10/01/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Engage Students: Textbooks Not Required

We no longer need textbooks. Nor do we need the simple, outdated, standardized-tests used to weigh how much content that students have consumed.

Every idea, every equation, and every question inside of textbooks is available online, free of cost.

The Periodic Table is online. Each play penned out by Shakespeare is online. Every math question ever asked sits online, waiting to be answered.

When I tell students or future teachers this they inevitably ask, "But what about the questions?"

It's true, textbooks generally contain questions, but those questions are the worst type of recall questions. When future teachers ask me "but what about the questions?" I respond with "if you can't come up with great questions on your own, then you are entering the wrong profession."

There is no simple question or answer for measuring evaluation, synthesis, collaboration, adaption, modification, solid argument, or any other higher-order thinking skill. Ensuring that students are using such skills takes time and nuance. There is not textbook or standardized test that can do so.

Textbooks and tests are convenient and efficient, but our children, our future, deserve more than convenient and efficient.

Granted, there is a real challenge for teachers in schools to going online, finding the good stuff, and then ordering it in a sequence that has educational value for the learner. However, that challenge is being met by dozens of initiatives and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of programmers across the planet.

American students should be helping out.

If American students were given two hours a week to curate the Internet, we could have then entire K-12 "educational genome" created in a year.

For example, 6th graders might take a small part of a larger topic and link relevant information to it, leaving a trail, call it a playlist or a genome, for others to follow. As others follow they can rate the playlist and the information and the ideas and if we can get 10,000 6th graders to curate and rate a playlist called "6th grade biology," then adult curators can verify that it is a good playlist for 6th graders who have a need for learning about biology.

This is true for any subject, K-12 right now. It is all there. If we want to stick to the traditional "here is the material now memorize it" approach to education we should at least stop paying the testing-industrial complex exorbitant fees while doing so.

But what if we abandoned subject-centered teaching altogether? What if student-interest drove schooling?

Pretend for a moment that you have a 16 year old who hates school. He hates math. Science, English, History, all of it. But he loves NASCAR. He gets in trouble for sneaking NASCAR magazines into his hulking English book and reading about NASCAR instead of Shakespeare. He draws racecars in math and racetracks in science.

What if NASCAR was the focus of his curriculum? We could ask him what makes a winning racecar and a winning racecar driver, and suddenly he's studying character education. We could challenge him to determine how much fuel a car needs to make 450 laps. We could up the challenge by inserting 2 yellow cautions that last 3 minutes each with a headwind that is 20 miles an hour and become a tailwind after turn 3. That is now serious math and the student has a genuine need for a math teacher. So he goes and spends a few hours with the math teacher working on real math problems. The next day he decides to spend some time with a science teacher because he is interested in fuel efficiency, and he now has a real reason to learn how to balance a chemical equation.

Instead of testing him using the dated technology of the Scantron, a technology that only allows him to display a surface-level understanding of what he learns, he can link all of his research together and present it in a digital portfolio for others to examine. Those doing the examining will have a much more thorough understanding of that boy than any number will ever give.

When it comes time to apply for college or to interview for jobs, instead of transcripts he sends out a compelling narrative of who he is, what he has done, and what he will most certainly be capable of doing. No simple test can do that, and an essay, while more powerful than a test, cannot contain an original sonata, or a photo essay about Civil War battlefields, or a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance. An online digital portfolio, however, can contain whatever the student or her teachers feel best represents that student.

What is standing in the way of such a system, a system where free content found online can be used to construct robust digital portfolios?

We are.

In search of efficiency and convenience we have outsourced the preparation and assessment of our future to a handful of companies, the biggest of which isn't even American. Fortunately we can insource both by changing the why and how of schooling.

We currently school to recall. The reason for this recall is to get into college and to get a good job. But neither have meaning if children have no sense of self and no real purpose. They matter less if college is a sham and there aren't any good jobs to be had.

The future of schooling is passion-driven. It is customizable by interest, and students will learn to present what they have found, to analyze how their findings integrate with the rest of the world, and then to make changes for a more fluid or powerful integration.

There is no room for parroting what elites have deemed the most important "common" bits of information. And while math and reading are certainly important, they are most important when embedded in meaningful work. When we start asking students to engage in meaningful tasks, they will learn the math and the reading needed to solve the problems they encounter, and we won't need a Race to the Top to incentivize them, they'll be internally motivated by an inherent human drive to become more than what we were.