One size does not fit all: the one-textbook debate

Having only one textbook to choose from will get rid of the diversity South Africa needs. Photo: Sourced.

Right now, all of you in school in South Africa have a choice in textbooks for each subject. The South African Education Department shows your teachers eight different textbooks per subject, and your teachers get to look through them all and choose which one(s) they think will fit your class the best. That’s the book that arrives at the beginning of the year, and the book you open and learn from.

(Well. That’s how it should work. But we all know how often textbooks don’t actually arrive at schools. That isn’t what we’re worrying about in this post, though.)

The end of last year saw the Education Department deciding to change this system. They said that it was unfair that schools that charge moderate to high fees should get better textbooks than schools that are more disadvantaged. They’re also worried that different textbooks can say slightly different things, which could mean that some students being more prepared for Matric exams than others because they’ve gotten more information from their textbooks. It could also mean that some students don’t know as much about different cultures, beliefs, histories and so on of the land they live in because they’re not being taught those things in the books they read for school. They say that the way to change this is to bring in a one-textbook system. This means that every school in South Africa will have the same textbooks for the same subjects – no choice or variation at all.

While this probably sounds like a very good idea at first, once you look a little deeper you’ll see that it’s actually a bad move. Publisher Kate McCallum argued against the proposed system because of its claim that one textbook is right for all of South Africa. “One size does not fit all. A single textbook will not meet the widely differing needs of the South African school population,” she wrote. For starters, McCallum said, different students in different spaces have different language needs. Those learning in their mother tongue won’t need a textbook that explains English terms, for example, while those learning in their second or even third language will need a lot more language support.

There seems to be a worry that when people like McCallum write about different people needing different standards of textbooks that they are trying to force poorly resourced schools to accept “dumbed down” textbooks because they think the learners cannot understand “higher standard” work. “There’s a theory that we give the poor low-quality education on purpose,” said Nicholas Spaull, an education researcher and blogger. “This isn’t true. We’re all trying very hard to pull up education, but simply can’t,” he said. The sad fact is that South Africa has learners who want different things out of school, and learners who need different levels of support. If there’s one textbook for all these different levels of learners, then we’ll either get a textbook that’s too hard for the majority of our learners, or a textbook that’s too “dumbed down”.

Just as worrying is the question about who will write the one textbook, and what point of view it will have. The Education Department is proposing that either a panel of government officials vote on which textbook will be The One, or that they appoint one or two authors to write this textbook. This, said Spaull, is opening the door very wide to opportunities of corruption and the pushing of an agenda. “It’s basically complete state control of the curriculum,” Spaull said. “One textbook that a group panel, arguably with the same agendas, chooses? That’s not good at all. Look at Japan and China – they’re neighbours, but they have history textbooks that say completely opposite things.” While brainwashing will probably not happen, it’s still very worrying that one or two people might be in charge of giving their personal knowledge to the whole country. “A multi-text environment is educationally richer, offering different points of view and different content, teaching students to discriminate between texts,” McCallum said. This ability to look at two different points of view and find the good and bad in both is essential for school, university and much of life. Especially in a Rainbow Nation like South Africa, where there are so many people with so many cultures, religions and daily life experiences.

And as worrying as that is, the simple fact is that a “one textbook for all” system will never be put into place. The schools which rely only on the government to give them textbooks will all get the government-made textbook. But the schools that can afford more resources will still source other textbooks from private companies or even from overseas. “It will just create an even bigger divide,” Spaull said. “Because now the poor will all have one textbook that has one point of view and one level of work and one mix of cultural context, and the middle class will have much more, because they can afford to buy it for themselves. That’s not bringing equality. That’s making the problem worse.”

The proposal from the Department of Education had some really great ideas that included having a Minimum School Bag, which would ensure that every student in the country got the basic stationary needed and a personal textbook for every subject they take so there’s no more of this one book per ten learners. Those are really good things to focus on, and will help to fix some of the problems in South African education. The one-textbook system, however, is one of those ideas that means well but will only do more harm than good.

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