Saying your curriculum is your textbook is a lot like saying your restaurant is the menu or that you’re baking a cake with only flour. It’s part of the equation, but it’s hardly the solution. [Also, imagine eating a cake with nothing but flour, umm no thanks]

So why is it that textbooks and curriculum are often treated as though they’re one and the same? Why does it seem as though all a teacher needs is a good textbook, and like magic, their unit plans are laid out before them? Why do a quarter of teachers say they rely heavily on textbooks to guide most teaching, homework and exams – with an additional seven percent doing so exclusively?

To answer these questions – and to understand why this equivalency is a false one – it helps to step back and think about what a textbook is. 

At its most basic, a textbook is a comprehensive collection of information about a subject or area of study, split into chapters that build on past knowledge and follow a series of standards. They’re often structured to introduce a concept, build on that concept, test knowledge via exercises and practice questions, and let students check their answers. 

Some even come pre-packaged with guides, procedures and entire programs that direct teachers how to deliver the content inside – often with supplemental materials, suggested learning activities and teaching aids. 

So we get it… it’s easy to rely on textbook teaching, or even to use one as a unit plan or curriculum map when it’s already laid out for you. But there’s just one problem.

Textbooks aren’t a replacement for curriculum

Where a textbook is a collection of information about a given subject, a curriculum is the totality of student experiences that happen in a classroom in support of student learning and school goals. 

A textbook stands on its own as one complete and discrete body of knowledge, but a curriculum (especially via curriculum mapping) examines what students learn across subjects, grade levels and standards, throughout their entire educational journey. 

While textbooks encourage and reinforce one way of learning over and over again, a curriculum considers multiple ways of delivering instruction and allows students to practice skills in the ways that work best for their particular needs and preferences.

Textbooks deliver the same material to every student across schools, districts and even countries, while curriculum allows teachers to uniquely tailor how their class engages with learning content – and gives them the flexibility to alter their course if their goals aren’t being met.

Where textbooks expect students to self-evaluate where they make mistakes, lack understanding (and provide no guidance when students get stuck), curriculum provides opportunities for teachers to ask questions, provide additional resources and guide students to the right path.

Textbooks provide a single perspective or interpretation of its subject, often presented as “correct” through its singular authority, while curriculum gives space to assess the completeness of information and explore other, sometimes competing, viewpoints.

This isn’t to say that textbooks are inherently bad. It’s just that they aren’t the same thing.

Break free from textbook myths and misconceptions

Understanding the differences between textbook and curriculum is the first step in combating some of the most prevalent misconceptions about textbooks and how they’re used in a classroom:

“Choosing a textbook is the most important part of planning!”

It’s easy to get caught up in the “what” – or the learning materials – at the expense of the “how” and the “why” – the way a teacher delivers a lesson. Before ever choosing the learning materials, however, teachers should understand their classroom goals and their students’ needs, and fit the “what” to those.

“Everything I need for my curriculum map is in my textbook!”

Teachers who stick too closely to a textbook – or use it as a single source – may still hit their targeted standards, but they miss out on a diversity of perspectives and alignment of material to other subjects and lessons being taught through an engaging, memorable and holistic learning experience.

“If it’s in the textbook, it must be true!”

We won’t get into how the sausage is made, but suffice it to say, no textbook is perfect. It’s important that teachers take time to understand what’s inside so they can address any gaps or shortcomings – or even use them as a talking point in their unit plans.

“It gives me a place to start with my planning!”

Textbooks certainly can provide valuable inspiration and ideas, especially for new teachers who are creating their curriculum maps, unit plans and lesson plans for the first time. But textbooks should always be in service of a broader curriculum, meaning the curriculum must come first. 

So where do textbooks fit in with curriculum?

Rather than standing as a replacement to curriculum, textbooks are best used as part of a curriculum, among other learning activities and materials. They’re most effective when they serve the teacher’s creativity in delivering learning – not the other way around.

After all, teachers can make good use of textbook strengths to achieve their class’ learning goals:

  • As a reference that students can rely on when practicing their learning outside the classroom, away from the guidance of a teacher. Looking back through a particular chapter can help jog their memory of a lesson or another piece of material they’re working on. 
  • As a tool or supplement that exists alongside other classroom resources to support the curriculum and classroom goals. Ideally, teachers expose students to a wide variety of viewpoints and formats – textbooks included.
  • As a low-tech, low-maintenance resource that helps to make learning accessible to every student. Though they are heavy to carry, all a student needs to engage with them are an understanding of the language and the occasional strip of tape for repairs.

It’s important to note, however, that the role and relevancy of textbooks are changing as classroom technology advances. In fact, Bill Gates named the obsolescence of textbooks among the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “We didn’t see this coming” list in 2018. As digital platforms like Chalk give teachers more ways to plan and deliver tailored learning to students while assessing and analyzing individual student progress, he predicts we’ll soon be saying goodbye to those heavy book bags.

But curriculum needs to come first

The textbook (and every other classroom material, for that matter) must follow the curriculum, rather than define what that curriculum looks like. So how, then, can a teacher best plan a curriculum without following along chapter-by-chapter?

That’s where curriculum mapping shines. Think of it as a process that aligns subjects, grade levels, unit plans and standards to plot the sequence of student learning within the context of class, school and district goals. It allows teachers to create relevant links between what they teach. Not only is it a great way to suss out gaps, inconsistencies, repetition and misalignments, but it also allows teachers to collaborate to improve learning outcomes. 

(If you’re looking for a helpful guide on how to start curriculum mapping, by the way, we’ve got you covered!)

So ditch the textbook-first – or textbook-only – approach and get back to what matters most: your students.

Continue learning with [Infographic]: What Should Be Included In An Individual Teacher’s Curriculum, Heidi Hayes Jacobs Reviews Curriculum Mapping and Role of Standards, and What Are Essential Questions? Explained by Experts.

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Curriculum Mapping Guide