IN the throes of a second pandemic wave, teachers and school management have been scrambling to bridge learning gaps that may result from students being physically out of school. Some have implemented an Accelerated Learning Programme — as stipulated by the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board — a smart syllabus that was meant to relieve students and teachers of the responsibility of the comprehensive demands of a full year’s curriculum. Students have tended to see this as an invitation to ‘cram up’ the reduced syllabus to get through end-of-year exams. Parents have seen accelerated learning as a concession to avoid addressing all the chapters of textbooks. Teachers are viewing this as a shortcut; they can now teach only the bits that are essential.
Perhaps the smart syllabus helps establish the minimum benchmarks required at every level and can potentially help teachers ensure that no students are left behind. However, presenting the smart syllabus alone isn’t sufficient. Teachers require guidelines and tutorials for implementation strategies. For example, book chapters ensure progression through topics. How do we address the learning gaps resulting from hopping across a reduced syllabus? The answer lies in blended learning initiatives. Textbooks are not a crutch to support education, they are the pillars that hold together the building blocks at every level of schooling. Whether we offer digital or print learning, students would still need to read key information, compare, inquire and summarise what they have learnt. End-of-unit tasks give teachers a clear idea of where each student stands on the learning curve.
With online teaching, it is far easier to consolidate learning using several resources. Textbooks not only provide benchmarks for assessment but are a critical tool to help consolidate learning through reading and research. If students fall out of the habit of consulting resources and, instead, race through the teacher’s instructions, it may not only dwarf their potential for independent research but also stunt reading skills. While it is true that visual prompts and graphic organisers work wonders for student engagement, their value lies in their support function and not as a substitute for the breadth of knowledge provided by textual information.
Stephen King’s words “Books are a uniquely portable kind of magic” ring true now more than ever. Whether print or digital, they really are the backbone ongoing education during the pandemic. They aren’t just a storehouse of information, they also help students learn how to structure detailed information, provide an authentic means of unearthing facts that are usually lost in a sea of contradiction on the internet, and help fill the gaps in the teachers’ knowledge. Today, in Pakistan, an alarming number of children are functionally illiterate. Even more alarming are the numbers of upper primary children who haven’t learnt to read fluently. One can only imagine what can happen to the dwindling education system if books were taken out of the equation and students promoted based on tasks completed through quick end-of-unit assessments.
A good set of textbooks is critical.
Unfortunately, shortcuts will not help students with the required progression. When students read information from a textbook, their mind is learning to organise and lay out information in an effective manner. Whilst ad hoc reading is great for consolidation of information, the textbook is the building block of a learning foundation. A transnational study conducted from 2006-2011 by economist Nic Spaull, across 15 African countries, measured the impact of access to textbooks on educational performance. The study found that children who regularly used textbooks performed significantly better, as did teachers who used textbooks to support their content knowledge.
The question that’s important to address is not whether books are redundant, but rather how do we equip teachers to use this ‘uniquely portable magic’ effectively to ensure that students get the maximum benefit. A good set of textbooks is critical in following the spirit of the curriculum, ensuring diverse groups of learners fulfil required benchmarks and teachers give standard and fair assessments. Whilst a textbook is important for teachers to know exactly what to focus on, equally important are alternative sources of digital learning and reading. During online lessons, it is particularly helpful to have students tap into several sources of reading to expand their breadth of research and introduce them to the idea of analysis through comparison.
Perhaps the winning feature of textbooks is that they cultivate reading skills, for which there is no substitute. The written word carries ‘portable magic’ without which the mind cannot comprehend, process or rationalise information with any depth.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at OUP, Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2021