8 Reasons to Teach Without a Textbook

By Laura Miller

Teaching without a textbook isn’t a new phenomenon, but the work and research involved in curating sources can seem overwhelming. Here are eight reasons why it’s worth taking the plunge!

  1. History can be understood multi-dimensionally rather than just linearly. Most textbooks are written chronologically, so opening up your classroom to more sources allows you to explore topics in varied ways (think thematically, topically, or regionally).
  2. Models using multiple sources. We always want students to use multiple reliable sources when they research, so is presenting one baseline source the message we want to send?
  3. Incorporate more voices into your classroom. “Whose voices aren’t we hearing and why” is an important question to ask when studying an event or time period. Using multiple sources helps incorporate diverse perspectives rather than filtering history through one lens.
  4. Primary documents. Of course we know that primary documents are instrumental to the study of history, but too often students are presented with one narrow type of document. Photographs, diary entries, drawings, maps, cartoons, and oral histories capture student interest when woven into the curriculum.
  5. Many textbooks are better than one. The Stanford History Education Group has some fantastic lessons that incorporate excerpts from real history textbooks side by side. I always pull out additional textbooks when we do these lessons, and the resulting discussions are much richer and more nuanced than if we just read one source. Students are often surprised at how even subtle differences in descriptions can change the way we interpret an event.
  6. More opportunities to pivot curriculum. Testing schedules, content standards, school standards etc. are a reality - but sometimes taking the time to add sources based on student interest or current events is so worth it and keeps your curriculum fresh.
  7. It’s better for your back! Your students will thank you if they don’t have to lug around a giant textbook. Simple but true.
  8. History is more than names and dates. I say this all the time to my students and I mean it. History is human, it’s storytelling, it’s pattern recognition, it involves developing empathy, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. If we want students to develop these 21st century skills, the sources we offer should reflect the same approach.
Laura Miller began working at Columbus Academy in 2007 and has been in her current role as eighth-grade social studies teacher since 2011. In addition, Laura is the Rainey S. Taylor History Chair, yearbook advisor, middle school community coordinator, and global studies coordinator. Laura and her husband Drew reside in the Short North with their dog, Buddha, and cat, Kiki.


About NCHE

The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.