Are book publishers killing teacher creativity and student learning potential?

Okay, so how many of you teaching English are using a text from a major
publisher? And how many of you seriously think that you, let alone your students are particularly enjoying the topics under the microscope? I mean, how does someone sitting in a dusty office in the middle of no-where decide what our students are going to learn and talk about. A few years back, I was teaching the topic of spanking to a group of Saudi students. Of course, this had nothing to do with their life experience, and the topic went down like a lead balloon! It
didn’t make for much interesting conversation.

 The other day, I started a discussion with my students about the latest smart phones. I mentioned the iphone, Samsung Galaxy, the HTC desire, the latest Blackberry Bold and a few other ‘in-phones’.

The students ‘pounced’ on the chance to talk about their phones memory size, whether Android beat IOS, and the various functionalities of the phones concerned. It goes without saying, that many of us are also ‘into’ these kinds of ‘in-things’. It was an opportunity to justify positions for choosing particular phones, and of course the resulting argumentation resulted in a lot of ‘talk’ – which of course was the desired outcome.

I find without reservation that most book publishers are way behind on interesting content. At times it feels like we’re stuck within a straight jacket that just does not give us the freedom to be creative. You have to focus on the content so that students perform well on the ‘achievement exam’.

The discussion on smart phones, fitted into the broad categories of technology, communication, computers etc. etc. Themes which are sometimes separated or combined as main topics within books.

My proposal is that within a teaching context, a collection of main ideas or topics should be decided by the teachers, and then teachers left to build whatever content they want around it – subject to the proficiency level of their students. Yes, build the content ourselves. We’re teachers, we’re meant to be

Collect the content that’s interesting to both sides (teacher and student) and start learning using more interesting content.

Okay, now I can hear many of you saying that if you have ten teachers, producing or acquiring their own content, doing their own thing, in their own class we’re going to end up with a bit of a ‘biryani’ or should I say ‘mix-up’.

If we take the example of travelling, whether you discuss the Bahamas, having a good time at a beach front, a trip to Tokyo or even Dhaka in Bangladesh, the
vocabulary used is going to be quite similar. The lexis students use will be very close.

All content areas have similar core vocabulary. No matter what you talk, read, write or listen about, the same words will be repeated across the classes, again and again.

The main topic or area acts as the starting point for creating content. The specifics of the content are in the teachers and students hands.

To summarise, teachers should have the freedom to choose whatever content they deem appropriate, look for content that is relevant and useful for students, taking into account student experience in their lives, and importantly items which are interesting and current.

2 thoughts on “Are book publishers killing teacher creativity and student learning potential?

  1. I agree. We are subjected to what is offered by main stream publishers who, by the way, follow common trends. For example, in the last three years EFL books for kids have been engaged into the value content trend. That is not bad at all, the content is great! But it shows how we have to adapt to their trends…

  2. As a published coursebook writer since 1978 I can see the point of the two “streams of thought” in the comments above. Coursebooks are a very useful resource both for teachers and students, in the sense that both have a common reference, so to speak. However, I tend to agree with Numa Markee in ” Commercial interests ensured…PERPETUATED rather than CHALLENGED the status quo.” (1997, Markee, N. page 18 in “Managing Curricular Innovation” CUP) I have often been accused by publishers of “trying to educate the market” rather than “responding” to it. Unfortunately, as I see it, this has resulted in a “perpetuation” of the “status quo” which implies that in this day and age, in spite of the massive body of research available to ELT professionals, most of the materials published are still very “audiolingual” in approach, and the concept of DISCOURSE is still alien to teachers. I am afraid this has created a “vicious circle” i.e. in order not to upset the market, the same kind of material continues to be published, which in turn implies, that unless teachers have a serious “professional interest” they will continue to use materials they feel comfortable with. And so we go on. The second course I published ” Freewheeling” (1992) was a market disaster, not least because the publishers freaked out at the kind of approach e.g. including the Use of L1 for Learner Training activities, etc. My answer to the question posed by Sohaib above would therefore be YES. AND I would suggest that if ELT is ever going to become a “serious” profession, it is time we started “educating the market” rather than “feeding” them what we think they will understand, which in my view implies a rather patronising view of members of ELT.

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