How a Physics Textbook Changed My Life


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay Matthews argues that most textbooks don’t serve enough of an educational function to be worth using:

Textbooks still make good dictionaries, with glossaries at the back. They also reassure parents, who don’t get to see teachers in action but are comforted, in a perverse way, that their kids’ schoolbooks seem just as dry and predictable as theirs were. But like the newspapers that have been my life, textbooks are creeping slowly toward obsolescence.

(HT Joanne Jacobs)

I can’t tell whether Matthews thinks textbooks are becoming obsolete simply because books themselves are becoming obsolete – he talks about how some teachers are starting to “write” their own textbooks for their classes by using the internet to gather material, etc. – but it sure looks like he thinks there’ s something especially obsolete about the textbook.

If so, I must strongly demur. Matthews seems to have missed what has always been the primary function of the textbook – to compensate for the teacher’s deficiency. It’s certainly true that some teachers are so on top of their material that they can write their own textbooks, but others are so not on top of their material that they just lean on the textbook as a crutch, teaching everything straight out of the book.

Indeed, who has not heard the frequent complaint about teachers who just teach everything straight out of the book? Welll, where would we be if they couldn’t even do that?

I must confess that looking back on when I first taught my own class at the college level, the biggest weakness of my teaching in that class was that I did too much by rote out of the textbook. But I did it because, as a novice, I lacked the confidence to strike out on my own.

But I have an even more striking example to set before you. When I was in high school, I had a really brilliant physics teacher who didn’t use the textbook at all. He spent the whole class illuminating the subject matter in his own highly motivated way, bringing in unusual examples and exploring subtle nuances.

As a result, his teaching was incredibly engaging to the few students who shared his intense interest in the subject, and completely useless to the majority who did not. They needed to be walked through the basics slowly and carefully – sort of the way a textbook does.

There was one girl in my four-person lab group in that class who was completely lost. She was getting a D and had no idea what was going on. So I started helping her out with her homework.

“Just ignore the teacher,” was my main advice. “Read the textbook and learn what’s in it. Don’t pay attention to anything in class, because almost all of it isn’t going to be on the test and will just distract you from what you really need to be learning.”

She went from a D to an A.

And you know what? I’m married to that girl today.

So don’t tell me textbooks are obsolete.

As a great rumination on the science of physics once put it:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension,
With speed and new invention,
And things like fourth dimension.

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory.
So we must get down to earth at times,
Relax, relieve the tension.

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

You must remember this:
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo,
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely!
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs,
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion,
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man,
And man must have his mate – 
That no one can deny.

It’s still the same old story,
A fight for love and glory,
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.

(Copyright Warner Bros. Music, 1931)

12 Responses to How a Physics Textbook Changed My Life

  1. pm says:

    Which physics textbook are you referring to?

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Sorry, don’t remember.

  3. […] Forster explains How a Physics Textbook Changed My Life on Jay P. Greene’s […]

  4. This sounds eerily like my high school physics teacher, Ralph Bunday of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring Maryland. I realize it’s a long shot, but what the hell. Same guy?

  5. Greg Forster says:

    No, but not far off – I grew up in northern Virginia. I won’t post my high school name here, just in case somebody else who went to my school is really reading this!

    I have no data on this, but I would hypothesize that this is not all that uncommon a problem with physics teachers.

  6. johnshade says:

    Actually, the original lyric to “As Time Goes By” had it as “things like THIRD dimension”!

  7. johnshade says:

    Greg –

    Did your teacher’s last name start with D by any chance?

  8. Having taught languages for 20 years and having used countless textbooks during that time, I can honestly say that no textbook is perfect, but it provides a starting point. I have always had to supplement the material in textbooks and devise my own resources, which has been very time-consuming, so from my point of view, I would love to see a ‘perfect’ textbook (though I think that’s unrealistic), but the bottom line for the teacher – whether they use a textbook or not – is to try and help the students understand better than they did; that’s what drives them on:

    ‘the desire to inspire,
    to light the fire that burns within,
    the ‘aha’ in the expression
    when something clicks –
    that’s the reward
    for hours and hours of work and patience,
    a reward of infinite measure,
    a priceless, unlimited treasure.’
    (excerpt from my book “It’s a Teacher’s Life…!”)

    If a textbook helps them to do that – even just partially – then it’s a useful aid.

    Helena Harper

  9. Barry Garelick says:

    I think textbooks are essential, even for students who DO manage to get what people like the physics teacher in the post are saying. It may seem crystal clear when you hear a lecture, but when you sit down to work problems, it is often necessary to back up and go through the procedure one step at a time, by looking at a worked example and/or reading the explanation.

    I was very fortunate to have had an excellent geometry textbook, which was the SMSG “Geometry”. SMSG is School Mathematics Study Group, a group that was based first at Yale, then at Stanford, and which produced many K-12 math texts during the 60’s “new math” era. While many of the lower grade textbooks were faulty because of inappropriate math formality and abstractness for the grades, the high school textbooks were by and large top notch. The book went into commercial publication by the authors Moise and Downs, and the book is still in publication today. Very clear explanations of all the concepts, and a very good approach to doing proofs. I learned a great deal from reading the textbook.

  10. Larry Bernstein says:

    I think Jay Matthews is wrong for a different reason. I would like to analogize from the for profit college business. Today, unlike not for profit universities, for profit colleges split the teaching function and creatubg the curriculum. I expect this trend to continue in K-12. Class note, homework, and all materials will be provided by third parties and the role of the teacher will be more limited to TEACHING.

  11. […] Against an apparent anti-textbook trend, an example of how a physics textbook changed a life. […]

  12. What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious knowledge on the topic of unexpected feelings.

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