People can have the Model T in any colour – so long as it’s black.
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
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:
- Imagine you had all the money you wanted. What would you do with it? (1991)
- What would you do with two million pounds? Work in groups.(1996)
- Look at the list of things that people have spent their lottery winnings on. Which two would you consider spending your money on if you won the lottery? (2005)
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.
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,