In praise of coursebooks

Cover: Margriet Osinga

Writing a coursebook is both a lot harder and a lot more rewarding than one might imagine.

Two months ago (or so) I was contacted by the physics department of the Regional Institute of Education, India, who asked me if I would be interested in writing a coursebook for secondary schools. It seemed like an exciting thing to do so, after going over the specifics and discussing the entire project, I accepted.

How it all started

The Institute had the purpose of the book set up right from the start (it was supposed to be a teacher’s resource) but, as I began to plan the contents of the book and draw up an outline, I felt myself gravitating towards making it slightly different from a regular teacher’s resource.

Part of the project involved updating existing resources that had been published in-house exclusively for the Institute but we quickly moved past that and expanded the scope of the project: rather than simply updating material (some of which I was not comfortable with anyway), it was finally decided that I would start from scratch, define my own scope, and get a completely free rein. I only had to ensure that I covered as much physics as (and, perhaps a little more than) we expect students to be familiar by the time they apply to undergraduate colleges.

Of course there is a committee of physicists going over every word I write, as there should be. Part of academia, for better or worse, is peer review and it helps keep things grounded, promotes arguments, prevents errors (at least better than what one man alone can do) and, as a whole, is expected to improve the quality of such works.

I also decided, at this point, that I would not write a teacher’s resource to accompany existing texts alone but, rather, re-write the coursebook itself, producing a single, combined text that would serve as both the coursebook for sixth form students and a teacher’s resource. I wanted it to be something both students and teachers could use in a classroom as well as something that was designed to enable self-teaching.

Bringing in a new perspective

Among the many things I was hoping to do, perhaps the most difficult was to think like potential student or teacher readers might. Standing about halfway through the first of two volumes now, it has been difficult to think about what questions they might have and what they might not think about that they should. I think it helps that I am young enough to still remember modern, early education compared to a fifty-year-old professor who has, in all likelihood, lost touch with being a student1 in the traditional sense of the word.

Writing a coursebook is ‘infinitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more satisfying’, says Anne Houtman of the Rochester Institute of Technology; this is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

I do have readers (who will go unnamed) who are helping out by reading the book as it is being written and questioning sections of the content, offering advice, pointing out errors et cetera, all of which have been incredibly helpful for me so far. I think it has bettered the textbook in a way I could hardly have done by myself.

The layout and approach is also something I have given considerable thought to. I finally decided on arranging the book as a main text and several side notes, the former being exclusively for students and the latter for teachers and readers teaching themselves. Keeping in tone with the older volumes (which my new volumes are intended to succeed) I have included several classroom activities that, besides regular laboratory sessions, will make physics more ‘hands-on’.

The philosophy behind the book

Although I would prefer to steer clear of big words like defining a ‘philosophy’ behind my book I do think it is important to be clear on the whys and on what problems I hope my book addresses.

Right from the start my biggest question was how I would handle mathematics in the book. Introducing mathematics as a standalone chapter and then moving onto physics, while appealing, is hardly the most effective method of learning in my opinion. Mathematics has to be taught in context to physicists rather than in the gloriously abstract regime so many mathematicians seem to prefer.

My solution was to have a sort of referential chapter at the start of the book that would outline all the mathematical tools a reader of the book would need. The introductions were all done in the context of physics, with examples they would have come across by then or would come across soon. More importantly, though, rather than being a dictionary of mathematics for physicists (which was what I was against) the chapter is intended to be something readers would turn back to constantly throughout their reading of the rest of the text.

This means most of the chapter invokes physical ideas from elsewhere in the book and, mutually, the two chapters would strengthen the notions introduced by each other. This has called for a constant revision of that particular chapter as the rest of the book is written, which is something I am fine with.

Also, on a deeper level, I want the book to address some problems I have, myself, seen many students experience. It could be something as specific as a calculus shock, where students are shoved into the manner of thinking and the ideas of calculus rather than eased into it2, or a complete lack of grip on the structure of a physics course, or worst of all, an examination-focussed, type-of-problem based learning rather than learning directed towards appreciating the ideas and thinking that underlies most of physics3 I will not bore you with the details of how I am addressing these, but if there is anything I have left out, I always appreciate ( text:a helpful e-mail).

The other major challenge has been problems. Problem solving is at the heart of physics and thinking up new problems creatively is notoriously difficult. In fact, all of this has given me a newfound respect for all the coursebooks we read and tossed aside during our formal education. Criticise a book all you want, but you cannot deny the effort that went into writing one4.

In praise of coursebooks

Says Anne Houtman, a behavioral ecologist and head of the School of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology, that writing a coursebook is ‘infinitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more satisfying’. This is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

The manner in which an idea is introduced, the harmony between ideas across pages and chapters and volumes, and the thought that the words you put to paper will define how someone views the field for a long time are not so much daunting as constant reminders of the huge responsibility that comes with writing a good quality book. More localised concerns include ensuring the same notation across chapters and the same approach to making statements, offering proof and putting the mathematics in a physical perspective.

As Dr Houtman points out, coursebooks will effectively be reviewed by more peers and for longer in its lifetime than more than most research papers. Also, unlike papers again, coursebooks will likely be critiqued and reviewed by students and the public too (but in a manner different from most scientists’ reviews).

Although my intended audience are sixth form students, I have ensured that they are introduced to ideas they will encounter in higher studies too, and not merely verbally. This means, unlike older volumes of books from the Institute targeting students, my two volumes do not treat calculus as optional. There is some hand-holding but no spoon-feeding, although, by the end of every chapter the learning becomes more independent. I also managed to add in some external references for students and teachers interested in further reading because, just as there will be students who find the book hard to cover, there will be those who cover it with ease and may look for more reading materials.

All-in-all, perhaps this has been the only thing I have constantly looked forward to working on everyday besides my research; and I was right in my thinking the day I was first contacted by the Institute: this is exciting work. But it calls for more thought than I had ever expected and I like that too because it makes my work that much more meaningful for me and that is something I value greatly. Also, taking a moment like this to put my thoughts into words has been somewhat encouraging (not that I have ever had any shortage of that). And if you will excuse me now, I have a coursebook to write.

  1. All scientists are students, but not in the classroom sense, which is an entirely different thing from the constant self-teaching that most of us in academia are wont to do. ↩︎

  2. This is funny to some extent: schools rarely introduce arithmetic to young kids by calling it arithmetic, likewise with algebra. They are both is introduced as part of mathematics rather than as some complex technique supposedly important in the grand scheme of things. Calculus, on the other hand, walks onto the stage with an aura of toughness and complexity most people cannot understand. This is silly. It has, all through history, worked against calculus and left us with students who never could wrap their head around it because they were told it was difficult. And this is also why most non-scientists end up criticising higher level maths and physics as something they do not need in their daily lives: when one never learns to appreciate the nuances of calculus or trigonometry, they will never realise how often they can potentially make use of it to gain a different perspective on situations. ↩︎

  3. That last point felt nonsensical even to describe. ↩︎

  4. There are exceptions to this: some books are clearly devoid of effort and originality while others were written by ghost writers. These are both little more than disgraces and we should all probably agree to never speak of them again. ↩︎