Rethinking the Textbook

Textbooks should be as interesting as the world in which we live. General Manager Dennis Hogan talks about how authentic content in English learning materials can prepare learners for the real world.



At National Geographic Learning, we are rethinking the textbook. We don’t think textbooks have to be boring, though too many are. We believe they should be as interesting as the world in which we live.

How can we do that? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “it’s a textbook example.” What that phrase refers to is that textbook examples are clear, neat, straightforward, easily understood. They are examples that illustrate a purpose perfectly. They are also artificial. They’ve been constructed to be easily understood, to explain something exactly, completely, simplistically, with no unanswered questions or variables or messiness.

Now there are many times when that’s useful, but when a textbook uses such examples over and over in place of real-world examples, and that’s all that’s in the book, that book is artificial, inauthentic, and we think, boring.

Of course, it’s easier to develop textbooks where the content and the examples are made up to fit. It’s a lot harder to work from the real world, but it’s also a lot more rewarding. The world is complex, challenging, often messy, full of nuance, open questions, unresolved details... but it’s also incredibly diverse, exciting, beautiful and inspiring.

At National Geographic Learning, we work hard to capture that in our programs, because we want to prepare learners for life in the very real world in which they live. So our textbooks look like workbook versions of a National Geographic magazine or a TED Talks conference program. They are full of real stories, inspiring ideas, stunning photography, and compelling video from the National Geographic and TED archives.

We are so committed to bringing the real world to learners, that when we couldn’t find everything we wanted in those archives, we began commissioning more real-life photography and video. We call this our Life as Lived Expeditions, in which National Geographic photographers film everyday life in different areas of the world. Real people as they live, captured by some of the world’s best photographers, specifically to help us do the best possible job of reflecting real life in our learning programs.

We are also going beyond the book. For example, we are increasingly delivering live and virtual learning experiences with National Geographic explorers and TED speakers that bring the world into the classroom live. We have designed these experiences to be both interactive and scalable, so large numbers of students can be inspired and touched directly. And we are developing new ways to deliver our content, like our Learn English with TED Talks app that puts the world of TED ideas onto the phones of English learners everywhere, so they can learn and be inspired wherever they are.

Because we believe learning should be inspiring, it should be real, it should be relevant. So whether print or digital, we don’t think learning programs have to be boring, and we work hard to ensure ours are not. We teach English and we teach the world. We hope our textbooks and all our learning programs will inspire learners to explore both, and in turn be inspired by what they find.

That’s how we are rethinking the textbook. Thank you for listening.

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