Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A case for textbooks and survey courses

In my previous post (below), I argue that for many students, not just those on the autistic spectrum, the best way to present material is in a systematic, structured fashion.

For many students, information is not only best absorbed this way, but also, I suspect, best remembered. For the stability of our long term memories may depend in part on how well-organized they are in the first place--i.e., on how incoming memories are initially “slotted” with respect to existing and future memories--and on whether we end up having to shuffle our existing memories around later on (creating interference-like effects?) in order to organize them better with respect to future information.

Optimizing such slotting, especially vis a vis future memories, depends not only on structuring incoming information with respect to previous information in a way that is explicitly clear (i.e., building logically upon what’s come before), but on conveying ahead of time what the big picture, or the overall organization, looks like (especially in subjects where this is less predictable--for example history as opposed to math).

In practice, this is an argument not only for textbooks (ones with well-organized, linearly structured material), but for broad outlines and survey courses. That is, for starting a subject--say history--with structured, generalized information that allows you to internalize the big picture and create slots for incrementally more specific information that, in turn, is itself presented initially in outline or survey form. It’s a kind of breadth-first tree-creation process, where the biggest branches--those closest to the root--are created first, and then each “subtree” is begun, recursively, in the same fashion.

The only problem is that, just like the use of the structured information of textbooks, and the emphasis on richly interconnected networks of facts in the first place, introducing subjects via survey courses is completely out of fashion.


John said...

I mean this non-sarcastically, with appreciation for the thought you put into this post.

It saddens me that something so blindingly obvious has to be advocated for :(

(ie, I know you are capable of deeper insight and often demonstrate it, but due to a societal failing, you have to ratchet back to advocate "lets not train our neurons on noise", not that I am accusing you of being obvious.)

Barry Garelick said...

Notwithstanding the sarcastic elements of John's supposedly non-sarcastic comment, Brookings has released a report that indicates that instructional materials play a significant role, but that there is not much research to support instructional methods. The report is a call for such research to be done. See here for the report.

Catherine Johnson said...

I agree completely.

Based in my own classroom experience, my students fare best when I can give them a 'big picture' overview (not easy to do - and almost impossible when your curriculum is Google) followed by step-by-step learning and practice of the particulars.

No one can remember random factoids.

To remember knowledge and information, we need a schema.

Catherine Johnson said...

We need field-tested, expert-vetted textbooks, assignments, and practice materials.

Catherine Johnson said...

What do you know?

from the Brookings report Barry linked to:

"There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. But whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick."

Anonymous said...

So very true. Algebra textbooks in the '60's were small but excellent. Geometry textbooks were not much bigger, but excellent. All the teacher had to do was teach from the teacher's manual, assign homework from the textbook, and (I assume) use assessments created by the textbook authors.

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, you took the words out of mouth. I was going to comment on the difference between "big-picture" and "little-picture."

Among other things, this is a personality type. I happen to be a big-picture person: I can't even begin to process details until I have a frame to fit them into.

momof4 said...

This approach is fundamental to the classical curriculum of Wise and Bauer (Bauer and Wise?). Twelve years divided into 3 time-sequences of 4 years (ancient, medieval, early modern and late modern) drive the history, ELA, geography etc and the science sequence follows (biology, chemistry,physics, space, if I remember right). The first four years is the grammmar stage; learning the vocabulary and fundamentals of each discipline, followed by 4 years of the logic stage, where more and deeper information is attached to the framework and stress is laid upon making connections. At the HS level, kids enter the rhetoric stage, where they not only add much more deep and complex material but are expected to construct and defend arguments, supported by facts. They are taught the fundamental structure from the beginning and each stage builds upon it. The approach has been used at least since the Greeks.