Bias in the textbook

I love teaching.  I love teaching even more when I am learning while teaching.  Today, my students helped me make an insight regarding technology and the implicit messages technologies contain.  We were discussing/tweeting about the biases and hidden messages of a typical textbook when one group of students tweeted that “teachers have the big books with all the answers in them”.  From this tweet, I thought about how students enter my class with a view of teaching & learning in which the teacher is the knower of all information.  They believe the teacher’s job is to tell students the right answers so they can memorize, regurgitate, and repeat.  After about 6 weeks students realize that I am there to help them make connections and think through problems rather than to simply tell them answers.  After today, I realize that textbook companies implicitly condone the “teacher as answer provider” message in how they create teacher materials.

Our technologies clearly shape our views of teaching and learning.  Some other problematic “hidden messages” of textbooks include:

  • Finding answers is more important than reflecting on learning (consider the “end of section” questions).
  • Vocabulary is more important than understanding large “bridging” concepts (new vocab is in bold).
  • Learning happens in a linear, organized way (no longer are texts written as reference, they are meant to guide learning).
  • Learning happens in X amount of time (many text activities provide time/pacing guidelines).
    • The previous two bullets together lead to the problematic stance that student grasp of ideas is not important, but “covering material” is.
  • To teach subject Y well, I have to cover everything in the book (give me a break).

I think criticizing the textbook technology is fairly easy as many of us have abandoned textbooks, use them only as resources, or are unhappy with the control textbooks have on education.  However, we must ask ourselves about the “hidden messages” in ALL of our technologies.  Once we have identified hidden messages and bias, we can work to reduce them.  But to simply think our new technologies don’t have the bias or negative hidden messages is just naive.

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2 Responses to Bias in the textbook

  1. Matt R. says:

    I can’t tell you how much I hate Math textbooks. Two years ago I had to go through the textbook selection process and it was depressing. All the textbooks had a Course 1,2,3 format for Middle School. I, of course, looked through the Course 2 and 3 texts because they correspond to 7th/8th grade. They were all basically identical. There was no difference between them, just rearranged chapters. Not to mention the horrendous “application” aka “real world” problems were so UNreal world I basically abandoned it. After one year with them I decided to reexamine my 7th/8th curriculum. I sat down and created a concept map beginning with where I wanted my students to start in 7th grade and where I wanted to take them and taught the course in a logical, connected, flow of concepts. Then, when I attempted to align this flow with the text, it was all over the place. Mer. I’d rather have an encyclopedic-type math text for student reference of properties, theorems and proofs. Excluding all of the PC pictures and “real world” applications.


  2. The problem you discuss is very real. These textbooks are rooted in a traditional, structured way of learning, but they are also written for the lowest common denominator of teacher that is out there.

    Teaching is, among other things, a large scale, mass production environment. While many excellent teachers can use a variety of materials to stimulate high levels of thinking and learning, many can not. These texts are designed to hand-hold the teachers through the curriculum. Really, strong students could use the texts without much guidance at all. What is learned by those specifically following these texts is limited in usefulness at best.

    But I think the major message, although not very well hidden, is that there is a discrete set of skills and knowledge that need to be learned in a defined period of time. Developing textbooks is very political, designed more to appeal to the policymakers than the educators.


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