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How to Use a Textbook for Deeper Learning: A lesson for our times

I always used textbooks in my classes … but never how they were intended. They were valuable for me, as the teacher, to identify the important ideas in whatever subject I was teaching. We didn’t have state standards then, so I relied on the wisdom of the experts to break big topics (Ancient History, Simple Machines, Colonial Life, Force and Motion, Grammar) into teachable chunks. The table of contents provided a map for the specific topics we would explore.

Students in my classes used textbooks the way they might use a dictionary or encyclopedia. (We didn’t have the Internet then either.) The textbook was one of many references they might use to build background knowledge about a particular topic. We never read the textbook like a novel or followed it chapter by chapter. I didn’t need one for every student in the class – just a few in our classroom library.

Most textbooks are written with the intention of providing important facts and information about a certain subject. They often include questions at the end of each chapter to assess student learning. Even if the writing was dry and pre-digested (like a mother bird chewing up the worm to feed her chicks), there were often terrific illustrations, charts, and graphs. Here’s a model for how to use the textbook effectively to promote deeper learning (complex thinking, imagination, and lasting understanding).

What’s this?

I am going to ask you to pause and do something I would probably not do myself. (I’d be anxious just to read on, as if somehow the author’s words were going to hand over some new insight.) But as in the classroom, so in the blog: the one who does the work does the learning. And the work here is not just reading but to take a few minutes to think about what this diagram is about. In a face-to-face classroom, I would ask students to write a paragraph to explain what is going on in the model. So, I’ll stop and let you ponder. . . .

If we were in class together, I’d invite you to share your “story” in triads. Then I would ask for people to nominate others in their group with particularly interesting stories to share their idea. Or they could share their own if they wanted. If you would like to see some 4th grade interpretations, check them out here. Sometimes (see the last 2 slides) I use images like this just to practice raising questions, the place where most science (and holy wonder) begins.

Now my students (and hopefully, you) have a theory as it were, a prediction, an inference, a “stake in the outcome.” You want to see if you were right. Maybe you will be more engaged when you see what this diagram is about. Check out the textbook story here.

After musing about the diagram themselves, students are more likely to be interested when they read about what is actually going on. They are also more likely to remember the information after having given their own names to the important parts of the diagram. To give something a name is to recognize that it represents an important concept or idea. That act creates a placeholder for the scientific vocabulary to replace the “character” you named in your story.

“Oh, I called those three shapes ‘thingamagigs,’ but scientists call them. . . . “

“I called those the ‘ribs,’ but biologists call them. . . .”

All I did was remove the labels from the diagram and invite students to grapple with the meaning before I showed them the answer. This grappling is one of the key elements of deeper learning (academically and spiritually!). Often we teachers, especially Americans, are prone to rescue our students when they confront challenges in learning. We tend to be too quick to step in and provide assistance. Self-efficacy and spiritual formation develop from experiences that demand perseverance and overcoming obstacles. We also learn from the stories and models of others whose growth is visible at the intersection of grace and sustained effort.

Grappling (see here for other words that represent nuances of its intent) invites students to try and make meaning, solve a problem, or engineer a design that they don’t know exactly how to do yet. They have to struggle individually; collaborate with peers; compare their solutions with other groups; debate the relevance, accuracy, or elegance of their work. The teacher observes their strategies, notes ones to highlight, asks questions, and presents new information. Perhaps most importantly, grappling fosters a growth mindset, where students develop an identity that says, “If I work hard, I can grow” rather than a fixed mindset that says, “I’m just not good at this.”

If you are going to use a textbook, look for photos, graphs, charts, etc. Remove the labels and let your students do some grappling before they receive the straight scoop. In both our cognitive and spiritual development, wrestling with meaning can deepen understanding and increase our receptivity to truth.

This article was originally published in the CACE Blog on May 5, 2020.


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