Pedagogy of book and chapter organization

knowledge typesDoes the organization of the textbook relate to pedagogical approaches used to teach with it? What pedagogical perspectives are represented by the organizational style we choose for a book and its chapters? These questions percolated through my work on a recently completed book manuscript. When thinking about the organization of the book, I reflected on ways people read books today and how they use them to learn.

The audience for this book about the design of collaborative learning will include instructors or instructional designers across disciplines, as well as students in education courses. In other words, some might be reading it for their own professional purposes, while others might be reading it as assigned for a course. How might they use the book, and what can I do as a writer to facilitate meaningful learning?

Constructivism and Book Organization

My educational philosophy is based in constructivism. I was groomed in the thinking of Ausubel and Novak, who emphasized the need to build a cognitive bridge from the place where the student begins to a new level of knowledge (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1978, pp. 17, 31; Novak & Gowin, 1984). From this perspective students are responsible for constructing their own understandings of the subject matter, however, the instructor has an important bridge-building role. As an instructor, we need to help students link new concepts to previous knowledge and make sense of it. Jerome Bruner explained the process this way:

Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us to go further more easily. …The best way to create interest in the subject is to render it worth knowing, which means to make the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which the learning has occurred. (Bruner, 1977)

Constructivist theorists discussed the development of knowledge as central to learning. To dig more deeply into the meaning of knowledge, I turned to the updated version of the classic Bloom’s Taxonomy. In this school of thought, there are four types of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive (Anderson, Bloom, Krathwohl, & Airasian, 2000). Based on Bruner’s comments, we might say that knowledge becomes “usable” differently if the focus is on providing factual foundations, conceptual theories and principles, how-to steps for application, or reflective metacognition.

Can we apply these theories of teaching and learning to our work as textbook authors, given that our books might provide the subject matter? How can we organize books that will help in the process of building cognitive bridges and developing types of knowledge beneficial to the reader?

Helping Readers to Build Bridges

Unlike the teacher in the classroom, we don’t have the advantage of meeting our readers. We don’t know their respective starting points or level of prior knowledge on the topic of our book. This is even more challenging when your book is written to attract diverse audiences with potentially varied levels of prior knowledge and understanding. In my case, the reader might be the professor or the student.

One way I tried to address this constructivist principle is by inclusion of multiple cases, problems, or exemplars that might help the reader connect ideas being presented with situations that resemble those in their own experience. I often introduce cases then develop them through each stage of the process in each chapter in the book. I create text boxes with questions that I hope will help readers think about the principles of the chapter in the context of their own frames of reference.

The chapters are organized such that these cases, examples, and thought-provoking questions are interspersed throughout. This contrasts with a more traditional approach that entails presenting principles and content before showing how ideas are applied and listing questions in an easy-to-ignore place at the end of the chapter.

Writing to Foster Development of New Knowledge

Readers may have varying degrees of interest or urgency for using what they learn in new situations. With the example of my current book, some readers might have an immediate, practical need while others are acquiring foundational concepts as the basis for further advanced coursework. They may not be thinking about application of these concepts until after they graduate and begin their careers.

Not all books will include all four types of knowledge development, but my new book does. While the intention for the book is practical (Procedural Knowledge), readers need the other forms in order to apply the models presented throughout the book. They need to know how I am defining and re-defining key terms (Factual Knowledge). They might use theoretical frameworks to create coherent plans as well as rationales or proposals necessary for gaining approval or support for program or curricular change (Conceptual Knowledge). Instructors who want to use the approaches recommended in the book may have to change how they think of themselves and their roles with students (Metacognitive Knowledge.) It was a challenge to balance these types, without getting bogged down in one or seeming too fragmented with too many directions.

One way I tried to accomplish balance was through the organization of chapters. I tried to introduce the book with Factual and Conceptual material. Next, I focused on use of the concepts in practical ways, with explicit procedural steps. Woven into these steps were points that invited readers to look at implementation from a metacognitive stance.

Another way I tried to connect the proverbial dots across chapters was through the use of graphic organizers. These graphic elements wove the Factual definitions and Conceptual constructs through the practical chapters.

Moving Forward

Chapter organization is important whether we are writing an entire textbook, editing a book with chapters by other authors, or completing a single chapter. By thinking about the ways readers might use the book to build new knowledge, we can create a text with significance beyond an assigned reading. My bookshelf contains a few important textbooks that I have kept since my undergrad years and still refer to when I need to be reminded of important ideas I am still learning. I will continue to think about the characteristics that make a text a keeper—and look forward to your insights.


Anderson, L., Bloom, B. S., Krathwohl, D., & Airasian, P. (2000). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2nd ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

Ausubel, D., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational psychology: a cognitive view (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.