Do Elementary School Students Need Textbooks?
In a Chronicle story of March 22, 2004, titled Ghana Education Set for Record Low, the paper accused the government of having a policy to eliminate the use of textbooks in Ghanaian language, English language, and mathematics at the lower elementary school level (primary 1, 2, and 3).
At the primary four level, the paper alleges that the government intends to eliminate textbooks for environmental studies, religious and moral education, music, dance, and physical education. In place of this, the paper further alleges, the government would provide teachers with teaching manuals. Though the education minister, Mr. Baah Wiredu, has denied the Chronicle’s allegations, we want to comment on the issue of textbooks in elementary schools in order to help put the issue in a clearer perspective.
Our comments are purely from our professional perspectives without any political motivations. With the exception of reading books for Ghanaian languages and English language with broad-based themes, history, folklore, and environment studies, lower elementary school students do not require a textbook in mathematics. Rather, they need mathematics workbooks with exercises and assignments for them to practice any concept they are taught. In fact, elementary school mathematics textbooks are generally written in algorithmic manner such that they are more suitable for exercises or assignments than for reading for understanding. Even explanations given in a mathematics textbook for a particular algorithm are always inadequate; it hardly explains the underlying mathematical reasoning. In primary 1,2,3 4, 5, and 6, contrary to popular perception, students do not really learn mathematics. Instead, they learn numeracy which is about the ‘meaning’ of the numerals, counting, relationship between the numerals; operations with the numerals (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication, not squaring or taking the square root of a number); familiarization with geometric shapes (both regular and irregular); properties of geometric shapes; the meaning of fractions, terminology of fractions (proper fractions, improper fractions, fractional bar, numerator, denominator, etc.), simple addition and subtraction of fractions, and so on. Students at those levels do not require a textbook in order to understand these number concepts as used in practice. On the contrary, students at that level need mathematics workbooks and the teacher also need mathematics-teaching manuals.
Similarly, primary four students do not require textbooks for music (not song books), dance, and physical education. Teacher manuals and official curricula would be enough for these subjects. One reason is that subjects such as music, dance and physical education at those levels are mainly activity-based and do not require any textbooks. The second reason is that from a psychosocial point of view these subjects are better taught and learned at those levels when they are not academicized. Chronicle states that private schools in Ghana provide their students with textbooks in those subjects. We are yet to learn of any private elementary schools in Ghana that provide their primary four, five or six students with music, dance, and physical education textbooks. Nevertheless, we are fully aware that some jurisdictions (both public and private schools) in the so-called developing and developed worlds provide their primary 1, 2, 3 and 4 students with mathematics textbooks. However, a critical investigation revealed that those are more or less workbooks, not textbooks. Students at that level do not read those textbooks and all that the teachers do is to assign exercises from those textbooks.
As well, the Chronicle states that without textbooks students would find it more difficult to find help with their homework assignments. This is not true with numeracy at that level. If the government were to have a policy to eliminate the use of textbooks for mathematics at primary 1,2,3 and 4, and for dance, music and physical education at the primary four level, we would support it full heartedly on three conditions. First, it should be a well-thought out policy with a sound philosophical basis. Is it about saving money? Simplifying the work of teachers? Use money more efficiently? If so how? Second, wider consultation with all stakeholders of the education enterprise must be made. This includes teachers, head teachers, education directors, parents, community members, teacher-educators, and the universities. We should do away with the ineffective colonial model of policy-making where one or two people conceive an idea and impose it on the masses through what are popularly called “government directives”. Finally, the government must have a well-structured program in place to prepare teachers to implement the new policy. This is the most critical part of any education policy implementation. If teachers are to be provided with teaching manuals, they should be sufficiently in-serviced about how to use the manuals. In our opinion, the money saved from printing such unnecessary textbooks for those subjects could be better spent on buying more grade appropriate materials, mathematics and science manipulatives, scientific instruments (microscope, telescope, magnifier, scale, etc.) for those primary levels. We count on the Chronicle to help strengthen public confidence in our elementary school system and continuously seek improvements in order to make the system better for our children. Y. Fredua-Kwarteng is a mathematics educator and school administrator in Canada’s newest territory – Nunavut. F. Ahia is an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.