Shelly Blake-Plock, in a recent article, argues that we don’t really need digital textbooks any more than we needed paper textbooks.

He’s right.  We need kids to be familiar with primary sources far more than we need textbooks.  One of his commenters argues that it will be a long time before parents, students, teachers and administrators feel comfortable with not having textbooks.  But the truth is, parents and administrators embrace textbook-less programs because they provide an essential differential from what “everyone else is doing.”

This week, I went to another CAIS 21st Century Learning conference at Chase Collegiate School, in Waterbury, CT.  (We’ll be holding two more conferences in this series, tentatively scheduled for October 21, 2010, and January 20, 2011… please consider coming, to hear teachers talking to teachers.)  One of the schools that presented was the Independent Day School in Middlefield, CT, about their capstone project for 8th grade.

So get this.  Their eighth grade studies American history and literature from the perspective of the nearest major town, Middletown, CT.  They learn about colonization by studying Wethersfield (settled 1635 AD), federalism from studying a couple of local court cases, literature from local poets, slavery from the Amistad trial, the civil war from local tombstones and newspapers, industrialisation from the local mills and factories, immigration from the local Italian community and so on. They study art history and architectural history using real buildings they see every day. They learn how to visit probate court and the clerk of deeds in their hometowns.  They collect oral histories about World War Two from neighborhood residents.

The first year, parents were cranky for the first few months. This project-based learning process was much harder for their kids to do.  They were much more seriously challenged by the work, and there were some kids who skimped on the work — leaving their partners high and dry.  Several students experienced deep embarrassment when the day arrived for their presentation, and they weren’t ready to talk to the whole school about their learning.

Then curious things began to happen.  One kid filled a school hallway with photographs he’d taken of important buildings around Middletown, with little blurbs about each one written by a classmate.   Another student used his cellphone to take pictures of a millpond behind a friend’s house, and sent an email to his class, “Look! This is a mill pond, just like the one we saw on our field trip.” A group of students researched the history of a mill that wasn’t even there any more.  And they found out one of the richest men in the Middletown of the 1840s was a former pirate-made-good who’d made a fortune selling opium to the Chinese and buying silk.  Who says drug dealers only live in Colombia?   One girl, whose daily commute to school takes her right down Route 9 south, became startled to realize that the large lake she drove next to every single day was the CONNECTICUT RIVER.

By slow degrees, these students woke up to the reality that they lived in Connecticut, and that Connecticut was part of the history of the nation, and had affected every part of the nation’s history, from First Contact through the War on Terror, and that their hometowns were part and parcel of a style, a mentality, a pattern of thinking and living that evolved over years, decades and centuries.

It had nothing to do with a textbook, and everything to do with a mindset on the part of the teachers.  They said (admittedly with some serious prodding from their new head, John Barrengos), “we want our eighth grade year to be a total summation of everything they’ve learned in their years at our school.  Not textbook learning, but integration of book learning, interpersonal learning, visual learning, mathematical learning, scientific thinking and awareness of ethical and social realities.”  They built a capstone project to acheive that, and threw their resources and attention behind the project.

The result was and is an extraordinary project-based learning experience for their students.  And it sounds like they have total buy-in from the parents, and the students. Everyone involved understands that the kids who come out of this program are better, stronger, and intellectually richer than they were before.

And you can’t buy a digital textbook that teaches that. You can’t even buy a paper textbook that teaches that.  Indeed, the only digital textbook that comes out of this kind of experience is the digital textbook the kids produced themselves to show what they learned — not a text to teach from, but a digital artifact that demonstrates what was learned.