Though technology has invaded practically every nook of our lives, one aspect of education remains largely unchanged. Even as students are encouraged to do research, online and offline, the textbook continues to hold sway as the arbiter of truth. Across disciplines and grades, pupils tend to accept and even venerate information in textbooks. In his newest book, Think Again , psychology professor Adam Grant exhorts teachers and students to rethink the purpose of education and the centrality awarded to textbooks. While educational institutions emphasise the acquisition of knowledge, they don’t necessarily promote a questioning mindset. Students often graduate with a misplaced confidence that what they ‘know’ is sacrosanct.
To help them appreciate the dynamic and subjective nature of information presented in textbooks, Grant describes an exercise given by a high-school teacher, Erin McCarthy. A collector of old history books, she gave her pupils a section from a textbook published in 1940. One subset simply accepted the information as ‘facts.’ Another group, however, were taken aback by the differences in viewpoint from their current textbook.
Either way, this exercise segued into a discussion on what history is. Whose stories are told? From whose perspective? Whose stories are omitted? As a result, students began to appreciate the importance of questioning any information presented to them. They also learned that the source of the information impacts how and what is presented. To further fuel their thinking, McCarthy asked students to pick a chapter from their textbook that they felt glossed over a marginalised subgroup, do more research, and rewrite the chapter.
History, being the story of humans with all their complications, conundrums, and confusions, lends itself easily to these kinds of exercises. But what about other disciplines, like Science? Consider how our understanding of the atom evolved. In 1808, John Dalton proposed that all matter is made up of indivisible particles. For almost a century, this view was unchallenged until J.J. Thomson discovered the presence of even smaller particles called electrons. Further refinements were made when Ernest Rutherford discovered that most of the atom was empty space with a positively charged nucleus at the centre. Niels Bohr then posited that the electrons spun around the nucleus in orbits of fixed sizes and energies. Finally, in 1926, Erwin Schrodinger claimed that the electrons actually move in waves and we cannot precisely pinpoint their locations.
Thus, even Science, for all its stated objectivity, involves shifts in thinking, righting of false starts and restructuring of models as new technologies and theories are refuted, revised or refined over time. In fact, when students understand how scientific concepts evolve over time, they get a better idea of what scientific thinking entails.
Instead of being passive consumers of the content presented in textbooks, students may be encouraged to engage with the material more actively. Does the textbook explain various concepts cogently? What other evidence could have been presented to clarify a concept? Does it provide alternative perspectives? How do concepts from various chapters relate to one another? If the textbook has to be reprinted, what improvements would students suggest? If the material is organised differently, how will that impact student understanding?
Further, students should also realise that textbooks and online sources can also harbour errors and misinformation. Grant recommends that students equip themselves with skills to become “fact-checkers”. Thus, instead of simply digesting information presented to them, they may question it. Next, they should not equate a textbook or website’s popularity with reliability. Just because many people endorse or believe in a view, doesn’t necessarily make it right. These skills, applied within and outside the confines of formal learning, can help students morph into critical and discerning thinkers
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know and blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com