Rich McKinney

Moving Beyond the Textbook: Closing the Book on the Textbook-Dependent Classroom

A few weeks ago I was watching my daughters as they were working through drills during their weekly tennis lessons. I observed a group of elementary kids dutifully take their places, hit the ball, and then move to the next station. It was simple, efficient, and monotonous. Though they were learning the basics of tennis, the kids simply weren't having much fun. Their coach must have noticed because he immediately changed pace and led all the kids to an adjoining field next to the courts for a lively game of freeze tag. All the kids were laughing and loving it, though I found that it bore little resemblance to anything even remotely related to tennis. I was wrong. What looked to me to be free play was really the development of skills such as acceleration, lateral speed, and footwork. This coach recognized that sometimes you can leave the court and have fun while accomplishing goals.

Imagine the transformational power of classroom teachers across the nation adopting a similar instructional philosophy. Yet so often, for the sake of comfort and convenience, teachers are focused on traditional methods and resources; and unfortunately, this means an unhealthy reliance upon textbooks. Research regarding science pedagogy suggests that textbooks fail to provide the hands-on, inquiry-based learning that is necessary to master scientific concepts (Foley & McPhee, 2008). In our modern information age, textbooks are no longer sufficient for conveying information in a timely and interesting manner, as most textbooks, by their traditional nature, are very institutionalized and resistant to change (Stambaugh & Trank, 2010). Additionally, the long shelf life of the average textbook means that the audience it is written for may be significantly different than the audience that uses the book several years later (Teten, 2010). It is imperative that teachers find new methods of instruction that utilize a variety of resources.

I first realized the importance of shifting away from textbook-dependent teaching during my first semester as a student teacher. To be honest, I was still trying to master the content and I lived by the textbook. If a student asked a question that was not covered in the reading, I probably did not have a suitable answer. When I planned lessons, I followed the teacher manual, though I rarely understood the rationale behind the class activities found within (Falknor, 2010). Students recognized this and stopped actively engaging. They also stopped reading because they knew I was going to repeat all the information from the book in class. I suspect that many learned to dislike history, as they were only exposed to one author's subjective views on the events that had transpired in the past (DeRose, 2009). I knew my system was broken, but I did not know how to fix it.

My light-bulb moment occurred during my third year when I was tasked with teaching a Contemporary American Issues class that had no textbook. To prepare for class each day I would comb through newspapers, magazines, and Internet articles to find relevant news stories that demonstrated a concept we were discussing. I taught students the basics of conducting an oral history (Alberti, 2011) and encouraged them to interview friends and family members who would be impacted by various government policies. My favorite strategies involved educating students on the most basic facts of an issue, providing them with relevant data, and creating a simulated scenario in which they were required to use their knowledge to solve a problem. The results were phenomenal. Students became very interested in current events, began asking questions regarding the history that led to present situations, and, most importantly, demonstrated understanding of the content. Additionally, because the students were no longer being told what to think, they began to develop the critical-thinking and analysis skills of true historians.

As I developed my capabilities in creating lessons that were not dependent on a textbook, I started noting the limitless potential of bringing everyday items, such as advertisements and modern song lyrics, into my teaching of history, psychology, and geography. I have even found that computer games can be used effectively if coupled with direct instruction (Watson, Mong, & Harris, 2011). With each new lesson, I enjoyed teaching more, and my effectiveness in the classroom increased dramatically, as reflected by teacher value-added scores and AP exam results. Additionally, because I was teaching my students to think for themselves—as opposed to memorizing what a textbook author thinks—my students have developed 21st century skills that will prepare them for college and career.


Alberti, V. (2011). Oral history interviews as historical sources in the classroom. Words and Silences, 6(1). Retrieved from

DeRose, J. (2009). Back to the future with textbooks: Using textbook passages from the past to help teach historiography. The History Teacher, 42(2). Long Beach, CA: The Society for History Education.

Falknor, J. (2010). Instruction of reading comprehension strategies in literature textbooks. Retrieved from ProQuest's website:

Foley, B., & McPhee, C. (2008). Students' attitudes towards science in classes using hands-on or textbook based curriculum. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Stambaugh, J., & Trank, C. (2010). Not so simple: Integrating new research into textbooks. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 9(4) 663–681. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Academy of Management.

Teten, R. (2010). When in Rome, do as Jon Stewart does: Using America: The book as a textbook for introductory-level classes in American politics. Journal of Political Science Education, 6(2) 163–187. London: Routledge.

Watson, W.; Mong, C., & Harris, C. (2011). A case study of the in-class use of a video game for teaching high school history. Computers & Education, 56(2) 466–474. Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Rich McKinney, PhD, is an assistant principal for a middle school in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the 2012 Outstanding Social Studies Teacher for the state of Tennessee. His passion is improving student outcomes by helping teachers reach their fullest potential. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he also serves as a professional development specialist for Knox County Schools and a Common Core coach for the state of Tennessee. Connect with McKinney by e-mail at or on Twitter @richmckinney1.

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