1. The Idea

Ever since the dawn of the factory-model school, textbooks have been the primary way that information is delivered from teachers to students, and they’ve been

  • developed by a committee of experts
  • published (usually in print) as a large, static document
  • filled with pre-distilled knowledge (vetted and distilled by those experts) which non-expert learners are expected to acquire from the book itself and the supplementary resources that accompany it.

Textbooks worked well in the 20th century, but not anymore … and students hate them.  What would happen if we completely inverted the 20th-century notion of a textbook?

2. The Problem

Everyone has heard and made complaints about textbooks.  They’re large, they’re boring, they’re hard to carry, they’re too easy (too hard) to read, they have too much (too little) information, the information is outdated or incorrect but can’t be changed until the next edition comes out … and even when the next edition comes out, how will the cash-strapped school district afford to buy it?  Those are important concerns, but  they’re symptoms of a deeper problem: as a tool for teaching and learning, the textbook was the perfect 20th-century solution.  It was built for a world where knowledge changed slowly, and where large organizations (which also changed slowly) were able to codify their own factual and procedural requirements in printed manuals.  By using textbooks, students were preparing for the printed (hardbound!) policy and procedure manuals they’d experience on the job.  And, of course, they usually planned to work for the same large organization, progressing slowly up a pre-defined ladder of responsibilities and pay raises, until they finally retired (with a defined-benefit retirement plan) and “enjoyed life” for a few golden years.

But those days are gone, gone, gone, and textbooks now prepare students perfectly … for a world that no longer exists.  They embody pedagogy and practices that are as counterproductive today as they were helpful in 1960, 1970, or 1980.

3. How does this idea solve the problem?

With the Tres Columnae Project, we’re rethinking everything about the textbook, from who makes it to how it’s used.

  • While they can be printed, our materials are designed to be used online, where changes and updates can be made easily and quickly.  We assume – and build for – a rapidly-changing world.  No heavy books!
  • Instead of a committee of experts, there’s a community of teachers and learners who create (and edit and update) the learning materials for each other.  Our subscribers are licensed to use, reuse, adapt, and remix our “stuff” as long as they contribute their creations back to the project … and as soon as their creations meet our clearly-stated quality standards, we’ll publish them on the site for other community members to use, enjoy, and remix in turn.  No more “too hard” or “too easy” or “too much” or “too little” – if it doesn’t work for you, make something that does and share it with others.
  • We provide the raw materials and some preliminary explanations and a lot of guidance and support, but we expect our learners to create and refine their knowledge, skills, and understandings, in the terms of my friends at the National Paideia Center.  No pre-packaged knowledge!
  • Since learners are no longer passive, they actively join a joyful learning community where they build something meaningful together.  No more boredom!
  • We think we’ll prepare both learners and teachers well for the new world where community is vital, where problems don’t have clear-cut answers, and where everything changes rapidly.  No more obsolete pedagogy or practices!

4. Why do I want to fix the problem?

It’s simple, really.  I love teaching and learning, and I love working with young people, helping them become the kinds of people they want and need to be.  I also love helping them build learning communities, even though it’s hard, painful work in 20th-century, factory-model schools.  I love building meaningful things, which is much easier to do together (in a joyful learning community) than in isolation.  Plus, my students hate textbooks, and they’d been crying out for something better – along with many teachers I know.

So the problem was clear, and there was a path to a solution, and it wasn’t that hard to start.  In the words of a famous Latin proverb, “aut viam inveniam aut faciam” – I’ll either find a way or make one.  But it’s a lot better when it’s we, not just I.