What is the purpose
of a history textbook in 2003? Is it yesterday's learning tool,
the pedagogical equivalent of spats and buggy whips - hopelessly
out of fashion, and no longer very useful? Has the computer, with
its CDs, DVDs and program software, plus the Internet with its virtually
limitless websites and e-mail possibilities, rendered book learning
obsolete? Only if teachers and students lack flexibility and imagination.
Having access to an attractive, informative and challenging print
resource does not exclude any of the electronic learning possibilities.
The two are compatible, even complementary. If the roles were reversed,
computers were the traditional technology, and books had just been
invented, imagine the excitement. For that matter, imagine the advertising:
"So durable, so compact, so interactive, so cost-effective,
so easy to use. Put one of these new lightweight 'books' in your
child's hands, and watch the learning curve rise. Beg, borrow or
buy one NOW. Use books every day!"
Little more than a decade
ago, history textbooks aimed at the senior elementary/junior high
school market were still largely dependent upon traditional print
communication - black-ink words on a white page - to convey a mass
of factual information to students. Accompanying illustrations,
be they photographs, diagrams, charts or cartoons, were usually
black and white, too. Authors considered themselves lucky to be
allotted one accent colour - blue, say, or red - to add a bit of
variety, and serve as a means to emphasize key points. Such books
were essentially narrative texts, with periodic breaks for the usual
questions of recall or comprehension, perhaps supplemented by a
few suggested learning activities of a higher order.
Nowadays, history textbooks
for this age bracket have a dramatically different look. Bigger,
bolder, and brighter, they are awash in colour. Marginal notations,
boxed vignettes, captioned illustrations and full-colour charts
augment, perhaps even interrupt, the flow of the central narrative,
which is purposely kept short with frequent headings and sub-headings.
It is as though the original designers of "USA Today"
have been at work, creating a new kind of textbook for students
who do not particularly like to read. The end result is a visually
appealing book, though, and one that invites pupil browsing.
The two textbooks covered
in this review are similar in many ways. While Arnold Publishing
was a pioneer in Canada of the more visually oriented textbook,
the Ontario publishers such as McGraw-Hill Ryerson soon caught on,
and there is now little to distinguish the two on this score. Both
of these books are clearly aimed at the Ontario Grade 8 history
course, which covers Canadian history from the 1860s to the 1910s.
To be absolutely clear to potential buyers, the Arnold book deliberately
lists the three prescribed topics from the Ontario guidelines in
its sub-title, namely Confederation, The Development of Western
Canada, and A Changing Society. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, by
contrast, is content to make those three topics the basis of the
three main units prominently listed in its Table of Contents. Both
books have received approval from the Ontario Ministry for this
grade and course.
Following the lead of
the Ontario curriculum document, the two books focus on comprehension
of material over rote recall, and provide frequent suggestions for
learning activities by which the students will demonstrate their
mastery of the content. For the topic of Confederation, the McGraw-Hill
Ryerson text suggests that students design a poster either supporting
or opposing Confederation (p. 97). Under the same topic, the Arnold
text invites students to create a series of diary entries that might
have been written by John A. Macdonald (p. 115). In each case, the
learning task would require students to take information provided
by the textbook and communicate it in a new way.
Similarly, the two textbooks
overtly provide opportunities for students to practise and acquire
key skills in the areas of inquiry research, critical thinking and
communication. For example, as part of a chapter on the National
Policy, 1878-1896, the Arnold book presents a series of questions
by which students can critically analyse a political cartoon (pp.
244-5). In the McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, a pioneer's account of
settling in Manitoba in the 1870s is presented, with suggestions
for ways to test its authenticity by examining other available evidence
(p. 187). Each publisher offers further support materials and activity
ideas for teachers in an auxiliary resource package (sold separately).
The Ontario history
curriculum shies away from overt expectations in the values domain.
However, it is clear that both author teams have understood the
need for equity in terms of both gender balance and attention to
visible minorities. While males outnumber females in the Indexes
of both books by a sizeable margin, a clear effort has nevertheless
been made to depict women as well as men in the numerous illustrations.
The extension of full legal and political rights to women is highlighted
in both books as part of the "changing society" at the
turn of the twentieth century. Attention to various aspects of social
and cultural history also provides valid opportunities to focus
on the contributions of female Canadians. Aboriginal Canadians warrant
significant coverage in both texts, as well, particularly in the
chapters devoted to the development of Western Canada. Other visible
minorities - Asian Canadians and African Canadians - are periodically
mentioned, along with supporting photographs. Furthermore each of
the books invites students to imagine situations from more than
one perspective, thus encouraging both empathy and tolerance.
It is easier to describe
how the two books are similar than to point out how they differ,
although there are some minor contrasts in how a chapter is laid
out. In each case, the authors provide a highly visual opener, previewing
what the student will encounter in the pages to follow, along with
a listing of key phrases. A combination of short narrative bursts,
punctuated by colour headings and frequent illustrations - photos,
cartoons, maps, charts, historic posters - constitute the body of
each chapter. Boxed items provide supplementary information, such
as a thumbnail biography of a related historical personality, invariably
accompanied by a photograph or other visual material. In the Arnold
book, the periodic questions of comprehension spaced throughout
the chapter are grouped under the heading, "For Your Notebook",
whereas in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson text, the corresponding heading
is "The Story So Far". The kinds of questions provided
appear to be similar, however, as do the more substantive tasks
offered at the end of each chapter. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book
does provide a one-paragraph summary at chapter's end; the Arnold
text moves right into its series of learning activities.
Here are a few general
differences to guide a curriculum committee's choice between these
two fine print resources. The Arnold book leans a little more to
bright colours in its presentation, though the ratio of print to
visual is close to 60:40 in both cases. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson
book seems to follow the suggested content of the Ontario curriculum
a little closer, although an alert teacher would have no trouble
matching chapters to expectations using either resource. The references
to related Internet websites are more frequent in the McGraw-Hill
Ryerson text, and more likely to be used by students. An appendix
on learning skills in the Arnold book is more comprehensive than
the scattered items entitled "Research Is Happening Here"
in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson book. The ongoing visual timelines in
the latter book are very helpful; the frequent appearance of colour
maps in the former serve a similar purpose in illustrating changes
over time. At the risk of gross simplification, it seems that the
Arnold book might work better with students who have not yet developed
any real liking for history. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, by contrast,
might be a better fit for students already turned on to the subject,
and ready for a little more challenge.
Has the trend to a more
student-friendly textbook, replete with colourful visual content,
and broken up into the print equivalent of short sound bites, been
a positive one? One well-known critic of progressive educators does
not believe so. J.L. Granatstein, in Who Killed Canadian History?,
has bemoaned the fact that a certain textbook familiar to him had
been "noticeably glitzed up in appearance but watered down
in language and detail between its first and third editions"
(p. 39). Granatstein is determinedly old school, in that he continues
to insist that factual content is important, and chronology is vital.
Not for him a present-minded issues approach that begins and ends
with the present. Nevertheless, the two books featured in this review
have managed to retain a fair amount of factual information, have
not abandoned their chronological integrity, and yet have managed
to integrate a skills-based approach that trains students in how
to do history, all the while presenting the course material in a
lively and challenging fashion. This is no small achievement, and
both author teams deserve credit for blending the traditional and
progressive approaches to history so skilfully.
Assuming the curriculum
guidelines stay the same, what should the authors and publishers
be doing for the next edition of these books? For starters, they
should continue to look for ways to dovetail the print-oriented
textbook with burgeoning Internet resources. Specific website references
that are integrated into the flow of the textbook will promote meaningful
investigation, and discourage aimless "fishing trips"
on the web. Secondly, the skills components can be more overtly
and systematically woven through the content of the textbooks, possibly
arranged in such a way that simple skills from previous years can
be practised again, then developed into more complex ones as the
students move through the book. Thirdly, more thought can be given
to the values potential of history, in particular the opportunities
for values clarification and values analysis exercises. Admittedly,
the Ontario curriculum guidelines for this grade are largely silent
on values, so the authors have had to tread carefully here. Finally,
new discoveries and interpretations from academic historians must
continually be woven into the fabric of the text, so that the students,
and their teachers, are exposed to the best and most recent syntheses
of our country's history. Otherwise, a text can easily become outdated.
That there will be a
need for new editions of these textbooks, I have no doubt. Just
as print newspapers have survived the arrival of the radio, then
television, and now the Internet, so print textbooks will continue
to play a useful, albeit modified, role in the schools of the future.
These two books under review represent the current state of the
art in textbook technology, and properly updated, should continue
to inform, stimulate and challenge Canadian students, well into
Granatstein, J.L. (1998). Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: