Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Textbooks Suck. Why do we keep using them?

Why are textbooks so terrible?

It's like they beat out anything interesting or fun about a subject. The drama and the injustices and the personalities and the emotions that shaped history. 

Sure, the modern day books are filled with pictures and sidebar notes and links to web content, but the actual material makes you want to poke a fork in your eye. The new ones are no more captivating than the old ones, as I discovered reading through this old textbook published by MacMillan of Toronto in 1920. It might even be less interesting. At least "The Story of the Canadian People" had colourful tales of derring-do like this little description of the fall of the Huron: 
"When the end came, it was before the onset of seven hundred, yelling, bloodthirsty savages that the walls of the fort went down. The gallant defenders, scorning to accept quarter, were cut to pieces"
Today's history books are more about explaining the past than telling its story. Even most online content is desperately dull. You can't just take some crappy content from a book and put it online and say it's good, even if you throw in a few 2 minute videos and an online quiz.

It's like the people who wrote these materials didn't understand what makes kids tick. Or even what makes their subject interesting. And yet they are usually written by teachers who I assume love their area of specialization and are excited about learning and teaching. For my own course writing- maybe it is not filled with drama and excitement, but at least I try to make the characters come alive and point out some of the atrocities of the past and the inequalities of the present. Why sweep that under the carpet?  As a teacher I met in Grande Prairie said the other day, "That pile is getting too big. We can't even walk on it any more."

Bill Bigelow, in his article "The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools",talks about the dull and lifeless way the stories of the past are told, describing "a curriculum bound for boredom".

The crazy thing is, history is NOT boring. Including Canadian history. It's alive! It's full of things that make you say "Whoa, what?" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Why didn't I ever hear that before?" or "That is just plain wrong, how did people let that happen?"

Imagine a party of inexperienced Northwest Mounted Police towing huge York boats up a powerful river, taking instruction from a captured Blackfoot slave. Imagine that same party, on its way to Willow Point to sign Treaty Eight, caught in a huge storm on Lesser Slave Lake, followed by an amazing sunset. 

Imagine One Arrow, stripped down to nothing but a loin cloth, announcing to the Treaty Six Party "I came into the world naked, but the Great Spirit provided for me. And now you are taking our living from us!"  

Imagine the drama of a fully uniformed regimental band marching into Blackfoot Crossing in a show of strength to announce Treaty 7 negotiations, only to find almost no one there. And a couple of days later, warriors in full war paint, charging through the same land, performing amazing feats on their ponies, countering with their own display of bravery.

Why don't we read that in the books?

Could it be because history is written by the victor so there are stories we don't tell? Are we afraid of getting some details wrong? Or do publishers feel they must remove the messy, uncomfortable and unpleasant bits? Why must we sanitize the hell out of our stories so their truths don't even matter? Could it be that publishers try hard to not offend? Do they fear backlash from politicians and community groups? Is that why they whitewash everything? At the risk of being political or controversial, our textbooks are nothing at all. No wonder kids find our history so dull. We haven't told them what it is.

Detail from Kanata by Robert Houle, an interesting take on the classic "Death of Wolfe"
Or is part of the problem the publishers themselves? Generally our publishers are huge multinational corporations like Pearson whose goal is not education, but turning a profit. Why would a multinational be interested in promoting anything other than the status quo? Why would such a corporation encourage critical thinking about political systems that invest power in the elite or economic systems that value profit before justice or a history that is sometimes painful to think about? 

Keep flogging old ways of thinking and it doesn't matter what colour of font you use or how many cool photos you incorporate. You will never touch the hearts and minds of kids unless you tell real stories that appeal to their innate sense of justice and curiosity.

And so far, I haven't seen a textbook that does that.