07 March 2007

Are you being idiot-proofed?

Michael Swan, although a supporter of coursebooks, nevertheless warned: "The danger of ready-made textbooks is that they can seem to absolve teachers of responsibility. Instead of participating in the day-to-day decisions that have to be made about what to teach and how to teach it, it is easy to just sit back and operate the system, secure in the belief that the wise and virtuous people who produced the textbook knew what was good for us. Unfortunately this is rarely the case."(1)

Allwright explained from another perspective: "According to this view, we need teaching materials to save learners from our deficiencies as teachers, to make sure, as far as possible, that the syllabus is properly covered, and that exercises are well thought out, for example. This way of thinking might lead, at one extreme, to the idea that the 'best' teachers would have 'teacher proof' materials that no teacher, however deficient, would be able to teach badly with."(2)

Although coursebooks can be an invaluable contribution to the training of new teachers it could be argued that they "deskill" experienced teachers.

I will not say that Swan and Allwright are anti-coursebook extremists. I am not an anti-coursebook extremist but I have found myself going through some transitions.

I went through being coursebook dependent to coursebook embellisher to coursebook modifier but arriving at coursebook frustration when the coursebook didn't fit my students at all.

At this point, the teacher is faced with a quandary. He lacks the confidence that he can teach his students without a commercially prepared coursebook even though the coursebook isn't doing the job. He is unable to believe that he can make the next logical step. Why do we fear this?

As Richards points out: "[a] potentially negative consequence of the use of textbooks is that they can lead to reification. Reification refers to the unjustifiable attribution of qualities of excellence, authority, and validity to published textbooks, a tendency often supported by the promotional efforts of publishers. In promoting their products, publishers often support the idea that their books represent the theories of experts or the most recent scientific research. With our without publishers' efforts, however, there is the general expectation among teachers that textbooks have been carefully developed through consultation with teachers and specialists and through field testing, and that the exercises and activities they contain will achieve what they set out to do. In some situations, this belief may be reinforced by culturally based views on the attributes of the printed word.

Teachers in some parts of the world, for example, tend to assume that any item included in a textbook must be an important learning item for students, and that explanations (e.g., of grammar rules or idioms) and cultural information provided by the author are true and should not be questioned; they assume that they do not have the authority or knowledge to adapt the textbook. They likewise believe that activities found in a textbook are superior to ones that they could devise themselves."(3)

We should be sure that we are using coursebooks and coursebooks are not using us. Perhaps it's time to make our own.

(1) Swan, Michael 1992. The textbook: Bridge or wall? Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching 2(1):33
(2) Allwright, R. L. 1981. What do we want teaching materials for? ELT Journal 36(1):6
(3) Richards, Jack 1998. Textbooks: Help or hindrance in teaching?; Beyond Training:131

1 comment:

  1. There are some other, political (or ideological) issues related to this issue of publishers and "teacher-proof" textbooks, issues which Michael Apple (amongst others) has written and researched extensively about, the main one being the attempt to limit teachers' input into what they do in the classroom; limiting teachers to non-thinking technicians, hired to simply implement the curriculum someone else designs.