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People can have the Model T in any colour – so long as it’s black.

(Henry Ford)

I, too, have written coursebooks and I well know the constraints under which coursebook writers write. It’s not just the publisher’s ‘big idea’ — shaped primarily by marketing analytics — into which writers have to shoehorn their content; it is the pernickety requirements of whatever education ministry is being targeted, plus the hair-splitting readers’ reports, plus the editors’ (not always) trenchant interventions, plus the feedback from trialling (if you’re lucky), not to mention the increasingly mean-spirited restrictions imposed by copyright holders, and, of course, the hypersensitivity of the targeted culture. The fact that anything finally appears in print is a testimony to the writer’s stamina, flexibility, and ingenuity.

But creativity? The coursebook process is certainly ‘creative’ in the sense that the writer has to constantly adapt to the aforementioned constraints. But if, by creativity we mean not just adaptability, but originality, I have my doubts. (‘Creativity: the ability to create new ideas or things using your imagination’: Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, emphasis added).

Textbooks, generally speaking, don’t score high on the originality stakes. And for good reason. As George Ritzer, in The McDonaldization Thesis (1998: 44) reminds us: ‘Pressures from publishers, reviewers and adopters lead relentlessly to a depressing sameness, a levelling, a high degree of predictability in cookie-cutter textbooks… When reviewers uncover elements that are missing, the authors are pressed by the publisher to include them so that in the end the new text looks depressingly like its successful predecessor’.

Ritzer is writing about general education texts. Is the same true in our field? Put another way, what is original in current adult, EFL coursebook production?

Let’s start with the syllabus. I surveyed five intermediate coursebook syllabuses, ranging from 1996 to 2009, and found the following items were common to all five, more or less in the same order:

present simple and continuous
past simple and continuous
future forms (going to, will)
present perfect vs past simple
present perfect continuous
modal verbs of deduction/probability
first conditional
second conditional
reported speech
passive

Why is this? On what grounds have these items been selected and ordered in this way? Frequency? Complexity? Usefulness? Learnability? Or simply convention?  Either way, this ‘canonical’ syllabus is endlessly reproduced with only minor variations, as are the syllabuses for all other levels in the curriculum. They can hardly be considered original.

Associated with the syllabus is the way a number of grammar myths are propagated from course to course, like mutant genes.  Principal among these is the conflating of tense and aspect, and defining both in terms of time, as in ‘the Present Continuous is used to express an activity happening now’ (coursebook published in 1991) and ‘we use the Present Continuous to talk about things happening now’ (coursebook published in 2010). The article system and the use of passive voice are also prime candidates for this kind of accidental cross-fertilization.  It’s as if the only grammars that these writers consulted are each other’s.

What about topics? Well, you only have to flip through a selection of adult courses and note the way that the same, relatively limited set of topics resurface again and again: friends and family, home and neighbourhood, leisure activities, travel, shopping and clothes, health and nutrition, technology and the future, popular culture and entertainment, the environment…. Arguably, these are chosen because of the coverage they offer with regard to learners’ lexical needs, as well as the kinds of situations which learners might find themselves in. But this is largely guesswork.

Another reason, of course, why the topical content is fairly repetitive (and pervasively upbeat) is that there are many topics (like sex, religion, and politics) which, through fear of causing offence or discomfort, cannot be mentioned. Since sex, religion and politics tend to impact in significant ways on people’s lives – and hence on their use of language – this is a severe limitation.

Self-censorship also applies to the pictorial content — content which is nowadays almost always sourced from photo libraries rather than being especially commissioned, a fact that further contributes to the uniformity, as well as to the artificiality (not to say superficiality) of coursebook design. Increasingly, the typical double-page spread looks like a Tommy Hilfiger advert.

What about the texts? The texts are different, admittedly, but so closely allied to the (unoriginal) topics, so carefully graded, and so clearly adapted from the same kinds of source material (in-flight magazines, Internet trivia, etc) that, like the artwork that accompanies them, they have a generic sameness. How many coursebook series include a text of the type ‘Are you a shopaholic?’ Or ‘Festivals around the world’? Or ‘The holiday that wasn’t’? Or ‘A day in the life of Miley Cyrus/Cristiano Ronaldo’?

What about the tasks? Those that are language-focused consist largely of invented sentences that are manipulated in some way, e.g. completion, transformation or re-ordering (but with translation conspicuously absent), and are indistinguishable across courses (even to the extent of sometimes being reproduced verbatim: ‘Look at the dark clouds. It’s (going to/will) rain!’).  Skills practice tasks also often replicate one another. The following speaking tasks, for example, come from three different adult courses:

These tasks also happen to highlight a particular ideological bias that many global coursebooks share, one that Tomlinson and Masuhara (2013: 248) characterize as ‘an assumption that all learners are aspirational, urban, middle-class, well-educated, westernized computer users.’ (They might also have included ‘heterosexual’). Add to this the fact that the default pronunciation is a native-speaker one, and you have an extra element of Hilfiger-esque homogeneity.

Of course, the area in which the least innovation has been demonstrated in the last quarter-century is the actual methodology employed, including not only the choice and sequencing of task types, but the intransigent monolingualism of the content. More than any other factor, perhaps, the under-theorized methodological orthodoxy of most published materials accounts for their relative uniformity. But that really deserves a post all of its own.

In sum, as John Gray (2002: 157) observes, what is significant about coursebooks are not their differences (their originality, if you like) but the way they ‘now resemble each other, not only in terms of glossy design but also in terms of content.’ Show a selection of current coursebooks to a non-specialist, or even to someone from another educational field, and they would be hard-pressed to spot the differences.

So what? As I discovered myself, there is not a lot of wiggle room when you’re writing a coursebook. Little room, indeed, for originality. Coursebook writers do the best they can, and it is remarkable that they manage to achieve what they do.

But to claim (as has been claimed on this very site) that the creativity involved in writing a coursebook is commensurate with that of writing a pop song (and should therefore be rewarded as such) seems to me to be a bit exaggerated, to say the least. On the creativity scale, educational materials occupy a space nearer the DIY manual, study guide, or travel guidebook end of things, all of which, while being extremely useful and well-remunerated (if they get it right), are also formulaic, derivative and easily re-versioned.

Note that I am not saying that lack of originality compromises their utility: there will always be contexts in which coursebooks (like guidebooks) will be the best available tool, and where (arguably) the more conventional they are, the better.

Nor am I saying that a team of hacks, or even an algorithm, could do the job just as well. Not at all.  But educational publishing has long since crossed the Rubicon whereby creativity has been subordinated to reproduction and simulation. The current drive towards digitization and commodification is not the beginning of the process so much as its logical conclusion.

To see other posts by Scott Thornbury, try Who ordered the McNuggets?, How could SLA research inform Edtech and Intersubjectivity: Is there an app for that?

References

Gray, J. (2002) ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’, in Block, D., & Cameron, D. (eds) Globalization and Language Teaching, London: Routledge.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonalidization Thesis: Explorations and extensions, London: Sage.

Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013) ‘Survey Review: Adult Coursebooks’, ELT Journal, 67/2,

Featured Photo Credit: mliu92 via Compfight cc. Text added by eltjam.

 

36 Comments

  1. “The profit motive always triumphs over innovation and choice”. Sadly, you’re so right. My most recent course books have been shortlisted for various awards (including ELTon and the ESU) and in each case they were praised for their original content. But have my “original” books sold many copies? No is the short answer!
    Of course, it’s not alone – I can think of plenty of original books that have sold appallingly. Why?
    It’s a vicious circle to some extent, but I would suggest three reasons. Firstly, I’ve noticed that teachers are afraid to tackle innovative content, especially “CLIL” and the PARSNIP areas. This is fair enough, given that some teachers work in cultures where the “teacher is the fount of all knowledge” and fear that students will ask tricky questions. Others fear the class getting out of control if they discuss a “taboo” topic (although as someone pointed out above, students take to them more readily, including in Islamic countries). New teaching styles and task types also freak some teachers out. But I wonder… As teacher trainers and public speakers, can we can not help teachers more to embrace them with more confidence?
    Another reason that innovative courses sell poorly comes down to the decision-makers, as I discovered when I worked for a publisher. When Mike McCarthy et al slightly altered the syllabus of Touchstone (basing it on frequency, not on the outdated Latin syllabus), the reluctance of customers to adopt it was striking. “This syllabus is wrong” came the reply of many coordinators. They were not interested in the innovative content. I witnessed this again and again. Sadly, I also noticed that these decision-makers rarely attended seminars or conferences that may have broadened their horizons. Sigh.
    Finally, I suspect that it is not only about teachers and coordinators. Another reason for the poor sales of innovative courses is, ironically, due to the publishers’ own marketing and sales teams. The obsession with which publishers are all busy out in the field promoting the CEFR / TOEFL / Cambridge exams and then proudly stressing how their particular course ties in with them, is shocking. As we all know, the CEFR, TOEFL, and Cambridge exams require knowledge of inane topics, “standard” syllabus order, and fixed task types. I would argue that, by actively promoting these exams and standards, publishers are actually helping to reduce the creativity in their future books.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. Let’s hope we can make some changes before every new course looks the same as the last.

    1. Sorry but the coursebooks I have used to teach English for 17 years don’t seem to work in terms of engaging the students. They all look the same. The topics are usually uninteresting and out-of-date.The grammar is usually presented in the same way and fails to produce the desired outcome. A typical coursebook published by big companies follows the same design and same activities throughout the units lacking originality and creativity. It is hard to imagine how those publishers can be so blindfolded about language teaching in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey and other countries. When they scatter some cultural information blonging to these cultures into the units, they look really funny. I think this digital age will change a lot of things soon in coursebook writing. I think teachers should start writing and publishing their own material online to show what works and what doesn’t work in coursebooks. This may sound funny to most professional coursebook writers but this is the reality in the current EFL context.

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