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Good textbooks

The media are being treated to the latest exposé of “sick books crusader” Antonio Calipjo Go, this time with a list of some 1,300 errors he found in a Grade 10 textbook. Education Secretary Armin Luistro has responded, saying that Go used a draft of the textbook and that errors had been corrected.

But the suspicions about bad textbooks linger. I’m not going to nitpick and will go straight to the root cause of the problem: We just don’t have enough competent textbook writers.

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There are two reasons for this dismal situation. First, potentially good textbook writers are too busy teaching and doing research. Second, textbook writing is viewed with condescension in the academe. That second reason needs some explaining.

Unfortunately, textbook writing is seen as similar to term paper writing: just gathering what’s already known, usually from other publications, and then putting them into a textbook format. “No originality,” I’ve heard many professors comment.

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That oversimplifies the production of good textbooks and, for that matter, educational materials. Knowing what to use and how to present materials in a way that facilitates both learning and teaching is both art and science.

But because potentially good textbook writers do not want to take up the challenge, the task is left to more “entrepreneurial” people who have discovered that textbook writing is in fact quite financially lucrative. The government pays good money for textbooks to be used in public and private schools, and professors are known to take on a captive audience, requiring students taking their classes to buy their textbooks.

This money-making angle to the books further devalues textbook writing because professors do not want to be associated with commercialism.

Elitism

At the University of the Philippines, the biases against textbook writing are very strong. To give a concrete example, for promotions in rank, one academic cluster awards a textbook 10 points while a single article in a scholarly journal can get 50.

There is underlying elitism in this condescension for textbook writing. Some professors give more value to writing in some journal that might not even be available in the Philippines than doing a textbook that will be used by hundreds, if not thousands, of students.

The elitism is aggravated by a colonial mentality. Some professors argue that there are foreign textbooks anyway, so there is no need to produce local ones. There is, after all, a presidential decree that allows the reprint of foreign textbooks, which makes them more affordable.

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This “west is best” argument is applied especially to science and math, which, some professors argue, are universal. But look again at the textbooks and you’ll find this is not true. Students will learn, for example, about ecosystems like tundras (Arctic environments) and their plants and animals but will not know that the Philippines is the world’s “hottest spot” when it comes to marine diversity, or that we have humpback whales in Batanes and dolphins in Negros Occidental.

Using local examples makes learning more relevant. In math, for example, textbooks have elaborate exercises about gallons and liters, pounds and kilograms, but nothing about local measurements that are still important in daily life (say, gantas and cavans for rice). Another example would be introducing concepts of distance using local places. Foreign destinations are fine as well, if we use the Philippines as a reference point, so people understand how far away is Dubai, where Nanay might be working as a nurse. One can ask what the travel time will be on a plane with an average speed of x kilometers per hour.

We don’t have that in high school textbooks, which is why when the students get into university, including UP, we still have to offer basic math courses. At that level I’ve suggested math exercises to compute Lolo or Lola’s senior-citizen discount on medicines, or on a restaurant bill.

Producing social science textbooks are even more difficult, given the many gaps in our understanding of Philippine society and culture—the result of decades of US textbooks.

There’s the matter of keeping updated on new findings, from the junking of the Code of Kalantiaw as a fabrication (but which is still found in some history textbooks) to recent archaeological findings that help us understand our precolonial past.

History books are especially crucial to keep our memories as a people; they remind the young about what happened during colonial periods, World War II, the martial law era.

Good social science textbooks are moving away from an emphasis on facts to be memorized and are instead promoting critical thinking skills—for example, the politics in the naming of seas. It’s not just Filipinos wanting to use West Philippine Sea instead of South China Sea; South Koreans are also asking textbooks to use “East Sea” instead of “Sea of Japan” (the latter reminds them of decades of oppressive Japanese colonial rule).

With the Department of Education’s requiring the use of a local mother language as the medium of instruction from kindergarten to Grade 3, there has been a rush to produce textbooks in these languages. But the need remains throughout primary, secondary and tertiary levels, where Filipino is used as a medium of instruction by a growing number of faculty.

Blended teaching

There’s more to good textbooks than local content. Even more important are the pedagogical or teaching principles that guide the production of instructional materials in general. Our students have moved into the electronic era with the Internet and social media, but our textbooks remain flat, disconnected. A good textbook writer will have to be able to identify good Internet sources that students can use and integrate links into the textbooks, together with interactive exercises to maximize the use of the links (with stern warnings not to cut and paste the Internet materials for term papers because that is outright plagiarism).

We may well have to move into producing e-books, which can be easily revised each academic term to incorporate new materials, and delete old ones. Supplementary materials such as PowerPoint presentations can be uploaded on the Internet for students as reference.

In the United States some of the best schools now offer materials online: CK-12 FlexBooks and Curriki (curricula) are just two examples. Producing our own versions will need teams of collaborators, some to produce good content, others to guide the interactive exercises. Artists, graphic designers and information technology experts will become part of the teams to produce textbooks.

Textbook writing is so very complicated, and I have no easy solutions for the problem of a lack of good textbooks.   What comes to mind is getting retired professors to collaborate with younger ones to produce 21st-century textbooks. UP’s Open University, which is leading the way with blended learning (incorporating online and “old-fashioned” classroom learning), should take a lead role here.

We keep returning to the need to bring textbook writing back into the academe. Recently I had to defend two philosophy professors who had produced a textbook in Filipino; some of their own colleagues would not accept it as a scholarly contribution, both because it was a textbook and because it was in Filipino.

We need to keep pushing university administrators, the National Book Development Board, the DepEd and the Commission on Higher Education to find ways not just to give incentives but also to honor producers of exemplary textbooks and instructional materials.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Antonio calipjo go, CHEd, DepEd, education, educational materials, National Book Development Board, schools, textbooks
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