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Universality and Mediocrity Part 1: The Great Coursebook Swindle

April 21, 2013

A few things have been annoying me lately about the state of English Language Teaching, so I suppose that means I’ll be on a bit of a rant for the next few weeks. The basic theme of these rants is the fact that our profession (along with many other things in this global society) seems intent on working to universal norms, and that this is focusing us away from the specific, thereby stifling our ability to achieve excellence.

Today I will be mostly ranting about coursebooks and, more specifically, publishing companies. There was a big debate at the 2013 IATEFL conference between Scott Thornbury and Catherine Walter about whether or not coursebooks reflect the lives of learners. The gist of Catherine Walter’s argument seemed be that yes they do, and even if they don’t, students don’t want to be reminded of their own boring lives in the classroom, and prefer to learn English within an artificial construct created by the generic topics of the coursebook.

As far as the first point goes, my view is not only that coursebooks don’t reflect the lives of learners, but that they can’t. By definition, a global coursebook is written so that it can be accessible to everyone and, as a result, it is specific to no-one. It could only be relevant if all English learners were the same and, as we all know, they really, really aren’t.

With regard to the second argument, that learners like to see attractive, affluent, mostly white people with fancy cars and beautiful teeth, rather than something that reflects their own lifestyle and culture more accurately, I would suggest that is that these “aspirations” are false. It may have been the case in the past, but the idea that most students these days are learning English because they aspire to become, or to engage with, people from European, anglophone cultures, has become rather antiquated. You only need to read a couple of articles on English as a Lingua Franca or Kachru’s three circles model to realise this. It is true that aspirational materials can be engaging or motivating for students, but most current coursebooks assume the wrong aspirations.

As things stand at the moment, ELT publishers are able to produce just one coursebook and sell it all over the world. This must be very lucrative for them, and you can understand why they don’t want to let go of such a good thing. Obviously, creating such coursebooks involves writing materials that don’t offend anyone, and which are not so culture-specific that they alienate anyone. The result is bland, generic and, let’s face it, not good enough. It is so not good enough that publishers and coursebook writers openly tell us that we should be adapting their materials to make them more relevant to our specific contexts – Catherine Walter said in the debate that if teachers are just following a coursebook page by page, they aren’t using it properly.

So if we have to adapt them, why are they so attractive-looking in the first place, with their glossy, colourful, difficult-to-photocopy pages? Why are the pages and units numbered? Why is language presented in such a way as to create the illusion of a linear progression from unit to unit?

My feeling is that we, as language teaching professionals, have been hoodwinked into believing that it is perfectly acceptable to use exactly the same materials whether we are teaching multilingual groups of refugees in Glasgow, young female Arabic-speaking graduates in Abu Dhabi or mature Japanese businessmen in Tokyo. The publishers may tell us that we should be adapting them, but the reality is that they don’t want us to. It is not in publishers’ interests for us to “dip into” their coursebooks and only use the bits that actually are appropriate. What they really want is for us to buy into their publication completely, including copies of the student’s book and workbook for all our students, the interactive whiteboard software, the CD-Rom for each student, class sets of their learner’s dictionary, and of course the website, which allows them to punt their other products to our students. Publishers are telling us that these add-ons to coursebooks increase their flexibility, but in reality they constrain us; we have so much stuff to use, and each part relates thematically or linguistically to other parts, that we find ourselves using materials because they relate to other materials, and not because they relate to the learners.

In terms of content there have been some changes recently, notably Heinle’s partnership with National Geographic to produce the “Life” series. These books focus heavily on minority cultures and are a lot less Anglocentric, leading learners to compare and contrast their cultures with those depicted in the materials. However, they have still been designed to be used by anybody, and are therefore specific to nobody.

Finally, another argument that is often used to support coursebooks is the idea that they provide inexperienced teachers with a framework to support them until they have developed enough to adapt or create materials that are more relevant to their students’ needs. I don’t buy into this idea at all. At the very best, coursebooks allow bad teachers to be able to teach lessons that are not completely terrible. But you could equally argue that they allow bad teachers to continue to get away with being bad.

Coursebooks also stifle good teachers, preventing them from becoming better teachers by perpetuating the following myths, previously discussed:

-English students aspire to becoming part of Western culture.

-students learn by covering individual language items one by one, in order of linguistic complexity.

-people only want to talk about good things.

-it’s wrong to raise issues in the classroom that might offend learners.

-it’s possible to create a single set of materials that can be equally effective to any student, irrespective of their linguistic/cultural background, social status or learning needs.

None of the above are true, and I challenge anyone to disagree with me.

Sure, the coursebooks that exist today look fantastic. They are manufactured very professionally, and a lot of careful thought has gone into their production by people who clearly know what they are doing. But the same could be said for One Direction who, like global coursebooks, manage to appeal to many people across the world. Does this make them any good though? I would suggest that, on the contrary, it means they can be no better than OK. All the best bands are a bit controversial in some way or another; to avoid being so (or to pretend you are when you aren’t really) is to avoid anything that makes you stand out.

The bottom line is that if you create something that attempts to appeal to everyone in as many ways as possible, this means that a lot of potentially great stuff has to be left out and the result cannot be better than mediocre.

Next week I will be posting about something else that relates to the link between universality and mediocrity. Feel free to start guessing what it might be.

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35 Comments
  1. Some very good points made, but a couple of questions:

    1. Is this an argument for not using coursebooks, or an argument for creating coursebooks that are very specific to groups of learners? If the latter, how specific would they need to be, and given the time and resources required to create a good quality coursebook, how could this be achieved?

    2. Is the demand for materials that are ‘a bit controversial’ in itself culturally biased? Not every teacher wants ‘controversial’ in the language classroom, and in fact, outside of private language schools, many language teachers will simply want to (and have to) stick to the curriculum and get through the working day. Going beyond this is a luxury not every language teacher has or wants.

    • jen macdougall permalink

      But is the material and content really about what the teacher wants? Isn’t it more about what the learners want/need, what is appropriate, useful for where they are trying to get to? A curriculum yes – we probably all have one of those – but how you deliver the curriculum can follow many paths.

      • Yes, Jen, in which case it seems really rather odd (when you think about it) that so many English language students find themselves following courses that were written by people who know absolutely nothing about the students themselves. It’s hard to meet learner needs when you don’t know who the learners are.

  2. Thanks for these questions, Ian. In answer to the first one, I suppose this is more of a moan about the way things are right now, rather than an argument for anything in particular. My point is really that publishing companies have convinced us that it’s perfectly OK if we all use the same materials, whatever the context. The success of the global coursebook is unfortunate because it has been created for corporate reasons rather than pedagogical ones, yet it is the global coursebook that drives the content of so many English courses around the world.
    There may well be coursebooks that are written for narrow contexts and which are more appropriate as a result, so I’m not going to say I am against all coursebooks, but I am against global coursebooks as drivers of a syllabus.
    To answer the second question, my point about materials needing to be controversial was not that we must introduce controversy to the language classroom. What I mean is that there are some topics that would be controversial for some students but not for others. For example, alcohol plays a big part in most European cultures and is therefore a welcome topic. However, because this topic would not go down well in other cultures it is left out of coursebooks altogether. Having said that, I do feel that challenging learners’ values is well worth doing. There are learning environments beyond private language schools where topics such as globalisation or citizenship are on the curriculum and therefore need to be addressed. I previously posted on this topic here: https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/equality-diversity-prejudices-and-parsnips/ . High Dellar has also written some great posts on this topic – http://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/taboo-or-not-taboo-its-all-in-the-questions/ for starters.

  3. Paul Duffy permalink

    How about seeing coursebooks as recipe books? They are glossy, ‘aspirational’ and have varying levels of universal appeal (depending on how specific they are). However, no one uses just one recipe book exclusively. No one follows a recipe book from the first page to the last. And I would guess that few people use individual recipes exactly as they are on the page (we all add an extra chili or one less).

    • jen macdougall permalink

      Someone recently (I forget who – sorry) likened using a coursebook to a musician playing cover versions.
      In this analogy:
      – perhaps it is really useful to play cover versions to help learn your craft (new/inexperienced teacher)
      – original versions without the skills might be crap!
      – you start to create the original versions from drawing on the cover version

      but
      – at some point surely you strive to be able to be original
      – you may be able to learn from your ‘crap’ original versions just as well as from the cover versions
      – many people will never get past the cover versions as they can’t see how their originals could possibly be better than those of the professional musicians.

      Re – recipe book analogy – while we might not follow the recipe book slavishly, many people find it difficult to not follow the recipe precisely – ” I have to use these certain herbs – it won’t work without them” ” if I put the ingredients in the wrong order – then it will be a disaster” – Likewise the coursebook – ‘it says this in the teachers’ book so this must be how to make it work” ” how can I change the order of the ‘recipe'”

      In a way maybe what Steve is saying about coursebooks is true also of recipe books: written for a wide audience, intended to be adhered to, commercial, aspirational – middle class constructs. The only TV chef I’ve heard who gives you lots of leeway is Nigel Slater! His chat is always – ‘oh but you don’t need to use this, you can choose to do it with whatever you want; I’m using chicken, but lamb or cheese or whatever would work quite as well’, and maybe Nigel is more of a cook than a chef. If coursebooks were more like this, then they might be a bundle of ideas with lots and lots of scope for variation. But are they?

    • I really like this recipe book comparison, Paul, and Jen has developed it nicely to illustrate how it’s possible to use coursebooks in a similar way to recipe books, just dipping in when we need to and taking what we need from them. Whenever I’ve designed courses I’ve tended to use coursebooks in this way – carefully choosing some dishes that I know will go down well, but expecting the teachers to make alterations to the original recipe to cater for their students’ particular tastes.
      But if this is the best way to use course books, why are they called COURSEbooks? The name implies that they form a coherent course and should be used as such, i.e. followed from beginning to end.
      As for the cover version analogy, I like that too as it suggests that the teacher still has a fair amount of leeway. It’s possible to do a really good cover version, but it’s also possible to murder a song really badly. Oddly, the best cover versions are usually quite different from the original. Covers that attempt to sound as close as possible to the original tend to be rather bland – and the same can be said for using coursebooks.

  4. For the sake of argument (and to kill a few minutes when I should be doing something else) I’m going to pursue the opposite course. Glossy global textbooks add value to classrooms. Though many students begrudge the extra expense of full-color pages and CD/DVD inserts, some do appreciate the eye-candy as opposed to sheer monotony of the gray-paged textbooks in other courses. The Anglo-centric situations in many coursebooks appeal to the fantasies of some students, rather than aspirations in the same way many students take “an English name” (even nonsensical names like Superman). Many students dream of a semester abroad. Additionally, many teachers simply don’t have enough hours in a week to build all from scratch, even if they have the skills. Good audio tracks ain’t easy. (Whether you use recorded audio is, I realize, a different discussion.) Lot’s of good text is copywrite-protected (the education exemption in most lands is limited to students making copies for their own purposes, NOT classroom sets). So, if a teacher works from a global textbook 60-70% of the time, and augments with locally-relevant materials, this is probably good use of a product that provides worthwhile material for language learning.

    • Hi Robert,
      I agree that the “eye-candy” factor of coursebooks is a definite plus. Because publishing companies only produce one book and market it globally (rather than having local versions of the book), they can afford to make the quality of the presentation really high. It’s nice to have such high quality materials at your disposal, and not everything you use in the classroom needs to be individually tailored to a specific group. However, students and teachers now have access to a lot of high quality authentic English texts (including audio and audio-visual), so perhaps this is less of an advantage than it used to be.
      But at the same time, if the best use of a coursebook is to only use it some of the time and use context-specific stuff the rest of the time, why do publishers provide all these additional components to accompany the book? This implies that everything can be done using materials produced by this publishing company. If a syllabus is based on a coursebook, what tends to happen is that teachers try to supplement by finding materials that tie in with the topics or language in the book, rather than using materials from the book that meet the needs of the students. There is still an understanding that the language presented in the book is what will drive the syllabus. I suppose the value of a syllabus organised around individual language items is a different discussion. Or is it?

  5. I don’t think that coursebooks are perfect. Some simply aren’t that good in the first place, some have been badly chosen for the context they’re being used in. BUT, even the best coursebooks in the best circumstances need to be exploited and adapted, not because there’s something inherently wrong with them, but because that’s what teachers do. This isn’t necessarily about photocopying and cutting and pasting, but about how we approach activities, how we help our students make connections with their lives and so on.

    A more local coursebook may be more specific to a particular context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work any better. With all due respect to the makers of the ESOL materials (which I understand had to be rushed out), these were intended to be much more appropriate for ESOL learners but they turned out to be generally rather uninspiring and don’t even really reflect most ESOL learners’ lives (given that since they were written there has been an influx of Eastern Europeans who are poorly represented in the materials).

    Equally, I have seen a lot of teachers producing their own materials which were badly thought through and failed to facilitate much learning.

    I think the whole coursebook or not coursebook debate is a bit of a red herring. The point is to choose material which provides a broad fit, and then tailor it carefully to the needs of our students. (another metaphor to go along with the recipe book and cover versions!)

    I recently presented on this topic at IATEFL and, if anyone’s interested, there is now a brainshark of the presentation up on my site http://elt-resourceful.com/2013/04/22/brainshark-presentation-of-my-iatefl13-talk-of-course-using-a-coursebook-and-dealing-with-emergent-language/

    • “even the best coursebooks in the best circumstances need to be exploited and adapted, not because there’s something inherently wrong with them, but because that’s what teachers do.” Yes it is, Rachael, and your presentation gives some very useful ideas on how to do this – thanks for sharing it. Presumably we do this because we think it’s better for our students than just ploughing through the coursebook. But doesn’t that mean that the coursebook is not being used a coursebook, but rather a collection of very nicely presented resources?

      • I think in fact you have a point that coursebook is a bit of misnomer. It does imply that if you follow it rigidly, learning will appear..which, as I think we’d agree, isn’t the case. Doesn’t mean it can’t be useful though 😉

  6. Oh yes, they can definitely be useful. But when you think about it, it’s a bit odd that global coursebooks exist in the first place if we don’t actually use them as courses. It wasn’t teachers who decided we should have a single book that is used all over the world. I think that’s really the nub of my argument (if I have one).

    • Well, far be it from me to step in and defend publishers 😉 But I think the point I’m making is that if coursebooks were all more local they might perhaps be more closely tied to local concerns (though even that is arguable), but, because of the cost of development weighed against the potential market, they probably wouldn’t look as nice, or have snazzy add-ons (which people do seem to want, or the publishers wouldn’t bother producing them). And if the books couldn’t make much money because of the limited market, then they might find it harder to persuade experienced authors to give up a year of their lives to write them, and this could affect the quality of the content (not just the appearance)… There are advantages to economies of scale.

      Just trying to be pragmatic here 🙂

  7. I must say it is interesting to get a coursebook writer’s view on this issue, and thanks for being so open with your views. I see what you’re saying about economies of scale – it allows time and money to be invested in the product, which is bound to contribute to its quality.
    So are we saying that the advantage of having a global approach to coursebook production (from a pedagogical perspective) is that it allows us to have very well-presented and carefully thought out (though very generic) materials? If so, aren’t there other places where we could be getting equally nice-looking materials? Youtube, ELTpics, the British Council website etc? Why do we have to have it in book form? The thing about books, you see, is that they start at page one and you’re supposed to turn the pages until you’re finished – you get trapped. Should publishers be considering ways of putting their “course”books online only, so we can access only the materials we need and not the ones we don’t? It might generate less revenue but think about how much they’d save on publishing costs. Maybe they’re already working on this…

    • There are already blended and 100% online courses out there, which as you have pointed out, can allow for more flexibility. However, the assumption that these save on publishing costs is nonsense. The real costs of producing good quality course materials come in research, development, marketing, writing fees and/or royalty payments, editing, design and permissions. Printing and shipping represents a fairly small percentage of total costs. If you’re putting a product online you need to consider the costs of platform development, hosting, maintenance and ongoing support, which can potentially far exceed print costs. Digital is not the easy nor the cheap option!

  8. That’s interesting, Ian – thanks. I realise that creating digital materials can also be costly, but as you say, online courses already exist and presumably they wouldn’t if they weren’t financially viable. In any case, a generic online course could end up being as unsuitable for specific contexts as a generic coursebook is, and would still require adapting to make it more appropriate for learner needs. I was thinking though that if the materials were in a digital format it might be easier for teachers to use them more flexibly in the classroom. We can already access online lessons, worksheets etc, and I expect that such materials will become increasingly common in the future. In which case, is there still going to be a role for global coursebooks in years to come?

    • I’ll be very interested to see Ian’s response to that question, but my personal view is that lots of people actually don’t want a menu of options. A good coursebook has a sense of flow and coherence that a sliced and diced set of materials covering different learning points can’t have.

  9. True – but so does a good course. The flow and coherence comes from the syllabus rather than from the fact that it exists in book form, wouldn’t you say?

  10. A big part of what sells coursebooks is the standardization factor. I’m talking “head of studies” types (in private schools, as well as program directors at universities, etc). Many are willing to accept standardized mediocrity as insurance that all students in a certain “grade” (however assigned) are presented with certain materials. Of course they could write a comprehensive curriculum and syllabus and then leave it to the teachers to fill in, but that might be too much work! Far easier to assign Interchange 1, 2, 3 or a selection of coursebooks, and then leave it to teachers to adapt as they see fit — or even to REQUIRE that instructors “follow the coursebook” and present standardized exit exams based on coursebook materials. I’m not saying this is right or fair – but hey, Acme publishing would rather sell 3,000 coursebooks to Zeta University for their freshman English classes than sell 30 books for 100 courses scattered across the nation… I submit that the Anglo-centric approach and lock-step teaching is precisely what many of these heads of studies are looking for!

    • You may well be right, Robert, but if you are that’s a bit depressing! The reasons you give for why course managers choose to use coursebooks are not exactly admirable (compromise, ignorance, laziness…). Could another reason be that it allows them to recruit inexperienced (and therefore cheaper) teachers with the justification that if they are following the coursebook they can’t mess up too badly, and therefore they can get away with not providing too much support?
      Or am I being too cynical?

      • I suspect there are more than a mere few that prefer to hire less experienced (and less expensive) instructors because it not only costs less, but gives them more control. More experienced instructors, particularly those with more time in that country, would be better aware of what are actual norms (and god-forbid they actually are aware of the employment standards in that country!). Sort of embarrassing to note that I’m the incoming chair for the Program Administration Interest Group in TESOL International… but hey, I call it as I see it.

  11. No, I don’t think it does just come from the syllabus. A syllabus may specify certain language areas and even certain skills, but the difficulty is to put those together in a way which flows and is engaging. You want students to be fully involved in the topic of the lesson, wanting to read about it, talk about it and so on, and therefore wanting the language to do so. Everything should play its part in contributing to the whole. If you have discrete reading texts with questions, grammar exercises and so on which teachers can pick and mix from a menu, it’s much harder to get this kind of flow.

    • In my experience, the flow or the sense of continuity comes from the dynamics of the group and the negotiation of lesson content with a view to achieving the learners’ goals. Discussing learning intentions, and then incorporating reflection tasks into the lessons to evaluate learner achievement and establish where to go next, are what makes a course cohesive for me. Whenever I have been in a situation where I’m expected to follow a coursebook I’ve always felt a bit like I was selling the students short:
      -“Why are we learning this language point and why now?”
      -“Because it’s on page 43 and yesterday we did page 42”.
      As opposed to:
      “Because yesterday’s lesson showed up some problems in this area and you expressed an interest in exploring it further.”
      The book seemed to distance the learnING from the learnERS, if you see what I mean. I realise that sounds a bit Dogme…

      • Nothing wrong with responding to learners, in fact it’s essential. That’s called teaching the learners not the lesson, and is one of the reasons why you might add in other materials, personalisation, extra practice etc to any course materials.
        If you are willing and able to create 20-30 hours of lessons a week off the top of your head, tailored precisely to your learners’ needs, more power to your elbow. I’m not against a dogme approach per se, just think it’s a big ask for many teachers.
        In my experience of observing teachers without course materials (most in ESOL), there was a very strong tendency to do lots of totally unconnected worksheets off the internet or to spend 3 hours on a much too complicated newspaper article, explaining it word by word. Most of the teachers I saw didn’t have the experience or the linguistic knowledge to be able to teach in the way you describe.
        And, while I often go into a three hour class with just one or two photocopied pages each for students, I rarely, if ever, go in with nothing. My experience allows me to exploit materials well, and adapt and respond to what comes up, but I still like to have that basic framework.

      • I guess what I’m trying to say is that mediocre (or worse) lessons are about the teaching not the materials…

      • Why are we learning this language point?:
        Because it’s common in English and it might be of use to you, even if you won’t be able to fully incorporate it now. (this is true for both coursebook and ‘Dogme/task based/reactive’.
        Why now?
        Because it’s on page 43 etc.. which is a bit random true, but no more random than your example which was random in:
        – the opportunity to say the language point came up yesterday (any number of others could’ve come up too)
        – that you noticed that language point / student failure (you may not have and there are good reasons to think that most teachers won’t, especially at low levels)
        – that you chose to follow up that point rather than others (which there would’ve been)

        Not only is it random in that way, but there’s no reason to believe students will remember the failure from yesterday and we could add that its random because it applied to one student rather than many or all.

        As to the nature of coursebook material, I wonder which coursebooks you are referring to? Not all are the same! Some make a play for a variety of interesting visuals (e.g. Big Picture, Life). Some eschew celebrity (Global), some relate to students lives by way of media (Total English / Speak Out). In terms of topics, in books I’ve written, yes there are topics on free time, shopping and the like, but there are also texts and tasks that look at, the third world, conflict, politics and social issues, mental illness, religion, swearing, affluenza, eating disorders, male chauvanism, work-life balance, exploitation of workers, but also fashion, football, buying mobile phones, dealing with tech assistants, opening bank accounts, parties, writing emails, etc. etc. but also the Not all students will be interested in all the topics, but hopefully they’ll still be interested in the language and I would look at the language as a further springboard in class. I doubt the material any one teacher writes for anyone class would be any more relevant. There are problems with syllabus, such as the rigid grammar syllabus, particularly at lower levels, but even then you can find in Innovations Elementary and Pre-intermediate something quite different, and in terms of the vocabulary books choose to teach there can also be a great variety between series, both in amount, kind and the outcomes that are driving that choice.

        I should add that most of the issues around syllabus are driven by consumers, not publishers – Innovations Elementary is not a big seller!

        Also, this is not to say you shouldn’t do whatever you wish to do and that there are coursebooks which I don’t like / wouldn’t use).

  12. I think we have now reached a stage where both Robert and Rachael are starting to touch on topics I was planning to write about in future posts. Thanks very much for your comments, everyone.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  2. Comunicative Breakdown | The Steve Brown Blog
  3. What have I learned? | The Steve Brown Blog
  4. How not to design a syllabus | The Steve Brown Blog
  5. The Big Issues and ELT 1: Globalisation | The Steve Brown Blog
  6. Concerning coursebooks | The Steve Brown Blog
  7. ELT materials part 1: Encouraging genuine communication | David Bunker

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