience, they are able to translate what might otherwise seem foreign, confusing, boring or overly abstract into a half hour of explanation and illumination. They act somewhat as tour guides.

They build bridges which take us to the other side . . .

Schools are meant to guide the young to our best information, the wisdom of the ages as well as the best insights of our best thinkers. As Sven Birkerts points out in The Gutenberg Elegies (ISBN 0-449-91009-1 - Fawcett Columbine, NY, 1994), the new media can flatten history and deprive us of perspective. Everything is NOW. History can almost seem to disappear along with many of the best thinkers of the previous century and decade as the digital world brings its focus to the present and the future.

Good textbooks and good lectures remain an essential method of organizing what the civilization has learned into synthesized "chunks" which make learning efficient, appetizing and sometimes enlightening.

II. The Limitations of Constructivist Learning and Primary Sources

In previous articles I have argued the case for equipping students with Information Power, by which I have meant the ability to "make up their own minds." Given the rapid change and the complexity of information sources facing citizens of the next century, our students must be capable of making their own meanings even when confronted by complexity, ambiguity and info-glut.

In order for students to acquire such information skills, they must have ample opportunity to launch investigations and explore real questions, an approach which goes by a number of different names . . . constructivist learning, engaged learning, problems-based learning, etc.

Judging from the research of Goodlad, Sizer and others, we have much work to do if we hope to see students engaged in such learning much of their time in school. The lecture and the textbook have a firm grip on many classrooms.

At the same time I would argue for a greater emphasis upon such student centered learning, I would also argue the need for balance between the different kinds of learning experiences. Both are needed because constructivist learning can be very slow, very inefficient and somewhat unreliable. At its worst, constructivist learning can reinforce ignorance, reward prejudice and keep students in the dark.

Problems of Time . . . If we tried to implement an entirely "constructivist" approach to learning U.S. history with nothing more than primary source materials, it would take forever to move beyond the diaries, documents and the raw data. Our students could easily spend months buried in the wonderful, emerging digital collections of the The Library of Congress, for example, without necessarily gaining much insight.

Problems of Understanding . . . Imagine we asked our students to figure out from the photographs in the Detroit Publishing Collection of the Library of Congress what it was like to live in a tenement in a large American city at the turn of the last century.

We might show them how to perform efficient word searches to find all the photographs showing "tenements," "slums," "ghetto" and related terms. We would ask them to use their visual literacy skills to interpret their findings.

Try it yourself before reading on. Do a search a search for "tenement" and then look at all the pictures.

Do your own search here.

What can you report about the quality of life in those tenements? Are there any surprises? What is the truth?

Problems of Skill . . . Historians are trained to weigh evidence from various sources as they try to make sense from all of the time fragments. They would be smart enough to balance the Detroit collection with a half dozen other collections. They might spend some time learning about the photographers themselves to see if they had a tendency to select certain aspects of reality and filter out others. They would be wary of making too much meaning from these particular photographs alone. They would seek many different sources. But they are trained to do so and out students are not. It is too easy to confuse information with truth.

The Library of Congress recognizes that teaching with primary sources requires new skills and new approaches. To support teachers in working with their materials, they have developed the Library of Congress Educator's Page , a page full of resources to help teachers and students learn about using the kinds of primary source materials available online.


The Information Highway is no panacea. Nor is constructivist learning the answer to all our needs. Merely having more information more readily and rapidly available does not necessarily bring us any closer to the Truth. In Data Smog : Surviving the Information Glut (ISBN: 0060187018, Harper Collins,1997) David Shenk illustrates the dangers of too much information. Visit the Data Smog Web Site.

During the rush to hook up to the Information Highway, wise schools will retain at least some of those information delivery systems which synthesize, summarize and share basic insights, stories and concepts in an efficient manner which includes a reasonable degree of filtering and focus. They will continue to make good use of textbooks and lectures when appropriate, but they will also move to a balance with constructivist approaches.

Knowing that working with raw data and primary sources can be very frustrating and very confusing for both teachers and students, wise schools will invest in the scaffolding required to support meaningful investigations. Constructing meaning requires a very strong skill base which can only be acquired through a substantial investment in staff development aimed at developing Information Power and Information Literacy.

Credits: The background and the icons are from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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