The Course Book Conundrum. A study in despair


Let’s set the scene first. A well dressed representative from a prestigious publishing house comes to your school with a spring in his step and a tiger in his engine ready to sell you their latest course book series. Words like innovative, student-friendly and European framework are going to fly around aimlessly for the next ten minutes or so. There will be a character, probably cute. Or – God forbid – more of them. The rep fakes enthusiasm and so do you. Oh my. Isn’t that something. Look at those Passive Voice exercises go. Notice how seamlessly and slyly they have been slipped in the cute character’s prose. Sounds familiar?

Text by: Lazaros Alexakis

Now that we’ve set the scene, let’s set the record straight. I don’t have the slightest idea if a course book is good until I step in class holding it and actually teach it. Not once either. Teach it for a second year. Get comfy with it. Find all the rough edges and round them. Discover all the juicy bits and milk them for what they’re worth. Understand what makes the students tick and what doesn’t, ignite their interest by bringing in the reinforcements; real life examples that I might be unable to relate the first time around, stories, different ways to look at exercises, web resources and whatnot, until I form a nice cluster of information and methods of delivery in my head with which I feel confident to get my points across. I actually get so confident that I don’t need to schedule my lesson in advance, yet finish my material two minutes before the break. You all know the feeling. First you walk, then you fly.

There are of course a lot of things that make a good course book, but they are so often quoted that I doubt an article enumerating them would be any use. Relatable content, information broken down in palatable chunks, yada yada. What’s most important though, what is the real power behind a good textbook?

Some say the subject broached. I respectfully disagree and challenge you to find any course book without a chapter on the environment, or the internet, or sports. So no, the subjects are more or less given. How you deliver them though is a completely different ball game. “Robot Holocaust” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” are science fiction movies. So is “Blade Runner”. The theme is similar but the way they are scripted and how much they mean to the viewer makes for an entirely different viewing experience. So that’s one, slightly elusive, feature.

Another element is the graphics in the book, the videos, and the supplementary materials. I agree, motion and sound is a strong motivator, but unfortunately the competition has left us in the dust, and for good reason. I walked into a class a few days ago, and I saw children playing on their mobile phones. The games have amazing graphics, with things happening so fast (and furiously), and demanding so much of their attention, that my poor low-res greenish bug dancing around going “let’s have a paaaartyyy” had equal chances of surviving a truck running it over and drawing the students’ attention. It is expected. And inevitable. Publishing houses do not have game company budgets.

Now let’s get to the good bit. The magic ingredient. Is there one? Or are we going to go for a hazy “a combination of factors” and be done with the sorry tale? Well actually there is. Remember a course book is above all… a book. Leave the ‘course’ thing out for a minute. A good course book needs to be a good book. What makes a good book? That’s an easy answer. The plot. The story. The descriptions may be a little lacking, the adjectives may be a bit sketchy, yet the plot is going to make you turn those pages. What will draw the students if there is no plot? You can write about the environment by talking about how armadillos live. Yawn. Or maybe write it in a way where kids find a wounded armadillo. A story where they need to find out what they can do on the spot, and who to call. And solve a mini mystery of how the armadillo got there. And find out what they should feed it. Similarly, at a more advanced level, in a chapter about technology, please don’t talk about how the internet has changed our lives. This is not 1995. Have a chapter on hackers, security breaches, data mining, predictive algorithms that combine data to sway public opinion. Be here and now for them, don’t try to take them back with you. They’re not coming. Smart kids, good for them.

We want clever plots, mysteries to be solved, information to be sifted, and clues to be found. We want the thrills. The good stuff. So gimme.

Disclaimer: The author of the article bears no responsibility for readers who look up “Robot Holocaust” or “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and any damage incurred to them while watching them.




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