Toxic Textbooks

I rarely use textbooks in the courses that I teach (most of which relate to some aspect of business or management). The reason why is that I often find large gaps between what is written and what actually happens in most workplaces – not to mention the lack of Lean thinking in the writing.

Most textbooks are written by career academics who do not have the work experience, particularly at managerial levels, to inform students of issues, details, constraints, nuances, and opportunities. When I have used textbooks, I find myself highlighting a few things on every page to explain to students in class where the author is wrong, something needs to be clarified, or something that is more limited in applicability than the author implies.

In addition, the mere name “textbook” can signal to students that the subject matter is theoretical in nature, which is a source of dissatisfaction. I have found that students almost immediately associate me as a teacher of theory when I use a textbook in a course, which in my view makes textbooks toxic to learning. They undermine my efforts to be the kind of teacher I want to be: one who closes large gaps between theory and practice.

In many cases, textbooks diminish students’ sense of the value of the course. I avoid this problem by more closely connecting my courses to student’s lives and livelihoods. It is a lot more work for me in terms of course preparation compared to simply assigning a $150 textbook.

My experience indicates that greater and more durable learning takes place when theory, which is of limited interest to students (particularly for undergraduate and most Master’s degrees), is minimized (used only when truly necessary, in context) and the connection to their lives and livelihoods is both clear and compelling.

2 thoughts on “Toxic Textbooks

  1. Jenn Peek

    While you’re highlighting areas where you find the author was incorrect, other professors are likely clueless. In my experience, some professors only use the text for specific things while saying “don’t worry about that part” or “you can skip this section” to cut out the unnecessary information. Other professors will read from the text and will strictly adhere to it. Unfortunately as a student learning the subject, we don’t know the difference between good information and bad information. All we know is we probably need to know it for a test/homework if the professor is talking about it.

    Concerning textbooks, what I found most difficult in my undergrad was when a professor started the class with a comment about how difficult the text was, that the reading won’t be easy, to give yourself a lot of time to go over the text, or something along those lines. They don’t make an effort to change the reading, they’re content with it because it’s either what’s available or it’s become status quo. When it comes to certain topics, there may not be anything new but the professor certainly has the ability to make it easier to understand.

  2. Bob Emiliani Post author

    Of course, you can see how textbooks are used is geared to the convenience of the professor, not to the student. Lean teaching is a lot more work for the professor because it requires them to identify and correct aspects of teaching that are inconvenient for the students for the purpose of improving the learning experience for the student. Identifying and correcting aspects of teaching that are inconvenient for students is a daily activity, and profs interested in Lean teaching must be prepared to accept that. Much like how a someone who wants to be a musician must accept the need for daily practice in order to produce sounds that audiences enjoy.


Leave a Reply