Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The battle over textbooks

According to Finnish law, education should be free for all. Up to the end of the 9-year compulsory comprehensive school, even all books and other study materials are provided by the state. From then on, in the senior secondary school / senior high school, there are no tuition fees, but students will have to buy their course books, notebooks etc. themselves. This has been an accepted practice for as long as I remember.

Yet, in recent years, winds of change have started blowing. The national high school students' union has started strongly voicing the opinion that, according to the above mentioned law of free education, no teacher can demand a student to buy a course book. Makes sense, doesn't it? Spokespeople from this union visit all the high schools in Finland at the beginning of every school year in August, want to see all the students behind closed doors with no teachers present and tell them about this, among other important matters. Good, somebody's making students aware of their rights.

In our modular, course-based high school curriculum, the cost of course books amounts to several hundred euros per year. Let's take English as an example. During the 3 years of high school, a student will study 8 courses of English, each of them with a separate course book. The books we typically use are produced by big teams of active teachers, university people and native speakers in one of the big publishing companies over many years of involved research into the requirements of our national final examination (the so-called 'matriculation' examination) and the latest trends in language education around the world. They do a good and thorough job, but for this, the publisher asks students to pay €20-30 per book. That times 8 and you will get the cost of English studies in a Finnish high school. And the same routine applies to all other subjects as well. High school course books are big business for publishers in our country.

I probably wouldn't have thought twice about this if it wasn't for a student last week questioning this practice that we normally take for granted. In a big group of 35 students it took me 5 weeks until I noticed that this particular boy, conveniently sitting at the back of the class and hiding behind his rucksack strategically placed in the middle of his desk, didn't own a textbook. He had been fairly active in class, peeping for answers in his friend's book, so little did I suspect anything for weeks. When asked about how he was studying English without a book his replies where:
1) I don't need a book coz I know it all anyway! (He gets average grades.)
2) The guy from the union told us you can't demand us to buy a book.

At first I was furious. How dare he even dream of ever knowing it all in English (naturally, his outburst was just a feeble excuse, but I took it seriously in my anger)! And secondly, I needed to find out the official stand on this.

Principal's advice: No, you can't demand a book. Nor can you use grading as punishment for not having a book.

Colleagues' advice: Just tell him that we are no second-rate school where you can pretend to learn by listening only and without doing any homework. Also, you can give him a lower grade for not doing any homework during the whole course (for English, students have some homework - from the course book - every day).

None of this advice really gave me the answer I needed. I still don't know what to do to be fair. The truth is, today students do learn a lot of English from TV and the Internet. Why should we teachers restrict their vocabulary and knowledge of English to what the course book team, in their great wisdom, deem worth learning? Yet, my experience also tells me that many students are deluding themselves that merely passively understanding a lot of vocabulary from their particular, often limited, fields of interest counts as excellent knowledge of English. "But who needs or uses all this fancy, formal vocabulary that the course books are teeming with?" is a frequently heard, frustrated lament from certain students.

Exactly. Who's to decide which English words each student needs? Should each of them have their own personalized curriculum? Maybe that would make them enjoy learning more and be more motivated. Out with the books, and real use of the foreign language instead! But would that help students reach their optimum grade in the demanding national final exams? Do I, as a teacher, dare to discard the course book and truly innovate? Wouldn't most students - conservative as surprisingly many of them are these days - simply reject the idea? How many parents would oppose? So many questions that I think I will still have to ponder about this some more...

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