For the first few years of my education, my parents used an off-the-shelf, pre-packaged curriculum that relied heavily on textbooks. It was an attractive way to begin homeschooling, since a lot of the work was already done. After a few years, however, they decided that these textbooks were less than helpful, and began compiling their own more flexible curriculum. History lessons, for example, stopped being provided by a single textbook but were instead reading assignments from multiple books.
Now that my wife and I are expecting our first child, we’re talking about how we plan on educating him. Here are four reasons why we plan on skipping over textbooks.
- Textbooks are Boring
Most textbooks are written by professional writers; usually writers with the minimum acceptable credentials who also provided the lowest bid. These are staff writers, given writing assignments by editors with educational degrees… who are employed by publishers trying to create books that are part of a curriculum package that can be sold in bulk to schools, or in some cases, to homeschoolers.
This means that the material in the textbooks is written by people trying to hit exact word counts on a list of various topics, rather than by people who are passionate about their subjects, trying to explain them fully. It also means that the end product is usually made up of fragmented sections that are only unified by how dry and boring they are.
While everyone has subjects that they may not be interested in, and books that they have to work harder to read than others, truly boring books are inexcusable – for several reasons. First of all, young readers pick up on the idea that reading is dull, that educational books are dreary in general, and that the individual subjects are boring.
It’s hard to develop a true love of math or science if your only exposure to it is in the formulaic explanations of how to pass the next test. It’s easy to develop a hatred of history when all the stories of men and women experiencing the providential hand of God in tales of battle, exploration, and discovery have been reduced to mere lists of names and dates carefully spaced by study unit.
- Textbooks Assume that All Students are the Same
Within a single family, many different personality types and interests will emerge from different children. None of my siblings and I were really interested in the same things, and our parents had to come up with creative ways to engage our minds with the different subjects and teach us how to learn.
I was the most bookish and genuinely enjoyed reading, but my textbooks sucked the fun out almost any subject that I was reading about on my own. I loved biographies but hated history. I loved learning about animals but hated science. Other siblings had other struggles and other interests, and the fact that our parents dropped the textbooks and began giving us customized reading assignments from real books helped all of us to learn to enjoy reading, and ultimately to love learning.
Textbooks are generally written around regimented school years and carefully delineated lesson plans. Even if a child’s imagination is sparked by a chapter on Benjamin Franklin’s kite, there isn’t much time to spend reading additional books on his inventions or experiences if you want to keep up with a particular curriculum’s reading plan.
As children find areas of curiosity, parents need to be flexible enough to help their children pursue them. Unfortunately, most pre-packaged lesson plans don’t allow for that kind of flexibility, because textbook publishers are trying to provide a one-size-fits-all solution.
- Textbooks Teach the Wrong Lessons about Learning
In addition to teaching children that these various school subjects are boring, a reliance on textbooks will also communicate the idea that learning comes in the form of bite-sized summaries from a single book written by professional educators. Students can be learning to research and study from multiple sources at young ages, and to mentally assemble facts and conclusions from different perspectives. As we prepare our children for the future, these are the skills they will really need.
Students need to learn that they will have to keep studying and keep learning even after they have stopped being “students.” They need to learn how to find and use source documents, not just pre-packaged summaries. Textbook publishers point out that this decade’s history textbooks are better than the last decade, not necessarily because of new research, but because of new interpretations, teaching students that all new ideas are better than old ideas.
- Textbooks Can be Dangerous
This is a hotly debated subject at the moment. Proponents and opponents of Common Core Standards are arguing over whether creationism can be mentioned in the science textbooks used by Texas charter schools, but historical revisionism is a much larger problem than the ubiquitous presence of evolutionism. Part of the issue stems from the limited space that a textbook has to cover the vast sweep of history, but this doesn’t prevent clear biases from emerging.
Modern history textbooks always find the space to mention George Washington’s slaves, even if there isn’t room for his prayers. Massachusetts educators suggest that Columbus’s navigator was a Muslim, which seems plausible until you read about 15th century Spain in books by real historians. The late Howard Zinn, an early Communist Party member, was even more overt his attacks on Christianity and American freedoms, and he produced the most widely read textbooks on history.
Obviously, not all textbooks will be as clearly opposed to a God-honoring worldview, but the pre-packaged simplification of ideology can teach wrong ideas even by accident. As parents, we need to be even more flexible in adjusting our lesson plans for teaching discernment than we are in adjusting them to teach facts.