Grading The World's Textbooks: Making Progress But Needs Improvement
A lesson in leadership illustrated by images of men only. A fill-in-the-blanks test whose "correct" answer is a stereotype: "I am a Filipino. I am a domestic helper in Hong Kong." A discussion of global warming that highlights potential "positive effects" of climate change, such as "Places that are too cold for farming today could become farmland."
These are some examples from textbooks around the world included in a newly released study about the role of textbooks by the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report.
The report reviewed secondary-school history, civics, social studies and geography textbooks from the 1950s until 2011 to see how they handled issues such as peace and nonviolence, gender equality, human rights, environmental protection and cultural diversity. The information was culled from three large databases that each drew on several hundred textbooks in a variety of categories, encompassing close to 100 countries. The conclusion: Despite some progress, textbooks often continue to minimize, brush aside or misrepresent these topics.
That's troubling, says Nihan Koseleci, researcher and author of the GEM Report. "A textbook might be the only book that someone has," she says, and the views and attitudes it instills can carry forward into the future. For instance, when textbooks continue to repeat "the same stories of violence, then you will never have peaceful and co-existing societies."
We asked Koseleci to guide us through the report and a sampling of textbook images that demonstrate where progress has been made — and where it's needed.
This illustration (Example 1) from a 2006 Democratic Republic of the Congo textbook depicts only men in important government positions. "When women are depicted in civics textbooks they will be seen voting, for instance, but not as leaders or officials," says Koseleci.
As in this example, women tend to be invisible in textbooks, says Koseleci. And when they are presented, they are mostly in the domestic sphere. "Even in a math textbook, from Turkey, you have a mother and daughter counting eggs while they're cooking," she says. Similarly, an illustration from a 2011 textbook in Kenya shows women working in traditional service and teaching roles; by contrast, other professionals and workers — including doctor, carpenter, policeman and fisherman — are all male.
Bottom line: Overall, the report found that discussion of women's rights increased by 37 percent in the years 2000-2011. Nonetheless, only a sixth of textbooks in Northern Africa and Western Asia mention women's rights at all.
Peace and nonviolence
"Education can prevent conflict by encouraging tolerance and nonviolence, or it can exacerbate conflict by emphasizing tensions and making disparaging comments about other groups," Koseleci says. For instance, some textbooks in Pakistan and India reiterate historic grievances between Muslims and Hindus as opposed to raising the possibilities for reconciliation
A positive example is this 2004 illustration from Cyprus (Example 2) that promotes peace by showing citizens from what had until recently been opposing Greek and Turkish sides eating together — rather than fighting. "This is a step forward," Koseleci says.
"There has been a tremendous increase in textbooks talking about environmental protection and damage," says Koseleci. For instance, in Latin America and the Caribbean, about 80 percent of textbooks now do, compared with 10 percent in 1980.
Here are two different approaches to the subject, both positive:
A textbook from Jamaica (Example 3) presents the science of environmental change.
One from South Africa (Example 4) shows ways to protect and advocate for the environment.
But between 2000 and 2011, only 30 percent of textbooks discussed environmental issues as a global problem, and some countries continue to glide over, misrepresent or cast doubt on environmental issues. For example, the report found that in Germany, while 73 percent of 49 civics and geography textbooks do discuss environmental concerns, "people in developing countries are portrayed as responsible for the environmental stress they face and unable to solve their environmental or conflict-related problems," and "issues such as interventions by multinationals or consumption patterns in richer countries are not discussed."
The report also cites American textbooks that cast doubt on the causes of climate change and omit the fact that climate change is already underway.
This diverse group of basketball players, depicted in a textbook from Mexico (Example 5), includes a boy in a wheelchair — and an equal number of boys and girls, too.
The percentage of textbooks mentioning human rights increased from 28 percent in 1970-1979 to 50 percent between 2000 and 2011. At the same time, though, only 9 percent of textbooks discussed rights of people with disabilities, and just 3 percent covered the rights of LGBTI people.
Negative stereotypes of people from around the world still appear in textbooks, as shown in this 2015 example from Hong Kong (Example 6).
The report concludes with a call for textbook revisions. The reason: "Textbooks are powerful," Koseleci says. "We need to pay attention to what's in them."
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