Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Textbook Problem - Reimagined

When I first started researching Guam History and writing about contemporary Guam issues, the natural things you'd expect always popped up. If you asked people about the problems on Guam today, they would say the same sorts of things most societies say. Improve the economy. Fix the infrastructure. Fix the educational system. One thing that makes Guam different is that political status issues can be a significant problem that is brought up. One thing that makes the entire discussion over Guam and its problems and possible solutions frustrating is the way in which people don't understand that political status affects everything and is generally tied to everything else.

One thing that was always irritating was to hear people go on and on about the problem with our school system as being tied to a lack of textbooks or having "old" textbooks. The lack of money and the decrepit nature of the system is manifested in the fact that students don't have enough textbooks or they have old textbooks. I understand that this position can be commonsensical, because everyone wants their children and their students to have the best. But the "best" is never universal, there are always problems with it, depending on which context you are imagining that height. So my problem with people imagining that the best for Guam's students was to have the most up to date and shiniest, brand new textbooks, is that it doesn't question where the textbooks come from and what their real value is if any to people on Guam.

The textbook industry itself is a serious educational racket. Textbooks are not necessarily published as needed, but often times more regularly than necessary in order to entice schools to keep buying new books. The prices can also be very high. But all of this is beside the point, we should consider the source of the textbooks. Sure it might seem nice to get the glossiest pages and have students get them right off the presses, but are these brand new sleek tomes of knowledge even relevant for students in Micronesia? What good does it do to have old or new textbooks for our students that don't even address the world around them, but teach them that whatever exists on the other side of the world is what they are supposed to know about?

For so many academic disciplines this is the problem. If you follow the textbook DOE has purchased, then chances are good the newness of it is actually irrelevant, it will teach you the same colonial stuff. What is needed is to recenter our textbook industry so that our students use textbooks that we produce here or empower teachers to produce their own materials. This is why I really enjoyed this column from Joe Sanchez below from this weekend's PDN.

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"Schools No Longer Need Textbooks"
Joseph Sanchez
Guest Column
PDN
8/31/14

On Aug. 12, the Pacific Daily News editorial asserted that the Guam Department of Education should move in the direction of e-books and take advantage of the fact that they are digital and offer a lot more interactive features than a printed textbook.

Yes, this is a good start, but it still misses the point.

To be effective educators, we need to broaden our thinking. E-books are good, but they are just the "digital forms" of the same concept, a collection of information that some textbook publisher believes we should be studying. Textbooks (even in their e-book forms) still tend to take on a North American/European slant on the world -- very biased and selective. It's no secret that textbook content is largely determined by California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Thus, it's not so much the mode of delivery or the availability of the material that is the problem, it's the lens and manner in which the material is screened (censored, if you will) and selected.

Are textbooks needed?

Previously, even as early as 15 years ago, teachers needed textbooks for two reasons. First, to determine what needed to be taught in the classroom, since schools lacked "content standards" to set student expectations in each subject area and grade level. Secondly, they served as a compiler of information and documents because content materials were not readily available.

For example, back then (as far back as the 1990s) for government or history teachers, it sure helped to have a copy of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, otherwise, they would have to go to the library and photocopy the text from an encyclopedia or other reference book. A textbook was a very practical resource.

Today, teachers have content standards that outline what the expectations are for students in each subject and grade level. With the Internet, educators have every major government document available instantly. Literature and informational materials are available in every content area of study.

We no longer need textbooks to provide us these.

A year ago, I asked a group of seventh-grade geography teachers how much time they spent on studying Micronesia and the Asia-Pacific Region. The most was a month, the shortest was less than a week. When I asked why they spent such little time on the region that we live in and are most affected by, do you know what the resounding response was? "It's not in the textbook."

This is a prime example of the weaknesses and limitations of published textbooks, particularly in the areas of social studies, literature and even science.

Do you think a science textbook published in the mainland is going to write a lot about the environmental issues affecting the Pacific Islands? By omitting, or even passively failing to include, content related to Guam, Micronesia and the Asia-Pacific region, publishers send the message that it's of lesser importance. Even if included, limiting the content implies that information pertaining to our region is of "lesser value" than those nations or regions that receive prime coverage in the text.

Not essential any more

Yes, we must accept that there are still a lot of people out there who think that textbooks are an essential part of learning. Well, they are not.

They are a convenient resource to have, but certainly not essential. In fact, their outdated and sometimes biased views and information can actually be a hindrance to teachers who want to really teach and students who actually want to get a good education.

Many of our most effective teachers in Guam DOE have moved beyond the textbook and bring into their classes a variety of rich resources.

Textbooks are more than just a delivery system for information. They send a strong message about what is "legitimate" information or what knowledge is of value. E-books are good because they take advantage of the Internet, but if they are just the "e" version of the same limiting texts, then we are still missing the point.

We need to take control of our curriculum content and make conscious, deliberate decisions about what materials we choose to cover with our students.

Now, this question always comes up and is a legitimate concern: What about students who don't have access to a computer or a device to read the digital material?

To answer that, we must remember again that it's not just the delivery mechanism of the material that is the problem. If our teachers, schools and district do research and compile materials and texts that are of high quality and relevant to our context, it would be a much better investment to print out those documents or materials for the students instead of spending $100-plus on a textbook containing potentially outdated, irrelevant, biased information.

Joe Sanchez is deputy superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Improvement at the Guam Department of Education.

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