Lent, R.C. (2012). Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. [Unlimited e-Book Access provided by the NU Library.]
Reviewed by: Tim Gladson, Open Educational Resources Curator (email@example.com)
ReLeah Cossett Lent taught middle and high school English and rhetoric for over 20 years in Florida. She is a nationally-renowned author and education consultant, focusing on literacy, communities of practice, censorship, and educational leadership (see her website for more details). She has authored or co-authored 10 books since 2002, published by Heinemann, Teacher’s College Press, ASCD, and Corwin.
In Overcoming Textbook Fatigue, Lent argues that over-reliance on textbooks leads to shallow teaching and learning, teaching to tests, disengaged learners, and frustrated teachers—systemic “textbook fatigue”. Students in textbook-centric classes won’t be prepared for 21st century jobs that require information literacy, critical thinking, research skills, and peer collaboration (163, 179). Instead, Lent advocates for using textbooks as resources to be consulted as needed—sources of facts and figures to help students read more challenging texts and pursue answers to open-ended questions. In other words, a transition from passive information consumption to active and engaged learning. Learning is reframed as personal growth rather than the acquisition of information; teachers are elevated from wardens to coaches.
“When I consider all the issues related to textbook fatigue, none is more detrimental to the health of learning than the pressure teachers feel to cover, cover, cover—as if coverage rather than learning were the goal…. I argue that it is the reliance on textbooks as a single source of curriculum, as well as standards that are far too broad and prescriptive, that creates this situation…. I worry that we are trying to stuff so much information into our students’ heads that they have no time to digest it [146-147].”
Lent provides an alternative vision of education, where teachers replace superficial instruction of a wide range of topics with high-quality, in-depth study of a manageable number of topics. Textbooks are still read as background material or consulted as supplementary material; but the focus of reading is shifted to topical books, current news articles, reliable websites, and other more authentic writings. Students are encouraged to explore these resources with varying degrees of independence, through inquiry- or project-based learning. This approach teaches students self-discipline, self-motivation, and self-sufficiency (175); sparks a curiosity to learn (164); and can even provide students with a portfolio to demonstrate their skills (134). Although Lent’s work is targeted at K-12 education, many of her observations apply to higher education as well.
Lent introduces her argument with numerous criticisms of textbook-centric classes (2-6). Rigidly following textbook curriculum promotes teacher burnout, while lifeless writing styles disengage students. Rote memorization is favored over critical thinking. And textbooks are frequently out-of-date when they’re published (although this is frequently asserted by educators, Lent doesn’t provide evidence to support this claim). Besides these issues inherent in the genre, Lent also criticizes textbooks for their coverage. Publishers try to accommodate multiple states’ curriculum standards; this can result in bloated books, cursory coverage, information overload, and skewed coverage. Teachers often feel obligated to trudge through all of the content, even if students are not keeping up or if teachers would like to cover different topics. In short, a book designed for everyone may be a book designed for no one.
Instead of truly teaching, many teachers end up herding students through a publisher’s pre-packaged, ill-fitting curriculum and testing students’ (often short-term) memory. By contrast, Lent asserts that (3):
“We need to have students analyze, synthesize, and use information rather than simply memorize it; skeptically evaluate sources instead of obediently accepting everything in print; and learn to work collaboratively to solve problems instead of only passing tests.”
Overcoming Textbook Fatigue has two goals. First, Lent argues for de-emphasizing the role of textbooks and focusing attention on more engaging (and engageable) writing. Second, Lent recommends several strategies for reading, writing, and assessment that will increase student engagement and comprehension, whether students are reading textbooks or other types of materials. Lent does not suggest that textbooks should be shunned altogether, but rather used as one type of resource among many.
Chapter 1 reinforces the central role of student engagement in effective learning. Students won’t learn much if they lack curiosity and motivation (12-13, 24-27). When textbooks dominate a classroom, student engagement and collaboration subside (15-23); grades become more important than subject mastery.
In chapters 2-3, Lent discusses how textbooks require a certain level of background knowledge and vocabulary fluency that can hinder student comprehension. Lent offers several tips to help students read textbooks effectively. For example, teachers can prime their students with chapter previews, hands-on activities, and class discussions that will reveal any serious knowledge gaps or misconceptions (33-37, 40-47). Teachers should also introduce new terminology through a variety of techniques, going deeper than surface-level definitions (58-71).
In chapter 4, Lent addresses reading strategies and metacognition. In one sense, students should thoughtfully approach class readings like they would approach any other reading outside of class. Textbooks that present fact after authoritative fact do not lend themselves to critical thinking, but rather hunting and pecking for answers to test questions (77). On the other hand, as a literacy specialist, Lent asserts that students need distinct reading strategies for different disciplines (74-75; see also Lent, 2009 and Lent, 2016). For example, reading strategies for literature should differ from reading strategies for physics, because words are employed in very different ways and with different goals. Although Lent provides several benefits of content-area reading strategies (78-79), she refers teachers to other books for specific techniques.
Chapter 5 connects reading to writing. Whereas textbooks generally ask students to memorize facts, “writing for learning” asks students to think critically, holistically, and at length. Effective writing assignments must require creative reflection rather than fill-in-the-blank answers, brief summaries, or formulaic responses (99). If you set the bar at low-level thinking, that’s what students will produce (103-104). In both chapters 4 and 5, Lent reassures content-area teachers that they don’t have to moonlight as English teachers. Since the primary purpose of content-area writing assignments is critical thinking rather than writing mechanics, teachers should leave the majority of grammar issues for English class (115-116). Lent explains several side benefits of using writing assignments, via student-to-teacher and student-to-student engagement (101-112, 136)
While chapters 4-5 discuss reading and writing as learning techniques, chapter 6 discusses assessment as a learning technique. Assessment for learning (rather than assessment of learning) seeks to teach students through critical thinking questions, to promote metacognition, and to guide teachers on where to focus their time (126, 138-139). Good assessment requires students to read, write, converse, and perhaps even create, while performing higher-order thinking on open-ended questions (123-124). Lent describes the benefits of student discussions, demonstrations, portfolios, and final projects, which all provide better assessments of learning than factual recall tests (131-138). She also shows how assessment can create both a positive and a negative learning environment, depending on how it is implemented (140-144).
For all her criticisms of textbooks, Lent is not suggesting that students should read less. Chapter 7 presents the case for assembling text sets, essentially teacher-curated anthologies of resources in a variety of formats (and at a variety of reading levels) directly related to a unit of study. Text sets may include supplements such as primary documents, thematic literature, and even pop culture references (148-149). At first glance, it may seem contradictory to advocate for classroom libraries of supplemental reading, while simultaneously arguing that textbooks are already too bulky. However, Lent is suggesting that authentic readings often make better learning tools, and that textbooks should be used as reference works to help students understand their in-depth readings. Instead of frantically trying to cover everything in a textbook, Lent argues that teachers should select a manageable number of topics and cover them with quality (146). Lent offers several suggestions on how to assemble quality text sets.
Chapter 8 profiles several K-12 schools that have shifted their focus away from textbooks towards inquiry-based learning (164-166) and project-based learning (166-167). Lent cites several teachers at these schools about the benefits they’ve seen, including increased engagement and student ownership of learning. These approaches prepare students for their future occupations by studying real-world problems and honing communication, teamwork, and project management skills (167-170, 179).
At 180 pages, Overcoming Textbook Fatigue is a quick read. Lent concludes the first 7 (out of 8) chapters with practical questions and next steps for educators to discuss in “communities of practice”. Teachers are called to actively engage with this book, rather than passively consume it—modeling engaging classroom pedagogy. Throughout the book, Lent grounds her suggestions in solid educational psychology, including the concepts of prior knowledge, feedback, motivation, goals, metacognition, mastery vs. performance, the value of errors, generation effect, testing effect, and self-explanations.
Although I agree with most of this book, there were a few shortcomings. Although Lent’s intended audience is practitioners, the book would be more persuasive if she cited more research. Textbooks are sometimes discussed as though they are all the same, when in fact textbooks can take many forms, at different grade levels. Many of Lent’s suggestions for exploratory and self-directed learning are only appropriate in middle and high school. It would be helpful if Lent described how instruction should change progressively as students advance from K to 12.
Teachers would also benefit from guidance on how to onboard their students into non-textbook pedagogy, especially in under-resourced schools. Lent cites examples of motivated, engaged schools; but she doesn’t explain how students are acculturated. Realistically, many students won’t engage in class no matter what you do; many students who have been trained to view education as cramming for tests rather than thinking and exploring may have no idea how to function in an inquiry-based classroom. Lent concludes Overcoming Textbook Fatigue by noting several key ingredients in the shift away from dependence on textbooks (164-179). Although she references several success stories, her recommendations require a high-degree of buy-in by teachers, administrators, students, and parents, as well as significant investments in professional development and curriculum development. Shifting instructional focus from rote memorization to critical thinking clearly results in greater learning, but simply won’t be feasible in many schools. Nevertheless, teachers can still implement small, incremental changes even if they can’t overhaul their entire system.
In many ways, textbook fatigue is really a matter of poor curriculum alignment. As noted in the foreword (written by McTighe), Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) urged teachers to design their courses “backwards”: identify your learning goals, identify assessments that will demonstrate mastery, and then choose the tools that will help students attain mastery (viii). By contrast, many educators start by selecting a textbook. Then they adopt the book’s suggested Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs) wholesale or try to make the textbook fit their assigned CLOs. As a result, the course goals may not be appropriate for the given students or course format. After all, textbooks are intentionally designed and marketed for multiple courses and audiences. When faculty instead begin by crafting customized CLOs, they are freed to choose the most appropriate text resources to achieve those goals. Sometimes a single textbook will be the best resource, sometimes a textbook will be a useful supplement, and sometimes an anthology of open and library resources will be the best fit. One of the chief responsibilities of an educator is to match their goals and tools thoughtfully.
Despite the title, an old-fashioned banking model of education is the real enemy (where teachers deposit knowledge into passive students). Lent criticizes textbooks for a “‘cover it all’ approach” that overwhelms students with too many new words too quickly (56). However, if we follow Lent’s advice and view textbooks as “reference books” (26), this encyclopedic approach is actually appropriate. The problem is that schools use reference books as instructional books, to be read verbatim. Lent also drifts into criticisms of over-grading (117), punitive grading attitudes (144), and standardized testing (125-126). While there are many aspects of poor writing styles and national assessment practices to criticize, textbooks aren’t inherently the problem. Textbooks are neutral tools, and teachers need to use them appropriately.
Lent is spot on when she points out that no class can cover every morsel of information that a student might need to know. Faculty must indeed be selective in how much they cover, so that they go into sufficient depth on the topics they include. If faculty teach students how to learn, show students how to find and identify quality sources, and spark a passion for learning, students will pursue lifelong learning after they graduate. This brings a whole new meaning to “do more with less” (more teaching with less curriculum). And as educational psychology has repeatedly demonstrated, we forget most of the facts we learn very quickly; what we retain are the big ideas, memorable stories, and critical thinking skills.
In addition to alignment and reasonable scope, Overcoming Textbook Fatigue argues that overemphasizing textbooks crowds out critical thinking. Textbooks focus on presenting background facts that students need to know, in a neutral tone. There’s nothing wrong with that, but students need to go deeper. If so much time is spent learning background material that students never do anything with it, what’s the point? And students demand that teachers justify why they should learn something before they’ll invest effort doing so. Textbooks lend themselves to factual comprehension questions, such as “Who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”. Topical readings, on the other hand, lend themselves to analysis, synthesis, and critical evaluation; for example, “Why did the South lose the Civil War?” or “Would there have been a Civil War if Abraham Lincoln lost the 1860 election?”. By going “beyond the textbook” (10), critical thinking questions engage students’ curiosity, require them to conduct research, and invite them to form their own opinions (175). Again, misusing textbooks is the problem, not textbooks themselves.
Faculty in higher education can draw several important lessons from Overcoming Textbook Fatigue. Engaging students is the key to deep learning. One-size-fits-all textbooks simply aren’t engaging, in style or content. Instead, faculty can curate a custom reading list, including textbooks, library material, and Open Educational Resources. Leveraging open content, with sufficient context and a critical perspective, will simultaneously teach students essential digital literacy skills (10). These readings can be used to create authentic projects using up-to-date data and real-life case studies. Whatever readings are assigned, students must be challenged to think, research, and write. Teachers should continuously ask students to critique their readings and present their own opinions—ideally in dialogue with their classmates. Vibrant classrooms are filled with students’ voices, not just the instructor’s (88). Although such challenges require more work from students than rote memorization, students are more likely to retain what they learn longer, develop authentic job skills, enjoy their course of study, actively participate in class, and persist to graduation. Likewise, although these recommendations require more work by educators, they also help faculty “embrace teaching as a joyful activity” (10).
Read more by ReLeah Lent. All four books are available as e-books through the NU Library; her article in Principal magazine is freely available from the NAESP website.
- Lent, R.C. (2009). Literacy for Real: Reading, Thinking, and Learning in the Content Areas. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Lent, R.C. (2012). Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Lent, R.C. & Gilmore, B. (2013). Common Core CPR: What About the Adolescents Who Struggle… Or Just Don’t Care? Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.
- Lent, R.C. (2016). This is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Doing… Content Area by Content Area. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
- Lent, R.C. (2017). Reading Across &Within Curriculum: Best Practices to Support Cross-Curricular Literacy Instruction. Principal, 97(2), 9-11.
- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.