Textbooks: Not a bad word

Published on March 16, 2021

by Rachel Collishaw

In some educational circles “textbook” has become a bit of a bad word. Teachers are encouraged to #DitchThatTextbook and create lessons and teach students from content freely available on the internet. Online resources are excellent for introducing students to a variety of resources, and engage students in learning. Ditching the textbook can work well in some subjects, like language arts, music or even some topics in math and science, where the content is less context-dependent. A video produced in California about mitosis is likely going to be as useful for a science teacher in Saskatchewan or Ontario as the teacher in California. A civics video produced in California is pretty unlikely to be so useful in Canadian social studies classrooms. In addition to being inappropriate for the context, online resources may be racist or contain misinformation. Textbooks are reviewed and vetted to reflect multiple viewpoints and experiences at least to the standard of the provincial curriculum. No such vetting exists in many online spaces. The question of how, when, and what kinds of textbooks to use in the history classroom is much more complicated than a hashtag.

Newer teachers, or teachers given new content to teach can feel judged by their peers or administration if they ask for a textbook to help them do their job. In an episode of The Staff Room, a podcast by Ontario middle school teachers, hosts Chey and Pav discuss the “stigma and judgement that is attached to using textbooks in the classrooms. Teachers are hesitant to admit that they find value in textbooks because it has become “unsexy” to use them in classroom teaching.”

Not only are textbooks perceived to be associated with outdated pedagogy, they can be expensive. Money for textbooks can be cut from school or district budgets without input from teachers. The last time there was serious provincial funding of textbooks in Ontario was in 1999, when the internet was in its infancy. Without broad provincial funding for textbooks, individual schools or boards are on their own to decide if and what resources to buy. Teachers are not often part of the decision-making process. Even if they are, the judgement of their peers, perceived or otherwise, can prevent them from advocating for purchasing textbooks. The result is that one school might have new inquiry-based history textbooks, another might have decades-old textbooks that are falling apart and are not aligned with the current curriculum, and yet another might have no textbooks at all. All kinds of circumstances beyond individual teachers’ control can lead to situations where textbooks are further stigmatized because the only ones available are outdated and unusable.

When I began my teaching career, I had a certain level of disdain for the practice of “teaching from the text” and I vowed I would never be one of those teachers. However, every time I was assigned a new course that I had little or no background in, I found myself relying on whatever textbook was available to help me make sense of the material before I could begin to engage my students. Some textbooks were better than others, but staring at a full semester of teaching hundreds or thousands of years of history that I didn’t know, those textbooks became very important to my survival.

A textbook can be a great tool. It can be used judiciously to launch inquiries or explain the structure of a discipline. Like any tool, it can be well-designed or not, it can be outdated or not, but it should not be discarded as a whole category of tool. Textbooks can have well-constructed content and pedagogy that helps both students and teachers learn. I've learned a lot of great pedagogical strategies from textbooks that I've used, like Canadian Sources Investigated or Adventures in World History. They include fantastic primary sources, great inquiry questions, and the literacy support many students need to engage with the content in meaningful ways.

Over the last few decades, social studies and history teachers have had access to increasingly dwindling subject-specific professional learning. With provinces focused on math and literacy, teachers have been left to their own devices. PD events like the Historical Thinking Summer Institute or provincial subject association conferences attract enthusiastic teachers who participate largely on their own time and at their own expense. While these opportunities are essential, the vast majority of social studies teachers do not attend these events. While great strides have been made in more widespread adoption of historical thinking and inquiry learning into curriculum and teacher education, there remains a serious gap in teacher professional learning, particularly in history and social studies. A well-designed textbook can provide much-needed professional learning support to history teachers trying to create meaningful inquiry lessons for their students in challenging circumstances. Textbooks that include engaging inquiry questions, meaningful pedagogy, and a wealth of well-selected primary sources can make a big difference.

I’m a creative teacher, I love to build lessons, but really, I don’t have the time or resources to build dozens of primary source document sets from archival materials with critical questions that are curriculum-linked, mindful of time constraints and literacy levels, balanced, accessible, representative and inclusive of different perspectives and engaging for my students. Textbooks that reflect these goals are desperately needed across Canada.

I have been fortunate to work on some well-designed textbooks and I am particularly proud of History Uncovered, which has been approved for use in both Ontario and British Columbia.  Writing a textbook presents an exciting opportunity for history teachers, history pedagogical experts, and historians to work together to bridge practice and research, both in current history scholarship and current pedagogical research.


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