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Form vs. Function in Ed Psych Textbooks

Posted By: Kelvin Seifert on November 28, 2008
Thank you, Dr. Woolfolk, for reminding us of our best intentions when using ed psych textbooks with preservice teachers. Your statement of a textbook's purposes is especially eloquent. You have, however, glossed over the very serious problems associated with textbooks in teacher education. You deal with these briefly in the last paragraph of your essay by attempting to distinguish between textbooks and their uses (or more accurately, their "misuses").

But the distinction between a tool and its use is misleading. In principle a textbook (such as your own, for example) can indeed be used as a springboard for students' social construction of knowledge about teaching and learning. In practice, however, the presence of a text, not the prose within it, tends to position students' constructions not as self-constructed knowledge, but as self-constructed beliefs, perspectives, or philosophies. The text itself retains a near-monopoly on "truth"--at least when used in the context of an introductory course in the field. As such the text functions much like a "bible" of the field, and produces a similar range of reactions as do bibles in major religions. The range is a result of nature of the tool itself combined with how it is used--not just one or the other. For some students and instructors (hopefully just a few) the response is fundamentalism (the text has a singular meaning and needs to be learned literally); for others, it is agnostism ("I don't know how any of this relates to practice"); for still others, it is atheism ("Ed psych is bunk and should be deleted from teacher education"); and for still others, it is "contextual realism" ("Let's take into account the context in which theories were proposed and research was conducted--even if much was created by people who never entered a classsroom"). The latter viewpoint seems closest to what you, as author, are advocating for using the text, except that you are calling for students to take into account their own personal and work context, not the context of how the textual material was constructed in the first place.

The other suggestions for "best practice" in using a textbook really derive from the same distinction between the tool and its use, and are questionable on similar grounds. For example: 1) Yes, instructors can indeed devise assessments that go beyond regurgitation of textbook material. Unfortunately, emphasizing higher-order critical thinking, or the importance of personal beliefs or experiences, and the like, tends to render textbooks LESS necessary, not more. 2) Yes, instructors can indeed plan courses that depart from the conventional topic-emphasis of textbooks. Unfortunately, this proposal overlooks important social and political pressures and realities of teaching introductory ed psych (e.g. university and/or government adutorities curriculum expections, certification exams in some jurisdictions (e.g. the PRAXIS in the USA), lack of training in ed psych of many ed psych instructors). 3) Yes, instructors can choose to use textbooks in non-linear fashion so as to simulate the non-linearity of thinking in many students. Unfortunately, non-linear usage (and processing) is limited as long as textbooks place words on the page in linear fashion. An instructor can of course break up the long road from Page 1 to Page 784 (the length of your current text), and instead create many shorter roads traveled in a unique sequence. But they are still roads; the words, at least in English, still progress from left to right, and from up to down.

But again, thank you for reminding us of what we hope to accomplish. If my comment had not already grown overly long, I would offer some alternatives to conventional, commercially produced textbooks that promise access to information and thought, but that might position students not only as consumers of knowledge about educational psychology, but also as producers of it.
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 Form vs. Function in Ed Psych Textbooks by Kelvin Seifert on November 28, 2008
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