This blog provides some guidelines for teachers and students when reviewing the contents of their own textbooks, to consider how they incorporate sustainability, human rights, gender equality, peace and non-violence, global citizenship and an appreciation of cultural diversity. It is accompanied by an activity sheet that can be used in the classroom. It is part of a series of blogs that seeks to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which focuses on the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Textbooks are an important resource in all classrooms – they have informative content, as well as exercises and activities that help students learn. But textbooks also reflect the values and norms in our society; they make assumptions about the roles people should play, and can perpetuate stereotypes. Sometimes they tell only a small part of a much bigger story, and what they don’t say, rather than what they do, can leave out valuable perspectives or the experiences of certain people.
Who is represented?
In addition to the explicit information that students learn, textbooks convey implicit messages and ideas through text and images. Ideally the types of people and relationships depicted in our textbooks will reflect the diversity of human experiences in our societies. For example: are men and women equally represented? What sort of activities are they shown doing, and what messages does that send about what boys and girls should strive for, or how they should act or behave now and in the future?
Too often children do not see themselves or their experiences reflected in their textbooks. For example, people from different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups are often excluded, or when they are included, the way they are represented promotes stereotypes and prejudice rather than tolerance, understanding and appreciation of diversity. For children with disabilities it can be empowering to see people with disabilities reflected in their textbooks, yet only 9% of the textbooks we looked at had any reference to people with disabilities at all. Likewise, for young people with diverse sexualities, or who come from LGBTQI homes, depictions of same sex relationships and queer identities can help to validate their experiences in the school environment, where too often they can feel isolated or alone. Our textbooks should promote human rights, and by looking at who is represented and how they are represented we can think about whose voices are prioritised and those who are excluded.
What information is prioritised?
Textbooks are often where students first encounter the official information and knowledge about their country and the wider world that their governments wish them to learn. Textbook content helps to shape young people’s views about the global challenges that we face, and what they can do to help address them. For example, climate change is one of the most pressing global issues of our time, and while environmental sustainability is a theme of growing importance in textbooks, the content presented is not always scientifically accurate or up to date. Too many textbooks talk about climate change as a problem that will need to be addressed at some point in the future, rather than an urgent crisis already affecting many people and communities around the world.
How the histories of different countries and groups are told in textbooks can also influence the perspectives and points of view that are remembered through time. For example, textbooks can be used to glorify military force, or they can cover the devastating effects that conflict has on individuals, families, economies and nations. Textbooks can be used as resources that help to build peace and reconciliation, but there are often versions of history that are left untold. One way to look at a country’s place in history is to consider how contested borders are drawn in the maps found in textbooks.
Here at the GEM Report, we’ve been looking at different countries’ textbooks to see what themes and values countries are prioritising. We encourage teachers and students to also look at some of these aspects in their textbooks. We have developed an activity sheet that can be used in your classroom. We would love to hear about the values and topics that are important to young people, and whether and how they are reflected in the textbooks being used. Please do send us anything that you find when reading between the lines of your textbook. You can send us examples at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet/Facebook/Instagram tagging @GEMReport and using #betweenthelines.