A new face for textbooks

Steven Rudolph

When I set up Jiva Public School in 1994, I was keen to try out new ideas with Indian teachers that would undo the outmoded factory-style education that was (and still is) hindering India’s progress. Before our first classes started, I spent three weeks training our instructors in activity-based methods that would make learning enjoyable for the kids.

But when the students arrived, the teachers resorted to traditional chalk-and-talk methods, forcing the students into lockstep, like cadets in the military. All the training seemed to have gone right out the window.

On careful examination, I found that the culprit was the textbooks that they were using – painfully dull volumes, filled with unimportant details, presented in a suffocating manner. These were books they knew as students, which forced them to teach in the same way that their teachers had taught them.

I realized that if the teachers had to teach better, they had to be given better tools. So, a significant amount of my time was dedicated to building a better textbook. Seventy books later, my work has reached most parts of India, delighting both teachers and learners, who have written to me about how their classrooms have been transformed and how learning has become fun.

I share here some of my techniques with other authors and publishers.

Here are my 7 secrets to writing a good textbook:

  1. Localize it. Make the books look and feel Indian. Avoid using illustrations of foreign looking kids named Johnny and Sally in western outfits, and show people the way they really are, some with dark-skin, wearing saris, and people with names such as Venkatesh and Harpreet Kaur.
  2. Make the layout friendly. Don’t be kanjoos and use tiny fonts and small margins to reduce the number of pages just to save money. Use large serif fonts (and extra large fonts for primary students) with plenty of spacing so reading is easier and more pleasurable.
  3. Activity-based. Put activities in the books that get children to interact with each other. Let them discuss, debate, brainstorm, solve problems in groups and even play learning games. This not only makes learning fun, it also builds social skills, a more important determinant of success in life than one’s IQ level.
  4. Focus on Multiple Intelligences. There are eight intelligences, not one (bodily, interpersonal, linguistic, logical, visual, musical, intrapersonal, and naturalistic). Ensure you have activities that promote all types of abilities. Ask kids to sing about Caesar, dance about photosynthesis, and draw pictures in civics.
  5. Ask deep questions. Enough with the comprehension questions. Instead, get kids to think deeply. What would it be like to live in the Indus Civilization as a kid? What things are the same about life then and now? How do historians accurately know about this era and do all of them agree about the research?
  6. Make it meaningful. Help kids understand why this information is relevant to their lives. Why are they learning this? Aspiring rock stars in a trigonometry class would likely find concepts like waves, frequency, and amplitude much more interesting when they see how they form the basis of musical sound.
  7. Add in a dash of fun. There is plenty of scope for poetry and rap in the science textbook. Or jokes in the computer books. (Knock, Knock. Who’s there? Aunty. Aunty who? Aunty Virus.) While discipline in life is a must, so is playfulness. And you remember what that say about Jack and play, right?

In the digital age, teachers become yet another ‘channel’ for kids to watch. If the tools they have to work with are built on principles of the past, it will predispose them to teach in antiquated, unimaginative ways. Kids will then simply tune them out. However, designing materials around more holistic and creative principles results in entirely different products – ones that inherently inspire learners.

It seems to me that when education is on the brink of change right now, textbooks are the main lynchpins holding us back. However, I am confident that this trend will change as, if I may adapt the famous quote, “No one can stop a textbook whose time has come.”

The author is Director of Jiva Institute, Faridabad. He can be reached at steve@jiva.com.