Several years ago, I shared my feelings about homework. And textbooks. And best practice. All wrapped around the 20+ pound backpack my son was hauling around.

It’s now Round Two. Senior in high school daughter is experiencing her own problems with backpacks and bags. And I will admit, some of it’s her own fault. Part of what she needs to haul around is a bag for running gear. But the rest?

She’s not allowed to put her netbook into her backpack so she’s toting a computer bag along with her backpack. The morning this picture was taken, combined weight of backpack and computer goodies was just short of 20 pounds – not counting the running gear. The problem is exacerbated by having to lug around most of her stuff due to shorter periods between classes and the maze of hallways within her school building.

I am reminded of an older Zits cartoon, that of 15 year-old Jeremy and his parents. His experience looks familiar:


Math book, physics book, government book, English book, sketchbook, and other assorted school-related objects. Take out the assorted school-related objects and we’re looking at around 15-16 pounds of books.

The conversation and photo all started due to an article she was writing concerning backpack weights for the school newspaper. Research she and others did for the article made it clear that her backpack weight was pretty average. The high end?

Thirty-two pounds.

Granted that number was an outlier, a freshman who decided it was just easier to never go to his locker at all. Still. Thirty-two pounds!?

Dragging home 32 or 20 or 15 pounds of textbooks in a backpack every night tells me a few things. It tells me that perhaps we need to have some conversations about the purpose of homework and how best to use student time outside of class. Maybe a conversation about teachers doing a better job of communicating with one another concerning assignments. It tells me that perhaps we spend too much on books. (Especially when one argument for 1-to-1 tech initiatives is to save money on textbook purchases.)

Perhaps the most important thing it tells me is that current curricula and instructional practice in our schools is still too focused on textbooks. Instead of using digital resources and online materials, 21st century problem solving, authentic problems, and collaborative learning, we tend to rely on whatever Pearson dumps into its latest edition.

I get it. My wife is a teacher. I spent 10 years with six sections of 8th graders every day. I know how difficult the job is. Especially in smaller schools where teachers might have four, five, or more preps.

But I still think 32 or 20 or 15 pounds of textbooks is too much – not because I don’t want my kid to work hard but because I’m afraid she’s being asked to work hard on things that won’t do her a whole lot of good five, ten, and 20 years from now.

We can start using iBooks Author to create our own resources. We can use iTunes U Course Manager to share those resources, and many more, with students in ways that focus on quality learning. We can use brain-based strategies that encourage high-level thinking. We can ask kids to use textbooks as just one piece of evidence rather than the only piece of evidence. We can develop authentic problems for our kids to solve rather than the sterile examples provided by Pearson.

So, yes, knowing that kids across the country lug around backpacks full of textbooks bothers me. But what bothers me more is the way in which the books are being used.