Textbooks Research Paper

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The textbook remains today what Altbach calls a ‘virtual icon of education’ (Altbach 1991, p. 242), yet controversy surrounds nearly every aspect of its production, dissemination, and use, and its prospects for survival are uncertain in a high bandwidth, digitized, and wireless world. Textbooks in modern society function simultaneously as surrogate curricula, cultural artifacts, and commercial objects. Their development over the past two millennia has been driven by the evolution of formal schooling and of the printing arts, as wells as by the development, particularly since the start of the twentieth century, of educational psychology. Important differences in textbook form and use, and of the issues surrounding these areas, exist across the schooling levels— elementary, secondary, and tertiary; curricular areas; and countries. The form that textbooks will assume in the future is projected to change with the fuller integration of information and computer technologies in schooling.

1. Definition And Evolution

1.1 Definition

Textbook usually is interpreted in a general sense, referring to texts that are especially prepared for the study of a subject. The prototypic textbook has as its core a sequence of topics that are arranged to lead a student through a subject or course of study, accompanied on the periphery by occasional guiding statements, summaries, or the like, exercises for practice, questions for self-assessment, and assistance for the instructor. All textbooks possess the core element but differ in representation of the periphery. Primary level textbooks tend to possess all of the peripheral attributes; secondary level ones, most, and tertiary level ones, fewer. Nevertheless, all textbooks are viewed as surrogate curricula, defining a prescribed codification of knowledge.

1.2 Historical Development

Until at least the Enlightenment, textbooks for advanced study were either original works, such as the grammars of Donatus and Pricisian, Boethius’s Geometry, and Ptolemy’s Mechanisms of the Heavens, or abridged compendiums of these works, such as Martinus Capella’s The Marriage of Mercury and Philology (Cubberley 1920). For children, specially developed materials originate with the Orbis Pictus of Comenius (1658 1887), which was the first illustrated schoolbook published for introductory learning. By the end of the seventeenth century primers for teaching reading were published in Europe with the alphabet, lists of syllables and words, as well as religious material: the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and so on. From the influence of Rousseau and Pestalozzi came, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, carefully sequenced materials for learning, along with occasional suggestions for the instructor. With the adoption of tax supported schooling, particularly in Europe and North America, both the market and the need for textbooks expanded dramatically, leading to changes in both size and content. Coincidentally, improvements in printing technology and paper making throughout the nineteenth century were also reflected in textbooks. With the rise in educational psychology, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, instructional approaches became more differentiated and more scripted, leading by the post-World War II period, to separate teacher manuals to accompany many elementary and secondary level textbooks.

2. Surrogate Curriculum

According to Altbach and Kelly (1988, p. 3), ‘(Textbooks) constitute the base of school knowledge, particularly in third world countries where there is a chronic shortage of qualified teachers.’ But even in industrialized countries textbooks are the primary codification of school knowledge and the principal guide for teachers. Teachers at the elementary levels, who are responsible for teaching a broad curriculum in self-contained classrooms, choose out of necessity to use textbooks, along with workbooks and teacher guides. At higher levels of schooling the textbook is as much a prop for students, a vade mecum for a course, as it is a guide for the instructor.

2.1 Grade Level Differences

Although textbooks are used at all levels of education and in all subjects, their importance varies not only across countries but also across grade levels and curricular areas. At the primary levels their use is limited primarily to literacy, at least until the students, on average, can read well enough to gain meaning from other content area texts. In many school systems language arts and mathematics texts may be the only ones commonly used prior to the fourth or fifth year of schooling. Then, through the first years of graduate school, textbooks tend to be the basis of instruction for most subject areas.

2.2 Subject Area Differences

Thomas Kuhn has pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that at the college level textbook use varies dramatically by field of study. Music, the graphic arts, and literature typically are taught through direct exposure of the student to artists’ works, textbooks playing only a secondary role. In history, philosophy, and the social sciences, textbooks have a more significant role, but students usually are also assigned readings from the classics and from contemporary research reports. In contrast, the natural sciences are taught almost exclusively from textbooks (Kuhn 1970). Within the natural sciences, textbooks are rewritten after each paradigm shift (or ‘revolution,’ in Kuhn’s terms), with the revolution obscured and the past reinterpreted to show only its connection to the issues of the new paradigm.

2.3 Use Of Textbooks By Teachers

How teachers use textbooks is a matter of concern for educational administrators. In developing countries where teachers may not be well trained, close adherence to the sequence and directions of the textbook is desired. In other countries, reliance upon textbooks, particularly at the primary levels, is not viewed positively. Studies of teaching practices, however, have tended to show that high percentages of elementary teachers do use textbooks as their primary guide for instruction (e.g., Shaver et al. 1979, Weiss 1987). But other studies have shown that teachers, in general, do not follow their textbooks slavishly (e.g., Stodolsky 1989).

2.4 Control Of Textbook Content

In most countries a central ministry of education determines the general content of textbooks but the actually writing of the texts may be performed by persons outside the ministry, as in Russia, or within the ministry, as in Singapore. In the US, Canada, and Germany control over textbook content is vested at a provincial or state level, although the actual texts are produced by the private sector. In many developing countries, where indigenous textbook industries generally are not yet developed, multinational textbook companies exercise some control over content. French produced textbooks, for example, are used in many West African secondary schools (e.g., Togo); some of these texts portray sex roles and other culturally sensitive matters that are alien to West African cultures (Biraimah 1988).

2.4.1 Imported Textbooks. At a postsecondary level and especially in technical subjects, textbooks are relatively expensive to produce, due to the cost of illustrations, complex diagrams, formulas, and the like. Many countries, including the smaller industrialized ones such as The Netherlands, Finland, and Luxembourg, must import textbooks for these levels, and the majority of the these texts are written in English. A further factor that affects the content of textbooks worldwide, but particularly at a secondary and tertiary level, is that a small number of highly industrialized countries dominate knowledge production and dissemination. Countries like the US invest large amounts of money in all fields of research and development, including educational research, and tend, therefore, to set many of the tertiary level standards worldwide for curriculum and assessment. Through academic institutions, research laboratories, libraries, and professional journals, countries like Britain, Germany, and the US exert both direct and indirect influence over textbooks in most of the rest of the world. That this knowledge is shared freely is offset partially by the reduction in cultural autonomy that results.

2.4.2 International Concerns Over Content. Even within a world that recognizes, at least in principle, the right of each country to design and teach its own curriculum, cross-national conflicts over curriculum content have occurred. One example is the concern expressed by a number of countries to specific national treatments of twentieth-century history and particularly of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1982 The People’s Republic of China and South Korea protested changes in Japanese history books that removed references to the Japanese massacre in Nanking and watered down the language previously used to describe other Japanese behavior toward conquered territories (Ketcham 1986). More recently, an Austrian publisher of a high school history series was forced, through pressure from other countries, to stop referring to Nazi concentration camps as ‘punishment camps.’ History texts in the US have been attacked for over a half century for lack of fairness and objectivity in describing wars (Walworth 1938), for being bland and condescending (Sewall 1987), and for failing to attribute blame to individuals (FitzGerald 1979). Similarly, science texts have been criticized for their handling of evolution (Skoog 1984).

3. Cultural Artifact

3.1 The Latent Curriculum

The table of contents and index of a typical textbook define, to a large degree, the manifest curriculum offered by the text. But on top of this curriculum are a secondary set of messages, reflected by commission and omission, that constitute the latent or hidden curriculum (Cronbach 1955). In part, this is what Williams calls the selective tradition of society (Williams 1980). A mathematics textbook that constructs its word problems around interests of a consumer society—goods to be purchased, interest on loans, fees paid for services—conveys a different message from one that presents the same mathematical challenges built around revolutionary themes— distribution of land to the poor, triumph in sports over capitalistic societies, and so on. In China, for example, mathematics textbooks during the Cultural Revolution conformed to the prevailing ideology; with a shift in politics, mathematics textbooks by 1980 were stripped of all praise for the Gang of Four and their policies (Kwong 1988).

3.2 Class Structure

Texts for teaching reading have been studied worldwide for different aspects of their latent curricula, including gender roles (e.g., Lorimer and Long 1979–1980, Zimet 1972, Biraimah 1988), need for achievement (e.g., McClelland 1961), moral ethical values (e.g., de Charms and Moeller 1962), and sociocultural ideologies (e.g., Ahier 1988, Apple and Christian-Smith 1991, Luke 1988). Drawing on Paulo Freire’s claim that pedagogy for literacy, by definition, requires an educational ideology, some of these latter authors argue that in countries such as Britain, the US, and Canada, literacy textbooks are as much concerned with maintaining class structures and political hierarchies as they are with imparting reading and writing. Although there is a surface validity to these claims, as demonstrated particularly by textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s, they are difficult hypotheses to test on modern textbooks in industrialized countries, given the pressures on publishers to produce textbooks that are unbiased toward any sex, race ethnicity, age, country of origin, or political belief. Texts today could be attacked as much for failing to promote cultural continuity as for over-representing any particular class or belief in society.

4. Commercial Object

In almost every country that has formal schooling, textbooks have some relationship to the commercial sector. In Singapore, for example, textbooks are designed and written by a Ministry of Education, but copublished with private sector firms. In the USSR, prior to its breakup, the Ministry of Education or a State Committee for Public Education designed the content of textbooks but authors were selected through public competitions and paid royalties for their efforts, which were published by state controlled printing houses. In Mexico, where textbooks have been provided free to the six grades of public and private elementary school, government support has been provided to develop what World Bank researchers have called ‘the most dynamic private sector publishing industry in Latin America’ (Neumann and Cunningham 1982).

4.1 Concentrations Of Expertise And Production Capacity

Textbook publishing and marketing require expertise in subject matter and pedagogy, along with capital, production and distribution capacity, and access to paper. These resources are found primarily in the major metropolitan centers of North America, Asia, and Europe, and are increasingly being dominated by the larger European conglomerates—Pergamon and Pearson in the UK, Bertelsmann in Germany, and Hachette in France. Even in the US, few major textbook publishing houses have remained independent. The rest of the world lies in the periphery of textbook publishing, even though many other large countries such as India, China, Mexico, and Egypt produce many if not most of their own textbooks and the latter two export regionally to smaller developing countries (Altbach 1991).

4.2 Physical Characteristics

The appearance of textbooks—the quality of paper, typography, illustrations, bindings, and cover stock—are a function of printing technology, different national economies, grade level, and national (or regional local) educational policies, such as the adoption cycle. In all school systems primary level textbooks usually are done on the cheapest paper, often with paper covers and limited use of color for illustrations. Russia textbooks, which the former Soviet government subsidized, were produced to last 2–3 years and were done with cheap paper, cover stock, and bindings. In contrast, textbooks in the US are produced to last 5–7 years and due to market factors have far more expensive components. But they also cost almost 10 times as much as their Russian counterparts (Mehlinger 1991).

4.3 Authorship

Authors of secondary and tertiary textbooks generally write the works that bear their names. At the elementary level, on the other hand, writing houses or other anonymous writers often do the majority of the development. The authors usually are involved in planning and review, and may even draft a few model lessons, but their main function is to impart validity to the resulting product, through their professional reputations, affiliations, or their race ethnicity, age, or sex. In the US, most elementary reading textbooks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were authored by single individuals, with a few having two authors, or (rarely) three. By the early part of the twentieth century, most readers had two or three authors, by the 1950s, four, and by the 1970s, as many as eight authors and instructional consultants (Woodward 1986).

4.4 Marketing And Adoption

In many countries, including some with national ministries of education, textbooks compete in a partially open marketplace. The selection of textbooks for schools, however, is often enshrouded in a complexity of national, regional, and local politics. In the US, where local control of schools and lay control of the school curriculum are fundamental tenets of the educational process, school board prerogatives for textbook selection often clash with particular citizen interests as well as with state and national politics. State-wide adoption practices, initiated originally for both economic and political reasons, have led to several heavily populated states (e.g., Texas, California) exerting unwarranted influence over the entire elementary and high school textbook trade.

5. The Future Of Textbooks

In a science fiction classic entitled A Round Trip to the Year 2000 or a Flight through Time, written by Cook (1903), news and novels in the year 2000 are no longer printed. Instead central ‘bureaus’ transmit voice recordings upon request from phonographic records. However, textbooks still exist and specific mention is made of a ‘text-book on Applied Psychology which has a place in every school in the nation’ (Cook 1903 1974, p. 109). Whether the projected survival of textbooks was considered as a positive or negative factor by the author is not known; however, while daily newspaper reading has declined steadily since the early 1950s and the novel has been declared dead at various times over the past decades, textbooks have continued to thrive at all levels of education and in all countries where formal education exists.

In the 1960s the main threat to the existing form of textbooks was the programmed textbook, a dull, tedious approach to sequencing subject matter in baby-sized bites, based on the behavioral conditioning studies that the psychologist B. F. Skinner performed with pigeons and rats (Reid 1969). In the 1980s computer-assisted instruction was offered as a high-tech alternative to textbooks and to teacher directed instruction, with the promise that each student could progress at his or her own pace—a goal that was seldom challenged by educators. Today the World Wide Web (WWW), hypertext, and inexpensive, book-sized computers that can display texts on high quality displays, are the assumed replacements.

For the developing world, which is still struggling to recruit and train sufficient numbers of teachers and to provide adequate buildings for schooling, the provision of textbooks written in the national languages and appropriate for their cultures remains a challenge. Similarly, smaller industrialized countries would like to find inexpensive approaches for producing or adapting tertiary textbooks to their languages rather than importing them. Finally, for the historian, the preservation of textbooks remains an issue. Few, if any major research libraries are willing to invest resources in preserving and cataloging textbooks, particularly elementary and secondary ones. Fortunately, a number of newer research centers and projects for the study of textbooks have been funded, including the Japan Textbook Research Center, The Teaching Resources and Textbook Research Unit in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sydney, Australia, the UNESCO International Textbook Research Network (in cooperation with the Georg Eckert Institute in Germany), and the Textbook Colloquium in the Open University Faculty of Arts in the UK.


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