to coursebook or not to coursebook….?

Ok, so just to join in the general debate about course books…. I myself have to admit to having authored one. It was an incredibly interesting process, especially when presented with the final hardback with ‘walking stick’ as the editor’s version of ‘stick insect’ (in Dutch a stick insect is literally translated as a walking stick!). Hmm. Of course we had more issues than just minor disagreements with the editor such as having to work within the confines of money and religion – yes, believe it or not, the Netherlands still has a strong Calvinistic background so certain topics are taboo (talking animals, fairies, computers with legs, whatever…you get the gist). There’s an absolute need to reflect society (logical) so the necessary mix of names, colours, cultures etc has to be added; and then there’s the audio – recorded (excellently) by a studio in London with very RP voices occasionally trying (not always terribly successfully!) to mimic regional accents. Anyway, the book itself ended up ok, had some great ideas (I was not the sole author so feel happy saying this of my colleagues) and had an innovative style (dvd cartoon intro, fantastic teacher’s handbook). It’s basically ready to go – open page one, off you go, fairly idiot-proof, so no excuse (if the regular teacher’s sick) for the lesson to be cancelled, even the janitor could do the job!

BUT and here comes the other side of the argument (though no doubt you’ve already noticed a certain negativity in the first part of the argument):

I think it’s great that teacher’s have a book to hold onto in their first year or two of teaching, especially in a country such as this where pupils are ‘mouthy’ (we have been told, for example, for the past five years that our daughter doesn’t ask enough questions in class and doesn’t interrupt enough during book discussions so has been systematically given low grades) and teachers have their hands full just learning all the ins and outs of classroom management skills and styles and a suitable pedagogical approach to the class. However, I notice that in the upper school teachers (departments) tend to teach to the test (central examinations) and stick rigidly to past exam papers and specific books (often in magazine form, better not name them) which are aimed purely at mirroring the exam style. In the lower school the course book is very seldom put aside, even by teachers who would really love to do so, because the ‘system’ (department generally) has determined that the kids will be tested every so often (sometimes every 5 weeks or so) on a certain chapter. A smart teacher can, of course, analyse said chapter and teach the essential items in a totally different, perhaps more appropriate way for his own class, but the exam will no doubt also be based on specific examples from the book. Test validity?

Does any of this sound familiar? I encourage my students to be critical of their course books, to look at their classes and try to make their lessons appropriate to the needs of their pupils, but I understand they have to work within a system where they don’t (yet) get all the freedom they would like. (brick wall….head….?). Some of the course books are very well constructed but, in my opinion, it must be the teachers and pupils who lead the way with the course book only being in a supporting role. I do, however, see so many positive things happening at schools and teachers bringing in their own ideas occasionally and, let’s face it, the Dutch are pretty good at English (because of / in spite of their teachers and books?).

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