Find joy in a physics textbook

Greg Forster explains How a Physics Textbook Changed My Life on Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

He starts by disagreeing with Jay Mathews’ claim that textbooks are obsolete. Not all teachers can teach well without a textbook, Forster argues. Take his high school physics teacher, who didn’t use the tetbook.

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.

One of Forster’s lab mates was completely lost. He offered to help her, starting by urging her to read the textbook and ignore the teacher.

She went from a D to an A.

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

Textbooks have their uses, he concludes.

And did you know that As Time Goes By is a physics song? Read to the end of the post for the lyrics.

About Joanne


  1. When I first started homeschooling my daughter I was an unschooler. Textbooks were a complete no-no. I thought they were dry, uninteresting and effective only at killing interest in a subject. Then I picked up a college math text in a local thrift shop and starting reading and working through it. It was fun. At the same shop I found an Oxford press text on Canadian history for junior high kids. Fantastic writing, interesting questions and beautiful pictures. Now I’ve just puchased a Canadian geography book from Oxford press and Conceptual Physics by Hewitt, both for my daughter when she hits junior high and I’ve got a long list of other classic and interesting texts (Campbell’s Biology, Dolciani’s Algebra, etc.) that I plan to pick up.

    I love a good textbook and while there aren’t nearly as many good textbooks out there as there should be, there are some.

  2. Picking up on what Dawn said, maybe the real problem is with the people doing the selecting of textbooks, not just the textbooks on the market. Maybe dull and dense represent what the textbook committees like.

  3. Dawn hits it on the head. To drag up a comment from the previous post:

    Oh, good grief. It’s possible to do a *good* job of presenting content in almost any medium, and it’s possible to do a *bad* job of presenting content in any medium.

    A good textbook fits a lot of information in a single volume and presents said information in a clear, logically coherent way. I’ve got textbooks I’ve kept from college because they did just this, and a couple of them have paid for themselves time and time again.

    The problem is that textbook publishers are following the edufads that make the logical presentation of information undesirable. Most textbooks nowadays are more likely to confuse the reader with insets and diversions from the primary text, if there *is* one, than it is to edify him. Bureaucrats (to touch on David’s point) are wowed by the glitziness of these books, and so adopt them without looking much into their effectiveness.

    Like much in education, this isn’t going to change until standards of professional practice are developed that preclude faddish nonsense. That day can’t come soon enough. Until then, thank goodness for the private schools and homeschoolers who know a good textbook when they see one.

  4. From Matthews:

    Facts and ideas, in my experience, are more likely to sink in if introduced in group exercises, exploiting the adolescent urge to belong.

    …as opposed to teaching them how to learn by their own efforts. In my experience, facts and ideas are more likely to sink in if I have to work to acquire them. It’s almost as though Matthews sees himself in competition with textbooks.

    Speaking of physics, this is for anyone who has never read Feynman’s account of serving on a textbook committee:

  5. “The problem is that textbook publishers are following the edufads that make the logical presentation of information undesirable.”

    On the homeschooling boards one of the most common pieces of advice about texts is too get older editions, especially when it comes to math texts. Not simply because they’re cheaper but also because they tend to get watered down and cluttered up with each new edition. Textbooks from the 60s seem to be much reccomended.

  6. This idea of textbooks being boring has stuck in my mind for a week now. Something about it really rubs me the wrong way. Of course textbooks are boring. If you want excitement, go to a movie. To say that a textbook is boring is like saying my computer is boring, or the stapler on my desk is boring.

    For much of my life I have lamented the lack of substance in the educational writing of professional educators. However years ago I also observed that educational writing of non educators is equally shallow. Jay Mathew’s article about boring textbooks is a case in point.

    In some sense at least, it may be true that the textbook may have a limited future. But I think Mathews has a very shallow idea of what teaching and learning is all about. Perhaps ten years from now students will carry all their texts, and a whole library of references, in a small electronic device that fits in their pocket. That will not mean the textbook is dead anymore than the computer on which I am typing means that reading and writing are dead. The essential nature of teaching and learning will not change with advancements in technology.

    We learn in many ways. Incidental and serendipitous learning has its place. But producing capable and knowledgeable adults out of empty-headed kids will always require efficient learning of organized subject matter. That means there will always be a need for subject matter to be organized and presented. “Organized” is a key word here. It explains why a two hundred word essay is not normally composed in 4 minutes at 50 words per minute. (Perhaps there are some people who would argue that 200 words haphazardly produced in four minutes is just as good as what English teachers strive for, but hopefully they are few.)

    Organization takes time and brain power. Both are scarce resources. The idea that students will write their own textbooks is romantic nonsense. The idea that teachers should write their own textbooks is totally unrealistic. I suppose Mathews thinks he is being up to date in his views of teaching and learning, but the “make learning fun” flavor of his perspective is very reminiscent of the progressive education of the 1920’s. That’s not up to date. It’s just shallow.

  7. Hi,
    I am a teacher.Well every one can learn from text book.But if teacher has clear the concept then student read the text book,is concept will be 100% clear and strong.Learning will be slow just concerting text book.