The Flipped Textbook

The Flipped Textbook


“The old-fashioned research paper may now appear as a vibrant collection of links woven together with text describing the topic being researched. And the traditional textbook is being transformed as teachers assign students to write their own textbooks online.”


William Kist, New Literacies and the Common Core, Educational Leadership, March 2013


If you’re from my generation (think the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, 25-cent hamburgers), you’ll remember the original high school textbook. It was denser than hard wood and could be used to prop up a rickety table or quickly compress an empty soda can. The guys carried four or five in a precise stack on one hip, the girls carried theirs across their chests. (The book-carrying backpack wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years. It wouldn’t have been socially acceptable anyway.)


On the inside were the annoying “study questions,” which never seemed to match the actual text and were obviously included to lower your self-esteem. And end-of-chapter summaries that you never read unless the teacher told you to, or because “they would be on the test.” Or, if you suspected the latter, were the only things you read.


In college, we bought most of our books at the campus used book store. They were likely written by the guy teaching the course—an obvious way to cash in at our expense. As much as 80% of the text was yellow-highlighted by the former owner, a fact that made me wonder whether for many learners “studying” was synonymous with highlighting. If 80% was highlighted, what was the process of inclusion and exclusion? Later in life, as a reading instructor, I would come to refer to this highlighting as the “vacuum technique” where learners simply sucked up knowledge with their yellow marker. No further effort required.


Those professor-spun books were superbly dense in the amount of text supplied. Clearly the writers wanted to appear authoritative, even comprehensive, staking their claim in their fields. Gone were the study questions or self-quizzes with the answers in the back. Present were long lists of references, research citations, footnotes, and subtle terrors like statistics tables, charts and diagrams, or photos that had no relevance whatsoever but did at least break up the page.


Today, much distributed text appears in the form of PDFs, which are digital and (of course) portable, but come with their own problems. Many are scans placed crookedly on the glass plate, are missing text along the margins, or have replaced embedded images with Rorschach inkblots. The outcome can be a scanned textbook chapter that’s even less readable than the original.


Texts and the New Textbook


Interestingly, many contemporary references to text are in the plural, as in “students can find assemble texts from many sources.” This subtle semantic shift has meaning. One author defines texts as “the relatively short spoken and written passages that come in textbooks and other teaching materials.” This kind of objectification expands our view of textual content, giving it another set of properties related to its style of presentation. As though to say that the “text” has its own body language. We’ve long known that style—from choice of font, surrounding white space, and “chunking” — makes important contributions to the reader’s ability to absorb the intent of the writer. But this goes deeper, suggesting meanings attached to the type of media in which the selected bits are ensconced.


So, what’s next? As Mr. Kist notes in the lead-in to this blog, learners in today’s digital, multi-sourced, and dynamic world can create their own textbooks. This can be done by collecting “texts” and other elements from a variety of websites or digital materials and assembling them in some fashion into vehicles that can be just as quickly posted or shared.


There will be supporters and detractors with robust arguments on both sides. The cons center on the lack of vetting and the non-existent credentials of the learner who is creating the book. This will be the position of those who see the Internet as the high-tech dispersion of half truths, distortions, and outright lies. A student, by definition, is hardly qualified to select learning sources or, much less, proffer them to other learners.


On the positive side, if you’ll recall the semi-sincere tone at the beginning of this piece, students who devise their own textbooks will have to take responsibility for the outcomes. This sounds negative, but let’s look deeper. Taking responsibility can mean that one is not just a passive vessel, but is fully engaged in all the thinking activities on a continuum that goes from research and discovery to the crafting of the final product.


For younger learners, this might be nothing more than computerized versions of the kinds of paste-ups we did as children. But for older learners, there is the possibility of a more rigorous and more educational process. Consider that the learner can do the following:


  • Hunt and discover relevant content—probably according to predefined criteria:
  • Choose content that is appropriate for given study objectives, for an audience of peers (and possibly teachers)
  • Analyze and select specific parts of the original content that are correct for the flipped textbook
  • Arrange the content so that it is clear and meaningful
  • Expand the content with his/her own thinking as needed
  • Defend the content in chats and blogs
  • Revise and recycle


The process itself becomes heuristic, more learner-engaged and motivating. It embraces a “constructionist” approach that says that we learn more effectively when we are involved in the teaching of others. To quote William Kist again (same source): “… students have learned how to make good choices about the sources of their material. Their online textbook is an evolving document, demonstrating to students that knowledge isn’t static. By building on the work of classes that have gone before them, the students learn about the malleable and, ultimately, collaborative nature of texts.”