Education, Development, and Change
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Alternative Textbooks

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 21 Dec, 2009

EDUCATION can play an important role in controlling as well as emancipating groups of individuals. Realising its significance a number of imperialist forces used education as a tool to impose their hegemony.

The Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called it cultural hegemony where minds are controlled through cultural means, without using coercion. Edward Said in his famous work, Orientalism, made it evident how language, literature and education could be used to control ‘others’ through ‘spontaneous consent’.

In the recent history of the subcontinent we see Macaulay’s proposal underlining the role of language and education as an ‘imperious need’. The dominant groups of society are convinced of their superiority in all fields including language, literature, education and culture. Thus they consider it their responsibility to invite other cultures, languages and literatures to the ‘melting pot’ of their superior culture and become one with it. In this approach there is no room for diversity and anything different from the standards set by dominant groups is dubbed substandard, defective and unacceptable.

The democratic approach, however, believes that there is beauty in diversity. Each culture, language and ethnicity has the right to flourish. This freedom of existence could be claimed through an educational system based on a vibrant curriculum, contemporary teaching materials and critical pedagogy. Education through such a system may lead to socio-economic development and the enhancement of freedoms. On the other hand an educational system based on the conservative idea of transmission, following a static curriculum, obsolete teaching materials, and recall-based assessment system leads to conformity and stasis of thought.

This kind of educational system is unable to produce students equipped with critical thinking to challenge some of the unwanted taboos in society. Such an education is incapable of bringing any qualitative change to the lives of individuals and society.When we talk of education we are obliged to discuss the notion of curriculum and associated matters i.e. teacher, student, teaching materials, school milieu and the assessment system. All these factors are important to make a curriculum happen in class.

Teaching material/textbooks play a significant role as the objectives of a curriculum are translated through the textbooks. In Pakistan textbooks become even more significant as the teacher’s role has been limited by the assessment system that revolves around them. There is not much room left for the teacher’s individual freedom and creative initiative.

Writing a textbook is a highly technical job which requires team work and detailed planning. The process entails different steps to ensure quality. In Pakistan, however, textbooks used in mainstream public schools do not follow a systematic writing process and thus pose a number of problems including those related to content, language, organisation and presentation.

The content may not be sensitive in terms of gender, ethnicity, social class and religion. The language may be complex in terms of vocabulary, syntax and semantics and biased against certain social groups. The organisation could be in violation of pedagogical principles of moving from simple to difficult or concrete to abstract. Treatment could be insensitive to the socio-political makeup of the marginalised groups of society.

These potential textbooks problems could be aggravated in the conservative paradigm of education where the whole emphasis is on transmission rather than transformation and where teachers find themselves the passive followers of these books. Neither teachers nor students in this paradigm dare to step outside the holy circle of textbooks. In this paradigm the chances of development of independent thinking are minimal.

The central question is: why should a certain textbook be used if the goal of the curriculum can be better realised by using an alternative one? Diversity in the provision of teaching materials on the one hand can create positive competition among writers and publishers, which is currently nonexistent, and on the other, provide freedom of choice to schools to select a book that they think is more relevant to their environment and more sensitive to the socio-cultural identities and beliefs of their students. There are a few potential challenges in launching the alternative textbook. The first challenge is whether the textbook in question is helpful in realising the objectives of the national curriculum. The second is the indigenous context which has cultural as well as pedagogical value. The third challenge is that of price. Is it possible to keep the price within a reasonable range? The fourth challenge is to make sure that one publishing giant does not monopolise the textbooks business.

The fifth challenge is that of quality control. How can we ensure that a private publisher would maintain the quality of the approved book? The sixth challenge is the potential demand of commission by some heads of educational institutions and the offer of publishers of commission in order to prescribe a certain book for certain institutions. To meet such challenges there is a need to set up an autonomous authority comprising education practitioners, researchers, etc, from the private and public sectors. This body should have the mandate to approve a book in term of its suitability, prescribe the price, monitor the quality and sort out complaints regarding commission demands. The freedom in the choice and use of alternative textbooks would certainly help our educational system to achieve its major goals of development, emancipation and justice and reaffirm our commitment to the agenda of social and political harmony.

The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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