PSA: The Case For Textbooks

The following is a public service announcement about textbooks.

In recent years, schools have been shifting away from traditional, paper textbooks. Some schools have switched to electronic textbooks on the students’ school-issued tablets, some have switched to online textbooks, and some have scrapped textbooks entirely.

Some schools are doing this to save money, while others are doing this because they believe electronic resources and handouts are better than traditional textbooks. No one has made this shift with ill intentions, but, whatever the reason, the outcome is always the same: Learning suffers.

First, I’ll make the case for textbooks in general, and then I’ll explain why we here at Northwest Educational Services believe that traditional paper textbooks are superior to electronic textbooks. But before we get into it, I want to make it clear that we aren’t a collection of luddites railing against electronic resources, and we are well aware that the modern world abounds with useful resources other than textbooks.

Okay, so, given that the previous statement is true, why do we still need textbooks? Well, we don’t need them, actually. They’re just really helpful. In that vein, we also don’t need grocery bags. We could take our groceries from the cart and put the items one at a time into our cars, and then remove the items one at a time when we get home. We could do this. But of course we don’t because it’s terribly inefficient. Likewise, searching the internet for what you need rather than pulling the information from a textbook is usually very slow.

The information superhighway, as the internet was called back in the ‘90s, is, of course, very fast. And if you want something simple, like the formula for the area of a triangle, Google will tell you instantly. But for anything more complicated or less commonplace, textbooks are faster. The reason for this is that searching the internet requires that you discern what is relevant from all of the rest of the information that pops up when you search for your topic.

The filtering process is often tedious and frustrating. The textbook, by contrast, will contain a much narrower set of information, one that is age-appropriate and aligned with your particular class, not to mention edited and fact-checked to a far greater extent than most things on the internet. The filtering has been done for you.

When you do a Google search for the information you need, you sometimes find versions of the content that are incomplete, inaccurate, or biased, but the most common issue is actually finding versions that are too advanced and excessively detailed. For example, if you’re a high school biology student learning about genetics, and you do a Google search for that, you’re likely to find articles that present the content at a college level. The explanations and the diagrams will contain far more detail and far more advanced vocabulary than you’re currently required to learn. A biology textbook issued by your teacher, on the other hand, will offer exactly as much information as you need right now.

Furthermore, the familiar structure of a good textbook is very helpful to both learning and efficiency. The glossary and appendix make quick references, and the index lets you quickly look up what you need to find in the text. The chapter summaries offer a chance to review the main ideas, and the chapter quizzes provide ready-made practice tests. The table of contents – and simply having the whole book all year long – make it easy to review old content as well as preview what’s coming next.

When students just have handouts with the homework, and perhaps whatever notes they’ve taken in class, they’re missing quite a bit. Let’s use math as an example. When you’re working out of a good textbook, and you’ve got a set of problems to do for homework, the explanations for how to do those problems and several worked examples will be offered on the preceding pages. This is especially helpful if you’ve misunderstood the lecture, if you were distracted in class, or if you happened to miss school when the content was taught. Students today can, if they so choose, go watch relevant videos on Khan Academy, but because this is much harder than just flipping a page or two back in the textbook, few students do it. So when there’s no textbook, math students are much more likely to give up on confusing homework and fall behind.

The AP Calculus Class with no Textbook and Other Horror Stories

There is at least one Seattle high school, which shall remain nameless here, that is teaching AP Calculus without a textbook; everything is presented through handouts. AP Calculus is hard enough as it is. The absurdity of teaching it without a textbook is mindboggling. If there was ever a class that needed a good resource to help students walk the mastery path, Calculus would be it.

That same school is teaching George Orwell’s 1984 in their senior English class. But the school doesn’t have enough copies for all the students to take home, so they’re spending class time listening to the audio book. This struck me as crazy, and as far as I know, the students haven’t been encouraged to find a cheap, used copy on Amazon or check one out from the public library. Furthermore, it seems like a poor use of class time and a poor use of an English teacher who, rather than hitting play on an audiobook, could, you know, teach. Please don’t mistake this as me judging that teacher. I’m sure he is doing the best he can with his limited resources. Instead, I’m criticizing the school, the district, those who vote against school funding, and all the misguided mindsets that make this situation possible. We can do better.

Bad Textbooks

Sometimes you are given a textbook, but it is not a particularly helpful one. The best (worst?) example of this is Discovering Geometry, the textbook used by Seattle public high schools and at least one local private school. This particular textbook is designed to be exploratory; it encourages students to discover the theorems and formulas of geometry on their own through guided exercises. There is, to be sure, some value in this approach, and if the text also offered actual information, it would be an excellent resource. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, so most students are understandably at a loss for how to use the book to find information. Here’s a link to buy a $9 used copy of a much better Geometry textbook.

Electronic vs. Paper

Here’s something we witness all the time in our office:

The student’s goal for the session requires a textbook, but the school doesn’t issue a physical copy. So the student has to get access to the online textbook. This requires that the student login to Schoology, which is itself a three-or-four-step process, go to the Schoology page for the particular class we’re interested in, find the correct link to click to be sent to the online textbook’s webpage, enter the login for the textbook on that page, and then, finally, seek out the right section within the online textbook.

If that sounds a great deal harder than just pulling a book out of your backpack and opening it up, that’s because it is. Students often struggle to find the Schoology page, struggle to remember their Schoology password, struggle to find the correct link from within Schoology to get access to the textbook, and then struggle to remember the other password that gets them into the textbook.

Now, if everything goes well, it takes only a couple minutes longer than pulling a physical book out of a backpack. But usually, it takes at least five minutes longer. Those extra minutes might not seem like much, but they’re actually a big deal. Why? Because students already don’t want to open their textbooks, do their reading, do their homework, or study, and every extra step, every extra bit of tediousness that we introduce into the process, makes it less likely to get done at all. Even making something just 20 seconds less convenient to do makes us less likely to do it.1

The very fact that we make it this difficult to do something as basic as opening a textbook is outrageous. This is a clear example of making school harder than it needs to be, and this time, it’s the schools rather than the students who are guilty.

Of course, many students have the pages bookmarked and their logins stored, or their school-issued tablet already has the books loaded. This is better, but the electronic textbooks still prove to be slower. Despite cool features like a search bar and the ability to enter a page number and go straight there, I’ve yet to see a student who was better at navigating an electronic textbook than a paper one. It’s just easier to flip through the pages of a physical book. It’s easier to quickly access the table of contents, the index, and the glossary without losing your place. You can bookmark key pages to remind for quick access. You can put sticky notes in the book to remind yourself to revisit certain pages.

Many of the tablet/laptop schools also require that you complete your homework on the computer screen rather than on paper. A major drawback to this system is that, because your electronic textbooks can only be seen on that same computer screen, you can’t have both open at once. If you want to use the electronic textbook to help you with your homework, you have to constantly go back and forth between the two apps or the two windows that you need to have open, and you can never look at both at the same time. And switching back and forth usually takes three clicks and 30 seconds of lag time.

Because this is so tedious and inefficient, it trains you to not use your textbook and thus harms learning. These schools want students to use their textbooks, but the system they’re using actively discourages that behavior.

By contrast, the classic, tech-free setup allows you to have both your homework and your book out and on the desk simultaneously. You can efficiently look from one to the other without any wasted time.


Perhaps worse than the extra time it takes to access and navigate an electronic textbook is the insidious issue of distractions.

We’d be lying to ourselves if we said that students have no issue dealing with the myriad of distractions that can be accessed through computers and tablets. If you have to access your textbook through your computer or tablet, then you have to actively resist the temptation to check email, go on social media, watch videos, or play games because all of those things are just a click away. This is hard for almost everyone, but it’s especially hard for students with ADD and ADHD.

Asking students to study using a computer is the equivalent of asking them to eat salad while there’s cake on the table.

When we intend to eat salad first and cake later, we put the cake out of sight so it’s easier to do what we’re supposed to do.

One student I’ve worked with who uses a tablet-based textbook has video game notifications and ESPN updates constantly popping up onto the screen while we’re using his tablet to do homework. He’s actually very good at staying on task when this happens, at least when he’s working at my side. I suspect it’s a different story at home. And, in any case, every time this happens, a little bit of attention is taken away from the task at hand, and as a result, productivity slows down and learning suffers. As Brian Johnson says, we’ve got to stop “paper-cutting ourselves with distractions.”

To get a better sense of how distractions harm learning and why they’re so insidious, please check out this video which offers a quick look at Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Yes, computers are very useful, and yes, they’re here to stay. But we force kids to wrestle with all the temptations computers have to offer long before the students’ minds are developed enough to resist the pull of electronic fun. And on top of that, we don’t teach our children how to have a healthy relationship with technology and we certainly don’t model that relationship ourselves.


“I don’t have enough memory on my iPad for the textbook,” one Bishop Blanchet student told me. This was the reason he was falling behind on his homework.

On closer inspection, it turned out that he had loaded up his school-issued iPad with games. The solution was obvious: delete some of the games to free up some memory. But he was so hooked on the games that it took him another two weeks after our discussion to delete enough games to add the textbook to his tablet. At that point, he was way behind.

Many people today are addicted to their technology.2 People of all ages get hooked on social media, email, YouTube videos, TV shows, and video games, but young people are especially unprepared for the draw of these forms of entertainment. Plus, even if you don’t have any form addiction to technology, brain scan research has found that “too much screen time damages the brain.”3 Our society has yet to come to grips with this epidemic of tech-addiction, and in many cases we’re actively making it worse.

Forcing students who are prone to distraction and addiction to wade through the treacherous waters of technology each and every time they do homework is almost the equivalent of telling a recovering alcoholic that the only way he’s allowed to earn a living is by working in a bar. It’s downright cruel.


Unlike drug addiction, however, going cold-turkey with tech-addiction isn’t a realistic option.4 Total abstinence from technology would cripple your capacity to succeed in the modern world. The solutions will have to be more complicated, more nuanced. We’ll have to find ways to help students develop healthier relationships with technology and give them alternative options whenever possible.

In an effort to make it easier for students to get their hands on paper textbooks, we’ve done a little homework on which math and science textbooks are good resources for self-teaching and independent practice. You’ll find links to affordable (usually around $10) used versions of these books on our Textbooks page. If you dig around online a bit, you might even find cheaper ones. The benefits of having a real textbook far outweigh the costs.

Parents Can Speak Up

Hopping online to find a cheap, used textbook is a good, pragmatic solution for the here and now. But we also need to look to the future. Year after year, paper textbooks are falling more and more out of fashion, and because of this, students are suffering. We can do better.

Nothing is going to change unless people speak up. This is a call to action for parents to ask schools to return to traditional, paper textbooks. Whether your child attends public school or private, you have leverage; you have a voice. You can call your school’s principle, speak with your students’ teachers, write a letter to the school district’s superintendent, or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If enough people demand change, change will come.

1 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

2 Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Press, 2017.

3 Dunckley, Victoria L., M.D. “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain: Neuroimaging research shows excessive screen time damages the brain.” Psychology Today. February 27, 2014.

4 Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, 2015.

Image Credit

Title Image: Welling, Ashley. Text added.

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