Why textbook authors should be using critical instruction pedagogy

puzzle piecesYou are seated at a table covered with a thousand scrambled puzzle pieces. Your task is to assemble the pieces. But there is a catch. You are not shown a picture of the assembled puzzle. You are not given any instructions that might help you to assemble the pieces into a critically understandable coherent whole. How would you proceed?

You might be drawn to first group pieces by color and/or shape. But this does not solve the puzzle. You have little recourse but to select a piece and then try finding another that fits. You then continue in sequence one piece at a time seeking additional pieces that fit.  Without an end in view (a picture of the completed puzzle), the chances are great that the puzzle will be solved only with a great deal of time and struggle. This assumes, of course, that you maintain your motivation to complete it and that you do not give up.

This is the process and risk of serialism. Serialism – the long-used conventional approach to education at all levels – prevents authors, teachers, and students from assembling critical, whole, and true views of subject matter.

Serialism is the discussion of subject-matter facts and ideas one after another without also making and revealing critical connections within and among them. All facts and ideas (e.g., all topic headings and the content within), are treated at the same static, one-dimensional, crystallized level. The consequences? Because it is not a critical reasoning process for subject-matter engagement, serial-based instruction in textbooks and classroom discussions is essentially a puzzle that induces rote learning. The contextual development of critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities is defeated.

As applied to writing textbooks, critical instruction pedagogy has meaning because it provides authors with the conceptual, declarative, and procedural means to engage new and revisited subjects critically when thinking, reading, and writing.

Critical instruction itself is the formal and explicit explanation of how to connect and integrate the facts and ideas within the three dimensions of subject matter: intent (objective), processes and consequences. It is practiced in ways that contextually and simultaneously develop critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities in all students.

Critical instruction pedagogy is based on two concepts personally developed and applied over a period of years: mind grammar and subject matter universals.

Theory and Principles of Mind Grammar

The conscious human mind has its own innate, informal grammar for thinking critically. This grammar of the mind represents a natural science of thought in the form or pattern of intent – activities – consequences. You use this critical pattern repeatedly throughout your conscious day. You cannot escape it. Just as the grammatic pattern of the sentence is innate, you were born with mind grammar and its informal use matures with age and experience. It is the first mode of critical thinking.

The other two modes are argumentation (Mode 2) and situational resolution (Mode 3 – e.g., problem solving). For a given topic, in order to engage effectively in Modes 2 and 3, one must first have a grounding in Mode 1. Mode 1 critical thinking with mind grammar also provides the cognitive basis for critical reading and writing.

The principles of mind grammar are:

  1. It is natural for humans to think critically.
  2. Humans are driven innately by intent. They have purpose or ends-in-view or otherwise seek meaning in all their endeavors.
  3. Intent is the starting point for critical thinking. Once intent (an objective) is established, it is natural for the human mind to seek the means to achieve the intent. To think more deeply, one goes on to consider the consequences of an intention.

Theory and Principles of Subject Matter Universals

Subject matter is composed of ideas, concepts, theories, facts, and processes. These elements can be arranged systematically in a critical pattern. This pattern is universal in all thinking and therefore in all subject matter.

The principles of subject matter rest in its cognitive DNA (Defined Natural Attributes). The four defined natural and universal attributes of subject matter are objective, activities, resources, and consequences.

  1. A subject matter objective is the end-in-view, effect, meaning, importance, purpose, or function of the subject matter topic at hand.
  2. Subject matter activities are the processes, means, or causes used to achieve the topic’s objective.
  3. Resources are the persons, places, things, and ideas needed to carry out the necessary activities.
  4. Consequences are what can happen when the topic’s objective is achieved (realized) or not achieved (not realized). Consequences can be positive, negative, short term, and long term.

When arranged (displayed) in a critical pattern based on mind grammar, these attributes provide the basis to understand, comprehend, and explain subject matter in whatever form it is encountered and in all disciplines.

Assembling and displaying the subject matter universals in a display represents a critical and multi-dimensional view of subject matter; one that reveals its true dynamic nature. The display is the means to conceive your book’s content critically. The display also serves as the basis to develop end-of-chapter questions and exercises.

An example of a complete subject matter display on the topic of immunization is shown below.

An example of a complete subject matter display on the topic of immunization

The companion sample narrative shown here essentially follows the critical objective-activities-consequences pattern of its corresponding display. However, one can write in any order as long as the critical elements appear in the content.

As an expert in your field, you already possess the knowledge to connect and integrate facts and ideas for topics associated with your discipline. Through use of a subject matter display or its equivalent that you develop yourself, you can arrange your knowledge critically, explicitly and formally so that you and others can see the true nature of subject matter.

One way to produce a subject matter display is to conduct a mind grammar interview. The procedure is shown here. For questions and answers regarding the development and use of subject matter displays, click here.

For examples of how critical pedagogy is used in textbook writing, see Fixing Instruction(2015), Preparation for Critical Instruction(2016), or Teach Like the Mind Learns(2017).

Consequences of Critical Instruction Pedagogy for Textbook Authors

According to Jacobs (2015, p. 104), “Teachers…[understand]…that reading and writing play a critical role in the teaching and learning of their content, and, [are] apprehensive about how to integrate literacy skills and strategies into their…instruction.… The Common Core’s mandate for integrating [critical] reading and writing across the disciplines has only served to intensify their anxiety [over this] puzzle of practice.” Critical instruction pedagogy provides textbook and academic authors with the means to solve the long-standing puzzle of how to integrate discussion of new and revisited subject matter with critical literacy development.

According to Reynolds (1976), 85% of classroom teachers rely on textbooks for subject matter engagement. Wakefield (2006), reports that “…70% to 95% of activities in United States classrooms was estimated to rely on textbooks” (p. 3). Regarding the effectiveness of textbooks, Wakefield observes that in their current form they serve to reinforce existing knowledge in students rather than “…provoking new thought…they may need to be fundamentally redesigned to provoke thought” (p. 5).

Given this high reliance on textbooks for classroom subject matter engagement, the major consequence of critical instruction pedagogy is that it provides educators with a powerful intellectual alternative to rote-inducing serialism (i.e., roteism instruction). In particular, critical instruction pedagogy provides authors with the means to improve their contribution to the education of all learners at all levels, teachers and students. For more consequences affecting members of the instructional community, click here.


Desowitz, R. S. (1988). The thorn in the starfish: The immune system and how it works. New York: Norton

Jacobs, V. A (2015).  Making literacy matter in content curriculum. Course Education Catalog. Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Maiorana, V.P. (2018). Critical instruction web site: www.criticalinstruction.com

The Critical Instruction Series

Maiorana, V.P. (2017). Teach like the mind learns – Instruct so students learn to think, read, and write critically. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Maiorana, V.P. (2016). Preparation for critical instruction – How to explain subject matter while teaching all learners to think, read, and write critically. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Maiorana, V.P. (2015). Fixing instruction – Resolving major issues with a core body of knowledge for critical instruction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Maiorana, V. P. (2007). Subject Matter DNA.  Long Island Education Review, Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 2007.

Reynolds Jr., J. C. (1976). American textbooks—The first 200 years. Educational Leadership, 33(4), 274–6.

Wakefield, J. F. (2006).  Textbook usage in the united states: the case of U.S. history, Paper presented at the International Seminar on Textbooks, Santiago, Chile, April 19-21, 2006.Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED491579.pdf

Victor P. MaioranaTAA member Victor P. Maiorana is both a textbook and academic author in the disciplines of curriculum & instruction, education, linguistics, literacy, and college textbook psychology. He has written three textbooks published in the last three years, all by Rowman & Littlefield, including Teach like the mind learns: Instruct so students learn to think, read, and write critically (2017), Preparation for critical instruction: How to explain subject matter while teaching all learners to think, read, and write critically (2016) and Fixing instruction – Resolving major issues with a core body of knowledge for critical instruction (2015).