Textbooks, content, and the journey

Text books were once written to serve dual purposes. The first and primary purpose was for use during a course by a student. The second and secondary purpose was as a reference text after the class had ended. This second purpose meant that texts often included more material than the course with the intent that the text would be comprehensive as reference material long after the course was over.

That second use of texts, however, is arguably a relic of history now. Post-course today one turns first to the Internet for further information on a topic, not one's collection of college texts. This second purpose of the texts which drove texts to be overly comprehensive with a detailed index is no longer present. 

Another reason texts tended to bloat in terms of material relative to one term was the need for one text to serve many different instructors in many different institutions. Each instructor had their own preferences on how to focus and guide the course.

Web based materials, however, turn an individual instructor into a publisher. These texts can be more tightly focused on the course material and do not need to serve a post-course subject comprehensive encyclopedic function. Even when, as I do, the text is printed out, it is a fraction of the size and heft of a typical multi-hundred page text. This is especially true in physical science where commercial texts attempt to cover every single physical science. I refer to these as "a thousand facts in 45 days."

I argue that student's come out of reading such a text with the impression that science is a collection of stated facts, memorized information, taken essentially on faith as one cannot possibly due the thousands of experiments that underlie the facts. I also do not subscribe to the idea that one can do a few experiments to show the validity of a few facts and then ask that the rest be taken on faith.

Science as a field does not take anything on faith, why should we ask that of our students? In exercise sport science we learn of muscle specific responses. Only the muscles you work out get stronger, hence weakness can develop in unused muscles even in top athletes unless they engage in cross-training and strength training. Only the facts that are shown experientially can be taken as cognitively apprehended.

Large science texts play into the science-as-faith misconception and the confusion that then results later in life.

My own texts would be seen as deficient by the old paradigm, I see them as course companions, guidebooks to a journey through the course on which I am the guide and adventure facilitator. I happen to know where the trails are, where the pits and pitfalls are along the road. And I might occasionally help a student see a new vista on the journey.

If you see a course as knowledge transfer leading to a pile of acquired knowledge at the end of the course, then you will be unhappy with my approach. I am keenly aware that students will remember little to nothing ten years after the course. How much algebra do you remember? Yet we can all remember trips we took, places we went, decades ago. I seek to tap the latter, engaging in a journey. In physical science the trip centers on specific conceptual threads - the experimental process, the mathematical models that provide predictability, and writing. 

Ethnobotany is a more physical experience with frequent hikes, walks, and field trips coupled with student presentations.

Just as a guide book is not a "coffee table picture book," so should a modern text book for a course be more of the former and less of latter. More a light weight guide that facilitates exploration rather than being such a massive text edifice that it impedes that exploration. Look at a modern science text - would you really take that with you on a vacation to the western Pacific? Build a text that small and light, that the students will actually use and carry to class daily. One that they are invited to write in while on their journey.

At the end of the term my student's text book should look like a tattered and torn guide book that has taken the student to places they have never been. Should they one day decide to revisit the countries - the fields of knowledge - to which I have taken them through during the term, there is always the Internet.

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