When I Was Your Age…

…no, I didn’t walk 30 miles to school in the snow uphill both ways, but on the other hand the school textbooks didn’t suck either. I got involved in this thread on Plastic.Com about the atrocious state that textbooks are in today.

I didn’t realize just how lousy current textbooks are until I volunteered to tutor the 10th grader who used to live next door. He was having difficulty in understanding geometry. After a frustrating 30 minutes wrestling with his textbook it was obvious why.

When I was in school we had an ugly red geometry book with no pictures that I can remember. The text was in black, with axioms and some important theorems occasionally in red, and enough mindbending diagrams to give me nightmares.

My neighbor’s textbook, on the other hand, looked like a 750 page edition of USA Today. The oversized book weighed a ton and practically every other page was a full color photo of something or other with some explanatory text trying to connect it to geometry (say, a photo of a pyramid with some very shallow description of how the ancient Egyptians calculated some aspect or another in the process of building it).

If, for some bizarre reason, you wanted a coffee table geometry textbook this would definitely fit the bill. If you actually wanted a shot at understanding geometry, you were probably out of luck. The editing was atrocious. I took one of the geometry problems he was having particular difficulty doing and led him through understanding how to approach solving it. The problem was when we turned to the book it was clear that one of the tools required to solve this particular problem wasn’t actually introduced until a few chapters later.

The kid I was tutoring would have a lot of problems comprehending geometry even in an ideal learning environment. The textbook made it certain that he would never understand it.

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