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close this bookThe Courier N 148 - Nov - Dec 1994 - Dossier: Education - Country Reports: Saint Lucia - St Vincent and The Grenadines (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
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School textbooks, investment... or waste

by Louis Vandevelde

There is a lot more to education than simple rote reaming. While a good teacher may be able to impart a lot of knowledge orally to his or her pupils, acquiring the skills of reaming for oneself is arguably just as important This implies access to teaching materials and textbooks It also prompts discussion about the merits of different types of reference source and about ways of organising the material.

It would be understandable if these issues did not appear as priorities in many ACP countries where it is often a struggle to find resources even for the basic infrastructure or teaching staff. But given the link between education and development, research into making the former more effective is relevant to any country.

In this article, Professor Louis Vandevelde analyses some research concerning school textbooks recently undertaken in Belgium.

For some years, the item 'school textbooks' has been taking an increasingly important share of resources allocated to investment in teaching aids under many educational aid projects.

Although not so very long ago books were considered a luxury which were not only inaccessible, but also often superfluous, the rule 'as many textbooks as there are children' has now become a common objective and in some cases a reality thanks to a number of educational reforms currently under way.

It is certainly not the intention of this article to contest the right of each child to enjoy the privilege of using the educational tool which the book constitutes.

Our aim is to examine, in the light of systematic findings made on the spot and of a prospective survey, the conditions required to ensure that this right can be accompanied by the anticipated multiple effects of learning for all children, wherever they live, and to stop money being wasted.

What is the use of school textbooks?

The answer to this question varies somewhat depending on the subject and on whether it is asked at primary or secondary school, but it presents a large number of common aspects. Generally speaking, in the teaching of a child's mother tongue and of mathematics, the school textbook is used mainly as a source of exercises in applying rules and carrying out operations which have to be grasped. (The teacher often has the 'answers' to the exercises in a teacher's book, which is sometimes appended to the pupils' book and is sometimes separate.)

In other disciplines, where the subjects are generally divided into lessons corresponding very closely to the succession of topics provided for in the curriculum, the textbook offers summaries which are supposed to be memorised.

In other words, because the teaching material in a textbook is set out in a way which tends to provide a faithful replica of the lessons given by the teacher, in practice its only utility is as a way of avoiding the need to copy out the above-mentioned exercise questions or summaries by hand. A textbook is hardly ever used at school as a reference source to be consulted in order to learn something new.

Nor is it used to show that subjects taught by a teacher in a certain way or in a certain form can also be explained in another way or expressed differently without changing the substance. It is not even a tool to which the pupil is supposed to refer spontaneously to answer questions when he does not trust his memory (since, in the majority of oral or written examinations, the teacher assesses 'knowledge' or mnemonic ability, and not the ability to investigate whether the book contains any useful facts. The same applies regarding the capacity to use any available data judiciously. If this barely caricatured description reflects the real situation, then it must be recognised that, as far as school textbooks are concerned, the relationship between 'quality of educational service' and 'price' is totally disproportionate. As will be shown below, with a very few rare exceptions, neither the actual organisation of the books and their accompanying teaching guides, nor the objectives stated in curricula, nor even - and perhaps especially - the vocational training of the teaching staff, encourage a more functional and therefore more educative use for school textbooks.

Experimental studies

The observations set out above are not mere impressions or superficial assessments. They are the outcome of a number of experimental studies into the skills of primary and secondary children, in the 10 to 18-year age range, as regards consultation of reference tools (dictionaries, general works, school textbooks etc.) and, more generally, the ability and willingness to seek out information.

A very significant preliminary investigation is at the root of all this work. We gave two standard tests, one in the mother tongue and the other in mathematics, to a representative sample of over 2000 pupils (11, 14 and 16-year olds) being taught in Belgium's various education systems. These contained questions both on subjects within the relevant curricula and intentionally chosen from outside them. Each pupil was asked to give two sets of answers: the first time on the basis exclusively of their knowledge, the second time with a 'glossary' at hand specially designed for this research and containing all the facts needed to respond to the questions, with a table of contents and an alphabetical index as 'keys to access'.

The results revealed that for more than 80% of the pupils studied, of whichever age group, performance with the help of the glossary as a reference source was no better than the results obtained without access to the information.

Two extremely significant observations were also made. On the one hand, a very large number of pupils, including some of those whose results from the memory test were excellent, did not even try to use the reference booklet. On the other hand, some pupils who did refer to this source and found the necessary help there (as the wording of their answers showed), preferred to claim that they had not done so, considering that it was more 'honourable' to be able to reply without copying! This justification shows how greatly the education system underestimate the intellectual value of research and enhances the value of reconstitution.

Reference sources

A second investigation was undertaken following these first findings. It revealed that even though, at 11, 14 or 16 years of age, the ability to consult reference sources to answer a question is still a skill acquired to greatly varying degrees, it is perfectly possible to teach it. Indeed, three samples of pupils aged 11 (fifth-year primary), 14 (second-year secondary) and 16 (fourth-year secondary), were given various types of training in the consultation of reference sources, over a period of eight months, with at least one such teaching session a week. At the end of the training, standardised tests were given to the children in each group, as well as to three control groups at the same educational level whose members had received no special training.

Three major findings dearly emerged from this experiment:

- Not only can consultation of reference material be taught. It even equips primary school children trained in it to achieve average performances which are statistically better than those of untrained 16-year olds.

- Although it is shown that the required capacity and attitudes favourable to the consultation of reference material can be taught, good results are only achieved after very systematic training. 'Learning by doing' (without back-up) is obviously not sufficient.

- The common feature of the experiments set out briefly above is that they relate to learning how to consult very common works and other instruments specially designed as reference sources.

We then went on to look at whether existing school textbooks could contribute to developing these same skills. Here too, a systematic experiment was carried out.

It consisted of presenting a series of questions (concerning the mother tongue) to 1 5-year olds. They were asked to answer from memory and then to consult their current school textbook, and to indicate, where appropriate, whether parts of the answer appeared therein. Finally, they were asked to reply to the questions using the information found, if any.

Limited aptitude

This experiment confirmed, firstly, the very limited aptitude (and certainly the lack of practice) of the majority of pupils at this educational level in using textbooks to solve general questions. It also showed that the school textbook is not, or is only very rarely, the work tool or reference source that it should be.

On analysing the results of the latest experiment, it emerges very clearly that most failures cannot be attributed solely to the lack of training in how to consult reference sources. The fact that the vast majority of school textbooks are not designed to be used as reference tools is also a major element. Among the shortcoming identified:

- not only are contents tables often incomplete, but the headings in them only rarely refer to significant key words;

- subjects are generally organised in the same order as that in which the author chooses to set out his teaching material, but consultation can be difficult and even problematic;

- very few textbooks contain an alphabetical index of subjects, even though this can be a particularly effective key to access;

- by highly regrettable tradition, there are separate school textbooks containing the curriculum for each of the various school years; it only takes a few experiences of unsuccessfully trying to find something for the pupil to lose confidence in his book and give up looking.

The results of this work not only reveal obvious inability among pupils from environments where there is no consultation of reference material (since there are no books there either). They also, perhaps more than anything, reveal the gaps in the training of teaching staff with regard to the range of educational activities offered by books (as by any other source of information). And lastly, this research clearly demonstrates that education through books cannot be improvised: the very concept of the 'school textbook' needs to be radically rethought.

Contrary to what happens with a great many education reforms, particularly in the developing countries, the requisite conversion of school textbooks should not be confined to a superficial 'regional adaptation' of the books used, where they only constitute a 'genre' amongst the wide variety of books available. It is as though the people responsible for promoting school textbooks in these countries were unaware of the extent to which the traditional textbook is falling into disuse in places where other sources of information exist, within the reach of pupils.


This is true in both secondary and primary schools. Photocopies are insidiously replacing books and, in many schools, the traditional textbooks are already tending to disappear. This is a very worrying development. In fact, far from correcting the faults of ordinary school textbooks, photocopies aggravate the paucity of teaching material used. They become a kind of aide memoire, narrowly confined to the instruction provided by the teacher. And there is the risk that in future, the only children who will retain contact with external resources (in particular, bibliographical material) will be those who have the right cultural environment, and who have the resources to widen their intellectual horizons through the use of libraries and the acquisition of reference works. For them, the decline of the traditional school textbook is also a loss but one which can be made up for elsewhere.

What the school textbook is supposed to contribute and promote is a matter solely for the people in charge of the education system in question. Only warnings against the unquestioning adoption of practices and methods, whose only recommendation is that they exist or have been justified at some other time or place, can be warranted from the outside. Some of the comments below are obvious truths; for example, the observation that waste needs to be avoided at a time when there is such a clear gulf between identified needs and shrinking resources.

Other observations have to do with social choices and educational options. The fact remains that they must be addressed by the people in charge and notably by project managers.

Errors not to be repeated

In view of the low frequency of consultation and, particularly, the lack of variety in the use made of textbooks, expenditure on this type of educational resource appears disproportionate.

In primary schools, provision is generally made for one book for the mother tongue and one arithmetic book for each of the six years, one 'observable sciences' book from the third year and a geography and history book for each of the last two years. This gives a total of about 20 textbooks. This average of at least three books per year of study is often doubled in secondary education. There is no need to simulate a cost calculation to see that the financial burden, whether borne by the school, the family, or the two jointly (depending on social conditions), comes to a very substantial amount.

That is why, until recently, various forms of cost reduction - often combined - have been devised and implemented: a single book for several pupils; use limited to work during school hours; reuse of the same books for several years, and so on. Each of these economy measures inevitably results in a reduction, not only in frequency of use, but also in the diversity of educational services made available. For example:

- where a single book has to be used by several children, the time for individual reading is naturally reduced;

- the ban on taking books home has the unfortunate side-effect that only those who own copies of them can make up for any difficulties they have in class by studying outside school hours;

- having to return the books allocated to a school year when the next year is started, on the pretext that the curriculum is different, postulates that forgetting even part of what has been learnt is not permitted - and that deprives books of one of their main reasons for existing.

Damaging effects

The damaging effects of these measures have gradually been realised and so the idea that each pupil needs to be provided with the full collection of school textbooks associated with the curriculum of the year in progress is gradually gaining ground. The principle is generous, but naive. Experience confirms that teachers do not make more use of books in the classroom in such circumstances. Nor do pupils alter their reaming habits. This is despite the fact that this approach entails a significant increase in costs.

The reasons for this are obvious and straightforward. The teachers, weaned on the methodological instructions contained in the guides which accompany the textbooks, have fewer reasons for modifying their teaching as the textbooks change only in appearance. Indeed, it appears that most projects involving the individualisation of textbooks include what is purported to be a regional or national adaptation. In reality this updating - of a supposedly cultural nature - is superficial, involving nothing more than changes in the subject matter or illustrations aimed at allowing particular readers to identify more closely with the text. Little change is made to the core information or to the teaching suggestions contained in the textbook.

In other words, implementing the basic idea that each child should have every book will only be helpful if the books in question enrich the cognitive processes of reaming through their design and presentation. From the teaching sources that they are today, they should become information tools. To achieve this, they have to have contents tables setting out the key words as well as indexes, vocabulary lists and glossaries. They should even contain questionnaires, tables and summaries to allow them to become genuine 'work instruments' which can be used to obtain a better understanding and to find information that has been forgotten. Schoolbooks which also contain lists of exercises and applications should be designed so as to enable the teacher to help pupils in difficulty: in other words, in such a way that with systematic consultation of the book's key indicators, the pupil is bound to succeed in the task being undertaken.


For reasons of both economy, and of lack of physical space, it will probably be necessary to reduce the number of books at each level and year of study, if one opts for such 'textbook-tools'. Contrary to preconceived ideas and traditions, there is no obvious reason why the textbook used during a particular school year should have to correspond closely with that year's curriculum. More significantly, it does not have to mirror closely the teaching approach that has been chosen.

On the other hand, the same textbook should, strictly speaking, cover the full range of subjects in the curriculum at any given level. At the very least, it should deal with the concepts encountered previously by the students. This means that it would be appropriate to replace the traditional chronological approach to presentation with one based on systematic subject classification. This would require consultation on a functional basis which, in itself, would represent significant progressive training capable of being transferred to other spheres on study. The corollary to reducing the number of different textbooks for a single subject would be that one kept them for a longer period; certainly longer than a year and possibly even from one level of study to the next. They would not have to be returned at a given time and would, therefore, always be available. Indeed, they might continue to be useful even after the end of one's formal education. It would be encouraging to find that, having completed basic education, former pupils were continuing to apply the skills learnt in researching something before taking action.

This is not the place to enter into a discussion about the techniques needed for designing and producing such 'textbook tools'. One need only note that a number of extra-curricular collections, designed as information tools, are already on the publishing market and that there is very active educational research on the subject. There is also considerable activity in the field of discussion and training seminars designed for textbook authors and people in charge of educational projects. Clearly, this focus should be extended to cover both initial and in-service training of teachers. It is necessary, at the very least, that any projects or reforms containing a 'school textbook' component should, henceforth, involve:

- preparatory studies aimed at ensuring that decisions taken incorporate the idea of intellectual and social 'investment' as well as that of financial savings;

- the systematic introduction of systems for evaluating both the knowledge that is currently taken for granted and any additional paracognitive attitudes which such investments are liable to generate.

Common to the above considerations is the conviction that there can be no democratisation of education without systematic training, by the school and within the school, in the practice of research and the use of information. Unequal opportunities lie not so much in the difference in knowledge gained as in the possibilities of having access to it. It is for the school to promote the aptitudes - and even more so, the attitudes - which enable pupils to acquire knowledge not actually taught to them or ta reacquire knowledge about things they have forgotten.

This conviction is held by a large number of educationalists, who constantly proclaim that there is no point having classes or schools if there is no library fund. Those who are working towards transforming the school textbook from a teaching aid to an information tool share this conviction. And in their enterprise, they see a first-class opportunity to contribute to the essential goals of ensuring that people retain their learning achievements, and of promoting on-going education.