Textbooks and Dumbing Down of Teachers and Students.

It is that time of the year when publishers make beelines in stextbook 01chools everywhere, pushing their textbooks, trying to impress principals, teachers, all and sundry on how ‘innovative’ and ‘interactive’ they are, and how they offer best ‘solutions’ to every conceivable classroom-based learning needs and problems.

The process of sifting through piles of sample textbooks and finding the most suitable ones differs from school to school. Some schools adopt a methodical approach, involving careful review of the content vis-à-vis the syllabus and other learning parameters. Then there are schools that do no such thing. Textbook selection becomes an entirely subjective exercise, often carried out not by the best informed individuals. I have found out, over the years to my horror, that there are also schools whose owners/principals prefer one textbook over the other on the sole basis of monetary discounts that publishers are willing to offer! They simply choose the books that offer bigger discounts without much consideration to what they contain.

Now, coming to the point! This post is not about how schools select textbooks for use by their students. Instead, this article is about the imprudence of having textbooks in schools in the first place.

We all know the extent to which textbooks dominate, lead and shape classroom-learning in India. The lament of near back-breaking bags that children have to carry to and back from school aptly conjures the impression of classrooms so heavily dependent on textbooks.

Quite a few ideas abound on why classroom-learning has become so dependent on textbooks. A dominating view is that it is purely for the sake of convenience and comfort that most teachers resort to textbook teaching. Very sad if this is indeed true! Bartering high quality students’ learning for teachers’ convenience and comfort is no fair trade-off by any measure of imagination. But let’s not go there as this is not important anymore. Fact is, we have on our hands a situation where textbooks rule and dominate classroom-based teaching and learning.

What is important instead is to see, in light of the available research, whether textbook-based learning is indeed the best way to help children learn, or in the outside chance that it is not, to determine what schools should do about it. Studies have shown that textbook-teaching have serious limitations. The following is a small sampling of evidence explaining why:

Stambaugh & Trank (2010) have found that in the backdrop of the modern information age, textbooks are no longer sufficient for conveying information in a timely and interesting manner. Tetan (2010) finds that the audience for which a textbook is written for may be significantly different than the audience that uses the book several years later. The work done by Foley & McPhee (2008) in science pedagogy suggests that textbooks fail to provide the inquiry-based and hands-on learning required to master scientific concepts.

Before I go on, let me try and put in perspective the real measure of the problem that too much dependence on textbook teaching has brought to bear upon our education system. Consider the following carefully. Relying heavily on textbooks to the exclusion of other teaching tools, aids and methods has created a problem of unmanageable proportions that goes far beyond impaired and deficient learning among students, and is also adversely affecting their attitudes, motivation, behavior and conduct.

Textbook related problems

Consequences for students

Textbook dominates classroom teaching as the only source of information. Students are exposed to a limited perspective on concepts they are expected to learn.
Textbook is old or outdated. Students find information shared irrelevant.
Textbook questions and exercises seldom appeal to all student levels. Students assume that learning is simply a collection of facts and figures.
Textbook does not take students’ existing knowledge into account. Students often fail to connect between old and new learning, and construct knowledge effectively and seamlessly.
Many textbooks have difficult reading levels. Students find it difficult to read and understand important concepts.
Textbook contains all answer to given questions and exercises. Students are not involved in higher order thinking skills and developing key learning tools.
Textbook-based assessments only serve to measure the amount of information retained. Students’ actual learning is not measured, and often entirely ignored as long as they can sufficiently recall information to pass tests.
Textbook-based assessments rely heavily on marks and grades. A strong sense of competition is instilled among students as they are pushed to obtain higher marks and grades.
Textbook teaching can become tedious and boring. Students do not enjoy learning and are not motivated. Unimaginative and dull sessions also give students open invitation to engage in acts of indiscipline.

The fact that too much dependence on textbooks is undermining the quality and productivity of learning is not lost on policymakers in India. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has a great deal to say about this in its National Curriculum Framework (NCF-2005), drawing attention to it at the very outset of the document where it emphasises the need for “enriching the curriculum to provide for overall development of children rather than remain textbook centric.” (p/5).

Careful reading of the NCF-2005 offers key insights into role of the textbook within context of classroom learning, which if implemented will require a paradigm shift in current classroom teaching practices. The document essentially stresses on three things in this regard:

  1. Teachers are far more important than textbooks in the classroom. Thus, “it is necessary to build the capabilities and confidence of teachers to autonomously plan their teaching in response to the needs and demands of children’s learning.” (p/21). This implies not being limited to a set of pre-assigned content but to creatively and diligently responding to the learning needs of students which are seldom uniform. A theme that appears prominently throughout the NCF-2005 is that of ‘teacher autonomy’ implying that instead of being bound by a given set of textbooks, teachers should be able and free to choose what and how to teach.
  2. Students learn better in an integrated approach instead of having watertight, disparate school subjects. Pedagogic study of school subjects such as sciences, social sciences, languages and mathematics needs to beboringclass_large organized as such rather than for individual school subjects of history, geography or chemistry. This would allow the teacher to draw upon epistemological insights while teaching key disciplines that fall under one rubric–for example, sciences or social sciences. 
  3. Textbooks are to be regarded part of a wider set of teaching-learning aids and resources available to teachers such as maps, charts, atlases, reference books, activities, equipment, etc. with the attending freedom afforded to teachers to use each as required.

 So, how are we going to get there? Here is what I think schools should do.

  1. As a policy, teachers must be required to use a variety of teaching resources and tools and not remain limited to the textbook. These need to be planned beforehand and preferably incorporated into teachers’ weekly lesson-plans.
  2. Teachers must ensure that students are engaged in a lot of thinking work. Creative, analytical and critical thinking do not happen when working with textbooks alone, and will have to be additionally incorporated into teaching-learning sessions.
  3. Teachers need to acquire and employ a wide variety of teaching-learning methods and constantly sharpen their pedagogical abilities. A balance between content and method is the desired approach. A highly effective mode of delivery that goes practically with any content is ‘Cooperative Learning’ which is versatile enough to completely transform any boring and didactic session into a learner-centered, lively and stimulating session for students.
  4. Instead of being bound by the textbook, teachers should map the content and identify their key concepts. Once there is clarity about the concepts that students need help with to learn, teachers then should use appropriate content, methods and tools for it. This often involves going beyond the bounds of any one particular subject domain while dealing with a concept and bringing in related learning across subject domains.
  5. Finally and most importantly, schools will have to open themselves up to greater instances of staff learning and development. Many schools do not have ongoing and systematic programmes for in-service training and development of their teachers. As a result, teachers are not keeping pace with the rapidly changing educational scenario and end up employing outdated and ineffective teaching-learning methods and approaches. Chances are that most teachers will not be able to do the things suggested above on their own. In most cases, teachers will need ongoing help and support to acquire and apply related capabilities.  

With hardly any stimulating learning happening in classrooms thanks to the all important textbook, children fail to realise even a fraction of their learning potential and manage to get by through rote learning. This deprives them of many opportunities later in life. Future careers and jobs are not going to be obtained on the basis of good looking mark-sheets and report-cards alone. Recruiters will want creative and analytical thinkers on their rolls who can offer solutions to existing and emerging challenges. As a nation too we need intellectually sound individuals who can think critically and make appropriate decisions based on sound judgment. What goes on in most classrooms today falls woefully short of achieving any of this. The dumbing down of our students is thus complete!

But it does not end there. Teachers themselves have not been left unaffected. There are teachers in schools who simply cannot teach without aarticle-265 textbook. Take away their textbook and they are lost! So what we have achieved with our single minded dependence on a content-based approach to teaching and learning in schools is also the dumbing down of teachers! Merely thinking about all that a creative, trained, diligent and caring teacher could achieve brings us inevitably to the realisation of immeasurable opportunities lost.

So much for convenience and comfort in teaching!

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