Textbooks alone are bad for us. Here’s Why
Ryan Chadha

Ryan CHADHA: Congratulations on this essay. Too true what you write — though I can just imagine publishing companies are rushing to your door to co-opt you into writing a text-book — to defuse your radical and challenging viewpoints to their existence.

25 years ago in a secondary school in NSW, Australia — teaching upper middle school Australian History. The text-books were not set — but there were any number one could check out and purchase to be used as a class set. I wanted my Australian History text to foreground the essential Indigenous peoples of Australia — to range through its British invasion colonial establishment (my own family origins) and then to examine its cultural diversity from that very foundation — something like 24 different ethnic/linguistic/cultural origins among them — and on through various marine/agricultural/industrial engagements — sealing/whaling/wool/gold and pastorial-grazing expansion across the continent — the dispossession/massacre/racist treatment of Indigenous peoples — the Federation — then the various wars and immigration histories through the late 19th/early 20th centuries. As we used the text — the best I could find — I would find myself having the students underline/draw a line through/replace aspects of the text-book’s interpretation or “facts”.

My students learned that text-books were of a time and of that time’s contemporary knowledge. They were not infallible — what was printed was not always the truth — there were others ways of interpreting events or documents — of understanding things from the past.

I taught for many years in Japan. At university level I wrote my own courses. In one of the middle schools at which I taught English communication (bright students — the father of one was the Minister for Education and Scence and later the Cabinet Secretary) there was a set text — there were brief dialogues I could use which became a platform for more free-ranging conversations and learning. Yet again — there were varieties of English usage which needed to be tinkered with — not air stewardess — rather Flight or cabin attendant (non-sexist/non-genderist) for example. Again my students understood implicitly/explicitly that text-books were not holy scriptures. Language changes as new ways of looking at/saying things are arrived at.

Before my nearly two decades in Japan — back in 1990 — I edited two companion anthologies of Australian writing for OUP. One — Made in Australia — was as a kind of text. Around 10 chapter/divisions — six or seven pieces of writing — poems, opinion pieces from newspapers, novel extracts, short stories — reflecting aspects of Australia as both an Indigenous land and one made up of people whose roots lay in distant lands. There were a series of loosely-guided questions at the conclusion of each chapter :— one was to write responsive pieces about a selected piece of writing — its writer, some creative piece if so desired, etc; the other was to respond personally — out of one’s own experience — (removing the teacher-as-expert/all-knowing entirely — as I used to tell my secondary school and university students, too, in Japan — they were the experts of their own lives — I was the one learning from their writing/memories/opinions…

During my nearly two decades in Japan I used to finish most classes — especially at university level (the final 10-minutes, say — of a 90-minute class) — but not only — often in senior high/middle high, too — with question time. The students were required to ask me questions. As most English teachers are aware — there are basically two kinds of questions: the “Yes”/”No”-answer type (generated by questions such as: “Are you…?”, “Do you…?”, “Have you ever…?” etc.; and the “wh~” type of question — the type of question I most encouraged because it led to explanations, elaborations, information. What? When? Where? Why? Who? Whose? Which? And I always wrote those two basic outlines on the white/smart board in front of the class — as memory/model aids. I was not “testing” — I was facilitating and encouraging and building on success. Things not covered by text-books!