Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Job Would You Hire a Textbook To Do?

It was a fun and thought-provoking two days at Discovery Education's Beyond the Textbook event. Thanks so much to Steve Dembo, Dean Shareski, Hall Davidson, Laura Wenograd, and all the other folks at Discovery who not only planned this thing, but took very good care of us while we were there (Full Disclosure: I did not get paid to attend, but Discovery covered all expenses). And thanks to my fellow attendees for making this a great learning experience. (Oh, just a reminder Dean, there are still a couple of light bulbs you need to change.)

Here's a quick overview of the two days, and then I'll try to process a few thoughts. The first day (which was optional, but I attended) was a chance for attendees to meet in small groups with different teams from Discovery so they could pick our brains about a variety of topics around professional development, learning, digital resources, etc. (As was typical for me, I was pretty quiet at the beginning of the day, and then wouldn't shut up by the end of the day. Somehow I need to figure out a way to balance that out.)

The second day was the main event, where we spent some time brainstorming what a "21st Century Digital Resource" might look like, and then more specifically sketching some prototypes of what a "mathematics techbook" might look like. (Discovery Education already has a Science Techbook that is available, and will be shortly releasing a Social Studies Techbook. They are just starting on Math and are expecting their first techbook sometime in 2014.) Here's a picture of Darren Kuropatwa in front of our group's mockup as he's explaining to the whole group some of the ideas we came up with (photo courtesy of Tom Woodward).

Six different groups came up with six different mockups and, as you would expect, there were many commonalities as well as some differences. The main commonalities were that a "techbook" should be very customizable (by both teacher and student), media rich, provoke wonder/curiosity/inquiry, stimulate mathematical thinking/habits of mind, and have a social component. I'm not sure what exactly Discovery is going to do with these results, but I'm hopeful that we contributed at least a small part into making their next techbook better.

I'm left with two (at least) big questions after this event. These are questions I've had for a while and this event confirmed that they are still central (to my thinking, at least) to any discussion of a mathematics techbook.

The first question (and I don't think this one is necessarily shared by any of the other attendees), revolves around the essential question, "Is curriculum necessary?" This is not a new question for me, but it's still one I'm struggling mightily with. It seems to me that a central assumption of a text/techbook is that there is a readily identified, relatively fixed set of content/standards that all students need to learn and master.

While there's certainly a part of me that believes that in order to have a just, democratic, and functional society we do need some common knowledge, there's also a part of me that really disagrees. That part of me looks at all the children (really, humans) I've ever met and recalls how different they all are, and wonders how we could ever think that all of them should have to learn the same things at a certain specific age. This part of me doesn't see any way (or need) to create a text/techbook, because the fundamental assumption of what you would use it for is flawed.

The second question only arises if you answer "yes" to the first question. So if you believe that curriculum is necessary, or even if you don't but you think that as a practical matter it's going to exist for the foreseeable future, then perhaps this question will be more meaningful for you. This essential question is, "What's the purpose of a text/techbook?" (Or, because I just finished this book by Clay Christensen, perhaps rephrase that as, "What job would you hire a text/techbook to do?")

I think this is fundamental to this whole process, and it's the question all the Beyond the Textbook attendees were struggling with in one way or another. Is it simply a resource (digital or otherwise) with examples and sample problems for students to work through? Or is it more comprehensive, including and guiding the activities you would use with students in class? Is it a scope-and-sequence, default curriculum guide for the teacher of the course? Or is it designed simply to provoke student curiosity and mathematical thinking? Is it a central "hub" for the course that students (and teachers) will visit every day to launch and guide their learning? Or is it an occasionally-used reference?

Going along with those questions, what are the affordances that a digital techbook offers that a printed textbook does not? In other words, why digital? What can a digital techbook do that a printed one cannot and, in this case, what "value add" can Discovery bring to the table to make this better? What are their core competencies that they can bring to bear to make this a better tool to help teachers and students think and learn mathematically?

All of these were questions that I know my group thought about as we were working on our mockup. We certainly didn't come to a complete resolution on any of them (although you probably won't be surprised that we didn't think it should simply be a digital copy of a paper textbook, with examples and problem sets). One way we did try to address some of these questions was by suggesting that a techbook should be very flexible, with the district/school/teacher/student being able to customize and modify it at will to meet their needs. Darren suggested the idea of a "slider", where you could adjust what appears in the student version based not only on what your students need, but also on your skills as a teacher. (I suggested that perhaps it would have to be more granular than a slider, more like a checklist so you could pick and choose each and every piece, but otherwise we're pretty much on the same page.)

Let me try to illustrate that with an example that Darren shared. There's a fairly common trig problem revolving around a boat in a harbor and tides. The boat needs a certain depth in order to leave the harbor and you are given some information about certain depths at high tide and low tide (or other times) and then you can work through trying to solve the problem. Our thoughts are that a techbook could scaffold that in a variety of ways, and a teacher could choose how much information to include.

So, for example, a new teacher that is perhaps not very comfortable yet could slide the slider all the way to the right which would basically include everything in the student version of the techbook (much like a paper textbook typically does now, laying things out in detail). This would be the "be very helpful" version of the techbook. But a more experienced teacher might slide it all the way to the left, in which case the student would simply get the video of the boat rising and falling, with some time indicators, and ask them to figure out the question and then what they need to figure out the answer. (This would be the "be less helpful" version.) The students and teacher would then explore the problem in class via guided inquiry. And there would be several gradations in between those two versions.

I don't know if that example adequately illustrates the idea or not, but I figured it was worth a shot. We thought that one of the core competencies that Discovery could bring to this is to create those scenarios/videos. Those are the type of things that individual teachers often don't have the time or the skills to create, but someone like Discovery (who perhaps could hire some really smart folks to help with this) could create some provocative prompts and then provide pedagogical suggestions for the teacher. (And then the techbook would have the capability for teachers and students to upload/link their own creations that teachers could decide to use as well - the resource would grow over time.)

This is just one small part of our mockup, there were also pieces that addressed problems, exercises, collaboration, and the social component, but I thought it might give you an idea of some of what we were thinking. Part of the difficulty in making something that is viable is that it has to meet teachers (and schools, and districts) where they are at, and sometimes that is not where those of us in the room wish they were. So the challenge is to create a techbook that leads folks in the direction that "we" feel is the correct direction, while still maintaining "backward compatibility" with those that aren't there yet. The good news, however, is that I think digital makes that possible. I think it's possible to make an inquiry-based, technologically and web-enabled mathematics techbook that also provides support for a more "traditional" approach, and then helps lead teachers (and students) in a more constructive direction. That wouldn't be feasible in print, but - given enough smart folks and some decent server space - it is definitely possible with digital.

Now it's up to Discovery to pull this off. Even if they don't, I appreciate the way they are going about it and that they're giving it a shot. I'm hopeful they will be successful.


  1. Hey Karl,
    Thanks for sharing about this learning opportunity. The two questions you asked are central to my work as a district curriculum director for the past three years and a high school math teacher the previous six. Here's my off-the-cuff response to your thoughts.

    1) Is curriculum necessary? I think Schmoker proposed that all students should have a small list of common understandings/skills. If I remember correctly, it was along the lines of...learning to read non-fiction, write in a certain way (persuasively perhaps?) and have some basic mathematical understanding. This is in sharp contrast to the laundry list of standards currently proposed at the state and federal (i.e. common 'core') levels today. I'm sure others have made claims as well, and I'm not sure where I personally land on this issue.

    2) What is the purpose of a textbook? My answer to this question is much different now than it was three years ago. To a high school math teacher, a book might serve in one or more of the following capacity: assist in sequencing instruction, problem sets, and pedagogical snippets. In other words, a high school math teacher _could_ figure out his/her own sequence of instruction, come up with problems and through action research discern effective ways to teach the content. On the flip side, the same teacher could do very little thinking on his/her own time and utilize all of the publisher's resources. Here's where I think it can get tricky...I think the game changes a bit depending on the teaching load. For example, as a high school math teacher I had a maximum of three different classes to prep each day. A guy or gal in a different zip code might have as many as six classes to prep each day in a small school. I'm not suggesting it would be effective for him/her to fully rely on a textbook, but as a first year teacher, it sure does sound like an effective way to survive the school year. :) I now see elementary teachers in action and wonder if it is reasonable to expect them to create lessons for math, social studies, health, science, reading, etc. from scratch each day rather than relying on publisher materials.

    Again, I'm not advocating that relying on publisher-provided materials is the answer to improving the current state of our educational system, but instead throwing out some of my observations at the district level which may or may not help you and others think through these two important questions.

    1. Thanks Matt.

      1) I would think that's a pretty essential question you have to consider as a district curriculum director :-). I'm leaning more and more in that direction, that after some truly basic, essential skills, everything else doesn't have to be standardized. I'm not sure we could ever agree on what those skills are but I would think it would be shorter than the preface to the CCSS.

      2) I would love to hear how your answer has changed in the last three years. How and why has it changed? Is it based on content (now that you're seeing more than just math), or level (now that you're seeing more than just high school), or what exactly?

      I agree that elementary teachers bear a much harder burden in regards to preps, and planning, and difficulty of their job. And I'm not just saying that because my wife is a first grade teacher! As I relayed your comment to her, her response was that as an experienced elementary school teacher she does not need a "textbook" or rely on publisher's materials. She does rely on lots of materials, from lots of publishers, but doesn't require one source to lay everything out. When I asked if that was true when she first started (or for new teachers in general), she responded that that would be difficult. What I wonder is if we can change our processes in such a way that new teachers wouldn't feel overwhelmed by this if paired with experienced mentor teachers. Not sure exactly how that might look, but I guess I'm not willing to say that we have to "dumb down" (my words, not yours) our expectations of less experienced teachers.

      In the end I think so much of this comes back to basic assumptions we are making. If we didn't have this laundry list of standards that we had to cover, and the expectation that all kids needed to learn the same thing at the same time, I think that would relieve teachers of some of the burden they currently have. On the other hand, I think it would also be much, much harder in other ways, but perhaps much, much more useful for our students.

  2. I think, the 'slider' for digital textbooks mentioned in this post is not a good idea because it limits the scope of student knowledge exploration to teachers' competence.

  3. I thought the idea of a textbook is a great idea. Math was and is my worst subject. I can't help but think that this might be just what is needed to help students who might not be so good at math. I can see where it would be helpful in every subject. I may have misunderstood, but more information, or different types of examples could be provided that would be helpful to a student that might not be as strong in that particular subject. Thank-you for sharing.

  4. I think a way of learning that works with each student at this or her own pace is what our education world needs. I know so many times when classmates would be behind while some were working ahead. This is frustrating to all involved including the teacher. I would love for Discovery to come out with a digital way to work with each student and allow the teacher to keep track of that. Math is a big subject that has a full range of students. All subjects are not learned at the same pace and this is a large problem with our educational system. Thanks for the post and sparking some ideas!