Textbooks need to do better

13 Apr

It is about now, and in the next few months, when parents form queues at their respective schools to purchase books for the new academic year. The smell of new books, the excitement of what the year will bring, the challenge and joy of reading the stories before all others did – that was what new textbooks meant to many of our generation. I would like to believe that there is similar excitement even today, but our books are a mixed bag. While much work has been done to make the books more approachable and – yes- inclusive, not all the work has had a positive impact, nor has it been enough.

Textbook production in India is led by the NCERT (National Council for Education, Research and Training), followed by the State councils. Private publishers abound, for this is a reasonably lucrative sector with enough room to create in ways that the NCERT and SCERT cannot. The private publishers sell to school trusts, who may supplement or use just these to teach children. For state schools, state sponsored textbooks are compulsory.

NCERT books are certainly cheaper than most other books and we use this to explain the poor production quality. But while low cost production can excuse using cheaper paper or fewer colours, there should be no excuse that is acceptable for inaccurate textbooks. Not only do the books have factual errors, the grammar is not the best, and often it is possible to interpret a sentence in different ways due to the way the words are arranged. It is good to see that some attention is being paid to the errors in current NCERT books, but that is not enough in this day and age.

In our traditional teaching processes, all learning is centered around the textbook – this one book (for the subject, or the year) then becomes the anchor for learning and assessment. This places the book squarely at the centre of the learning process. Which means that any change or progress in pedagogy can be led through this, the textbook.
Even in the current form our textbooks need serious and constant work by teams of experts. Revisionist history, sub scale civics lessons, localised geography – all are examples of decisions that must be revisited. Currently, most books are supposed to be written by teams of experts- though teamwork in publishing is notoriously complex.

A good book is about content, process and values set in an appropriate context. It is these texts that are used to deliver the national strategy for education and are the primary tool for signaling standards, expectations and aspirations to the entire system. It is then a baseline, a launching pad for extended learning, or a tool to give structure to the academic year. For some schools, the very same textbooks are a stretch target. The design of these books then has to be intelligent enough to accommodate the range of abilities and support facilities.

It is time we started thinking about textbooks as solutions rather than mere tools. The discussion around textbooks currently hovers around issues of language their ability to deliver the right content for good assessment. A textbook today does not have to be a static, one way dissemination system any more. In its digital avatar, it can both be dynamic and customised. With the new National Knowledge Network and the nation wide broadband network being built and made available for education, the textbook can take on an even more interesting place in learning processes. If the networks are implemented well.

The very purpose of the textbook needs a rethink. It is meant to transfer knowledge for testing and examination? It it designed to be a trigger for thought? Does the book provide a base for continuous evaluation of student progress? Is the job of the book to awaken curiosity? Having done so, does it provide structure and direction to those students who wish to pursue that curiosity? What skills do these books embed?

Our books, as they stand today, miss many opportunities to embed skills that would build better citizens for tomorrow. The way books are written and presented can influence the kind of thinking that will form the back bone of decision making in the next generation. The way we present the content in books can foster knowledge seekers, structured thinkers, problem solvers and team builders. If not crafted well, we may be trapped with a generation of those who are dogmatic about received knowledge with neither the tools nor mental resources to question and reason.

Textbooks are the spine of our education system. We should be doing better with them. They can be great tools to build teams, communities and a thinking-doing society. Our textbooks need to take the lead in nurturing abilities and interests, and, give it structure. They must build rigour and reason, both for the sake of the quest and for proof of qualification. Above all, they must be reliable, relevant and rewarding pathways to learning.



This was published in the Pioneer newspaper on April 4, 2012


One Response to “Textbooks need to do better”

  1. R.Geetha May 4, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    Text books are not complete. On each subject reference books would be useful, but to replace that we have internet. Children should know more that there is in text books.We should encourage the children to question and be curious about any new lesson they learn.Teachers can encourage students to form a group and make a project.May be they can make a blog too. National Knowledge Network is for engineering students in college.

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