About five years ago, I went on a rant on my other blog:
I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/
Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.
I’m not going to excerpt the entire rant, but on reflection, it is certainly true that I was on a roll:
And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/
In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.
Five years down the line, my opinion on textbooks haven’t changed all that much. I still cringe when students in courses I am teaching ask me for “a” recommended textbook to “prepare for the examination”.
They’re being quite rational from their perspective: they want to maximize marks while minimizing effort. Their microeconomics professor would be proud. My problem lies beyond their request, and beyond their rationality in having framed their request the way they have. They are simply responding to the environment we’ve placed them in, and it is the environment that I have (serious) issues with.
And the textbook authors are responding to their incentives, in turn. If we accept the educational system as it currently exists, then of course we should have chapters, and end-of-chapter problems, and question banks, and answer keys supplied to accredited professors. It has become an industrial complex, for all the participants respond, rationally, to the incentives the educational system has set up for them.
And so it goes, year after dreary year.
And then you see something like this in the introduction of a text:
I strongly recommend and encourage the use of various texts (books, journal articles, government reports, fiction, newspaper articles and textbooks) in the teaching of any course in economics. This stems from my rather modest experience of just over 15 years as a student and teacher of economics. While the use of varied texts is challenging for both the teacher and the student, I firmly believe that the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term costs, and that it truly contributes to good learning as it enables the students to become better arbiters of knowledge. After all, we live in the age of information abundance, and perhaps the most valuable skills are the ability to identify credible sources of information and the ability to evaluate, with sufficient confidence, contending arguments, perspectives and standpoints.Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas
In other words, this is a textbook that is not looking to minimize the efforts of either the teacher or the student. The very opposite, in fact. As Alex says, he is looking to maximize the long term benefits (one might call this “learning”). Not the short term benefits, note (one might call this “marks”).
And it gets better!
Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualise and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little bit about the gaps between theory and data, and, occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought. Therefore, this book aims to provide you with an introductory) immersive experience in macroeconomics.Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas
Why do I say it gets better? From another of my blogposts, also written five years ago:
In examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/the-growing-irrelevance-of-examinations/
So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.
But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.
I’m happy to spell this out as many times as it takes: you attend a course in order to learn. A way to check how much you’ve learnt is to write an examination.
Somewhere along the way, this has mutated into: you attend a course in order to score marks in an examination so that you get a job/get into a better college.
“Jo kuch ratta maara tha, sab saala pel ke aa gaya, aur doosre din bhool gaya” is funny because it’s true.
So, in a standardized, run of the mill course, this textbook is a nightmare. No end of chapter problems, no question bank, and (the horror!) literary references and (shudder!) poems instead.
Which, of course, is exactly why I can’t wait to read it. I’m done with the first chapter, and will put up my thoughts about it soon. There’s a lot that I love about it, some things that I have questions about, and some areas of disagreements.
But if I’ve understood the spirit in which the book has been written, I think Alex M. Thomas will count my experience thus far as a success.