The textbook is a mistake, a vestige of a way of learning when knowledge was a scarce asset and needed to be encapsulated in something physical. The book was “what had to be learned” about something, the path that the teacher guided us along, and in many cases that had to be memorized and then regurgitated in an exam where one’s capacity for retaining data was assessed.

This reality resulted in any number of distortions. On the one hand, that of a market consisting of thousands of students who were obliged to buy whichever books their college or institution told them. This created a vast business: they had to be updated each year, and so a great deal of money was at stake when deciding to use this or that textbook. Needless to say, this led to all kinds of pressures, hidden deals and plain corruption. On the other hand, the possibility of controlling what would be in a textbook was too great a temptation for governments, knowing that they were dealing with malleable young minds.

The textbook has gone from being a tool that provides access to scarce knowledge to a business that borders on the unethical, a means by which to indoctrinate. But above all, from about a decade ago, when the internet became widely accessible, the text book has been a living fossil, an obstacle to what education should be. Using excuses such as, “teachers are not ready yet” we are prolonging the life of a tool that not only perpetuates a way of learning that no longer reflects how we live, but is actually harmful. Responsible parents need to be asking the teachers at their children’s schools if they are going to continue using textbooks, and if the answer is yes, move to another institution that doesn’t. The textbook is now the negation of learning, a symbol of our failure to prepare our children for the world they are going to live in. “Commit to memory the contents of these pages to be able to pass the course.” Good grief…

Learning today means understanding that knowledge is not contained in any book. Learning means learning to search. It means being able to manage huge amounts of information, and being able to identify it, qualify it, verify it, ditch it if it’s wrong, share it when it’s right… It means being able to consult multiple sources and navigate systems within which the teacher is just one more criterion, a knowledge node, somebody who is open to question at all times.

Knowledge should not come from a book that everybody, including the government, has a stake in manipulating. But neither can it be left to the criteria of teachers who will have their own biases, their own agenda, or even their own monsters. Neither can it be left to parents. Teaching means making sure that children understand that a book, a teacher, a newspaper, a government, or even their parents cannot be their sole source of knowledge, because knowledge is out there, and it evolves quickly, and we have to look for it all the time. Teaching is increasingly about teaching children to fish, rather than giving them a fish.

The trend nowadays is to shift from paper to a digital format. In other words, electronic versions of textbooks, as though this were somehow providing access to the information society. So instead of buying textbooks, we now have to pay subscriptions or license fees. How modern!

Digitizing a book changes nothing, it is simply repeating the same mistakes as before. A book in tablet or computer form still adheres to the idea of a single source of knowledge, even if it appears to be more modern. It is still about indoctrination, and still means paying for something that is already out there, free.

Teaching has to mean that the teacher manages the time required for a subject to be taught, helping pupils as they search for information, challenging them to look for as wide a range of sources as possible. This means comparing and contrasting, and in so doing, developing their common sense and critical skills, not their memory. In other words, education is about empowering children to attain knowledge, regardless of the field, by using their own tools. They must learn to question what they find, in the same way that they question what the media, the government, or their parents say, as well of course, as what their teachers tell them. And this is a process that must start at a very early age.

“But that’s not what teachers are for,” say the textbook’s defenders. What nonsense. Teachers too can learn new skills, and they would do well to look to countries like Finland for that education. Teachers can be taught, just as parents can be taught, even if in the case of the latter, they have by now delegated their responsibilities a bit too much. It is essential to revive the role of parents in their children’s education, not as a sole criterion, but as one more.

I can understand how many people will feel trepidation at the thought of the leap into the unknown that leaving behind text books represents. This is the same fear that many executives still feel when they go into a meeting with no pad and pen, instead carrying only their smartphone for taking notes on. This is the same fear that we might all feel leaving behind what we have come to rely on, and knowing that we have only the internet from now on. But we can make that leap; we have to.

The textbook needs to be laid to rest as soon as possible, whether in paper or digital format. This is about killing off a concept. As a society we should be concerned that our children make the move as soon as possible to finding information where it is most available, not from a closed system. They shouldn’t have to learn what is in a book on the basis of what a publisher, government, or teacher decides. They shouldn’t have to accept anybody’s prejudices, not even those of their parents or teachers. They need to learn other things, the skills needed to live in today and tomorrow’s world, and those are things that a textbook can never teach them.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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