Comparing the Effects of Textbooks in Eighth-Grade U.S. History: Does Conceptual Organization Help?

By Crawford, Donald B.; Carnine, Douglas | Education & Treatment of Children, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Comparing the Effects of Textbooks in Eighth-Grade U.S. History: Does Conceptual Organization Help?


Crawford, Donald B., Carnine, Douglas, Education & Treatment of Children


Abstract

This study compared the effects of the pilot version of a conceptually organized (C-O) history textbook, Understanding U.S. History, (Carnine, Crawford, Harniss, & Hollenbeck, 1994) and a widely used, traditional, topically organized (T-T) textbook, American History (Garraty, 1982). The pilot version of the C.O textbook presented content more conceptually and also provided multiple means, such as graphic organizers and integrative review questions, to assist student's learning of history information. Subjects were 81 eighth-graders in four intact United States history classes. Two teachers each taught one class using the pilot C-O text and another using the T-T text, effectively preventing teaching methods from becoming a confound. Student learning was measured by both a choice and a performance (essay) measure. Students using the pilot C-O textbook did significantly better on the choice measure than did the students who were using the T-T textbook even though the questions were drawn from the T-T text. The e ssay exam required students to explain the background for a primary source historical document. Posttest essays showed no difference between treatment conditions. Overall poor performance on the essay exam was hypothesized to be a result of an inadequate amount of content review and a lack of instruction in expository writing skills. Student interviews indicated generally favorable attitudes toward the pilot version of the C-O text, centering on ease of comprehension.

Textbooks are the predominant pedagogical tools used to teach in content areas such as U.S. history. Numerous studies report 75% to 90% of classroom instruction is organized around textbooks (Tyson & Woodward, 1989). Despite this fact, current textbooks have been criticized for their poor organization. Critics contend, publishers attempt to cover all the topics that might be valued by the teachers with a resulting mass of content so great that it ends up being abbreviated almost to the point of incomprehensibility (Tyson-Bernstein, 1988). Without room to explain the context of the historical facts, American history textbooks can not present historical information in a coherent fashion (Kinder and Bursuck, 1991). Parker (1989) has aptly dubbed the resulting textbook content as a "parade of facts approach" (p.40). Students become overwhelmed with the quantity of material to be learned. In fact, Kinder and Bursuck (1991) argued that, "Good students may come to view their task as one of learning many details ... less able students may come to view their task as simply impossible" (p. 271).

In addition to the "parade of facts" most textbooks are "inconsiderate" of their readers because of poor writing (Armbruster and Anderson, 1985). The serious and pervasive shortcomings of conventional textbooks have caused many teachers to abandon textbooks all together. This movement is clearest in reading and language arts, with the adoption of trade books, but is also surfacing in science, with hands-on learning. Calls for various alternatives to social studies textbooks have been heard (Kobrin, Abbott, Ellinwood, & Horton, 1993), including the use of trade books (Fuhler, 1992; Guzzetti, Kowalinski, & McGowan, 1992).

E.D. Hirsch (1996), although agreeing with the criticism of many textbooks, has gone on to caution,

But the alternative to textbook instruction, in the form of hands-on, project style teaching, has been shown to be highly ineffective. One must be careful, therefore, to distinguish between a justified attack on bad textbooks and an attack on the carefully focused teaching of subject matter through good textbooks. The most effective subject-matter learning is often achieved through the use of well-written, well thought-out textbooks. (p. 269). Carnine (1991) suggested that an alternative position to abandoning textbooks altogether is to dramatically redesign textbooks to make them more effective and efficient teaching tools. …

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