Textbooks aside, making room for more critical thinkers!

Published by Inés Vañó García on


Photo by Sarah Ross: http://bit.ly/2zvRfqV

Critical thinkers are not born, critical thinkers are made. As I discussed in my previous blog, we really need to go beyond motivation and engagement (also essential and necessary factors) to give students the necessary tools to become active critical thinkers. However, we must also be realistic. We are not going to succeed overnight, and we must be aware that we will encounter many challenges and obstacles during the process. However, as critical thinker guides, I strongly believe that we are able to train and develop our teaching strategies to overcome any difficulties that may arise.

Here, I would like to address how the teaching and learning materials sometimes required by the department for our class(es) are not always on our side. By this I mean that occasionally we are required to teach a course with a textbook or a manual that does not meet the needs and expectations of the students or the instructor. This may be because the content is presented in a superficial and faulty manner, and the activities included are inadequate or even counter-productive to students’ learning goals. However, publishing companies such as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw Hill  seem to keep designing, producing and selling millions of books to undergraduates, and in this way dominating the educational content.

One of the foremost issues is affordability. In elementary and intermediate language classes, which I have regularly been teaching and am more familiar with, a textbook is required by the department. The argument is that given the amount of sections for each different level, it is important to make sure that the instructors cover the same material and students have the basic and necessary skills to move to the following level. I am guessing that this same argument is used in many other survey courses. Nowadays, it seems that the textbook that students buy is usable for two semesters – which seems ideal until you realize that the price of the textbook could rise to $200 (or beyond).

“Books” by Chris Bancroft: http://bit.ly/2ApZbqX

Publishing companies have arranged a multiplicity of available options and packages (for example, this one): hardcover format, loose-leaf format, and a digital online format, where accessibility also surfaces as a challenge since an Internet connection is necessary in order to access the material. Wait! So these prices can be justified by the extra digital material that accompanies the book, right? We are not talking just about the textbook itself. The package allows students’ access to extra digital components, such as assignments, videos, audios, online workbook, gradebook, and other multiple tools. But do we instructors and teachers really use all this? The majority of teachers don’t even know about their existence. I want to clarify that I am not against the use of technology in the classroom, quite the opposite, but let’s step back and think: for what purpose and at what cost are instructors and students acquiring these materials?

The technology era has allowed for the possibility to arrange the same material on a new platform, digitally, but these packages offer the exact same, old paper workbook (or Student Activity Manual) at the moderate price of $135. Of course, printed editions/versions are not available anymore and students require the access code to be able to register for the class in order to complete the homework assigned, and receive a grade for their performance. What is the difference between the old technology, pen and paper, and the new one, the online version? Price. There have been little to no changes to the content and pedagogical approaches to language instruction. Instructors often focus on teaching basis communicative skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing), reflecting upon the implicit and explicit linguistic knowledge of the language itself, with a multiplicity of approaches that covers grammar, vocabulary, and culture.

There are several ways of dealing with these issues if you are not in a position to change the textbook policies in your department:

  1. You can instruct students to buy previous editions of the textbook, which usually are cheaper than the brand new ones.
  2. If the textbook is not critical in nature, make sure to challenge the superficial content reading, analyzing and criticizing the text(s).
  3. If you are dealing with a more practical (hands-on) type of textbook, such as the language ones, there is always the possibility of adding the critical aspect to the different tasks. Yes, it is harder than just following the syllabus handed to you, and it is also time consuming, but changes take time and effort.

    Photo by Kristina Alexanderson: http://bit.ly/2zN6QDp

Remember that you are not alone. As instructors, we must open our minds, think outsidethe box (or, in this case, the textbook), and start communicating and collaborating. In order to improve, we need to share, in order to advance we must collaborate. It is time, we are already late, so let’s start a conversation about Open Educational Resources.


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