Research in brief: reading disruption of a textbook

The research

Winter, C. (2018). Disrupting colonial discourses in the geography curriculum during the introduction of British Values policy in schools. Journal of Curriculum Studies50(4), 456-475.

Open access, click here.

Summary

The aim of the study was ‘to expose and disrupt discourses dominating global development in an English school geography textbook chapter.’ (2018:456)

Winter analyzed one chapter of an English Curriculum Geography textbook using a disruptive approach, a technique proposed by Jacques Derrida.  

This technique involves questioning the assumptions of the textbook author, scrutinizing their word choices or intended meaning, identifying any concepts dominating the text and proposing ethical changes where tensions occur.

Winter found that Western supremacy, powerlessness of ‘Third World’ nations and othering were among the identifiable themes in the textbook chapter (unit).

The author recommends reviewing curricula and other educational documents in light of findings, and also promoting deconstructive or disruptive reading techniques as a valuable skill for learners.

 

Background

Winter first states that researchers and UK educators have previously critiqued geography textbooks for being Eurocentric and promoting ‘new imperialism’. The author briefly discusses issues such as ethic diversity, political tensions and a culture of performativity in UK schooling which impact on the current curriculum – i.e. leading institutions or teachers to opt for low-risk knowledge and assessment approaches rather than challenge and innovation.

The study was motivated by curriculum changes in England which have seen the introduction of a (Promoting Fundamental) British Values curriculum policy (2014). Winter discusses the ambiguous nature of British Values, with concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘rule of law’, ‘freedom’, etc, able to be applied to varied contexts beyond Britain. She also references research suggesting that so-called ‘British Values’ may lead to marginalization of non-Western epistemologies.

Winter also states that guidance from the Department for Education indicates students should be given balanced presentation of views regarding (global) political issues. However, the researcher wishes to explore whether one geography textbook promotes more partisan (colonial) views which lead to othering and cultural bias.

Winter adds a necessary disclaimer to the investigation – there is no deterministic relationship between a curriculum and the learners. Therefore, should certain themes (e.g. colonial, Eurocentric, etc) be identified in the textbook, it does not necessarily follow that these will be interpreted as such by learners engaging with the resource.

 

Method

A reading disruption, as Winter explains, is a ‘reading otherwise’. It is a form of inquiry which leads the reader to question the assumed meaning of a writer’s words. Derrida’s ideas, upon which the method of inquiry is based, highlight that language is unstable, and a writer’s words cannot be seen as having definite or accurate meanings. Rather than seeing words as universal concepts, Derrida encourages readers to inspect and scrutinize meanings and look for clues, or ‘traces’ which allude to the writer’s stance or intention. Referred to in a quote from Derrida as ‘cracking open the nutshell of totalizing frameworks’ (1992:27), the aim appears to be to draw out embedded or subliminal pre-suppositions within a text, rather than to hold a writer accountable for consciously manipulating readers. (*Note, that’s how I read it, anyway*)

Winter undertook a ‘disruptive reading’ of one unit of a school textbook titled ‘Development Dilemmas’ (2013, OUP), a resource still used after the British Values curriculum policy changes. The topic of the unit was agricultural development in Malawi.

Findings

Winter’s analysis revealed ‘the subtle operation of the language of geography’s ‘imperial gaze’’ (2018:463). Three themes were identified in relation to this: the concept of development, numerical indicators, and ‘learning to divide the world’.

Winter noted that the authors’ concept of ‘development’ focused primarily on economic change (higher incomes) and social enhancement (standard of living). The text, on agricultural structures in Malawi, tended to highlight ‘underdevelopment’ or ‘lack of development’– poor resources, poor conditions, low pay, etc, yet omitted possible colonial causes of these issues from the text. The ‘deficit discourse’ was then made more apparent with the unit focusing on Western-led interventions to improve agricultural structures in Malawi – this highlighted western superiority and the Malawian’s powerlessness to help themselves.

Winter noted that numerical indicators as a way of measuring development were used throughout the unit. While numerical indicators may be perceived by some as more neutral, Winter argued that statistics and rankings of the kind used (which highlighted Malawi as one of the World’s poorest countries) ‘reveal the power of global indicators as purveyors of neoliberalism’ (2018:465). Reducing Malawi’s development as a country to figures is convenient, yet it masks the bigger picture – ‘complex political issues, ethical relations’, ‘narratives’ and so on which shape the reality of the situation.

Winter states that not only is the textbook unit ‘selling Malawi’s poverty to English school students’, it challenges them to help solve the issues. It suggests they (as Westerners) have a moral obligation to do so, and appears to empower them as capable of doing so. She stresses that there is little mention of how the West has been complicit in constructing the problems it seeks to address.

Winter’s discussion stresses that this pilot study is just a starting point – researchers need to apply deconstructive methods to whole syllabi, policy documents, marking schemes and so on. She also encourages educators to train learners in skills of deconstructive or disruptive analysis, mentioning the importance of critical reading in relation to textbooks, social media, marketing and so on.

 

Thoughts

Winter digs deeper than some other researchers to draw out themes embedded in a textbook unit. It is a shame that the study did not analyze the whole resource, to address whether these themes occur throughout. As it is, some might question whether Winter selected a unit from a textbook which would likely confirm pre-conceptions that a decolonizing approach to the curriculum (and it’s textbooks) is needed.

Of course, it’s hard to critique Winter’s own analysis without viewing the unit myself. However, evidence of the themes identified through her analysis seems compelling, damning and somewhat worrying. As a materials writer, some of Winter’s analysis is sobering – I may have been guilty of perpetuating such themes in some of my own ELT resources, not consciously of course. This study motivated me to look back at some texts I’ve devised on complex topics (e.g. power relations, poverty, technological innovation, success) and think critically about the message(s) portrayed through my own writing.

IMO, the method is highly interpretive and a bit leading. However, with the researcher’s interpretation being equally open to scrutiny, this approach (if replicated by others) could provide the kind of situated dialogue needed for change. It certainly prompts coursebook writers to question some of their own assumptions, but I’d hope that wouldn’t result in writers producing more low-risk content to avoid scrutiny.

Feature image by andreas N from Pixabay

2 comments

  1. Hi Peter,

    I’m so glad you posted this at this point in time. I am currently starting my 1st assignment in the NILE materials development module. I am comparing two coursebooks, and I really want to put an analysis drawing on critical pedagogy high up my list of tools for evaluating Cutting Edge and Global Intermediate.

    I am currently reading Language Textbooks in the era of Neoliberalism by Pau Bori, which I highly recommend, and I shall add this resource that you have given to my reading list.

    When you mention you may have been guilty of perpetuating such themes in your materials, I can relate to this because while reading Bori’s work has given me plenty of reasons to critique the coursebooks in question, it also made me evaluate my own online course which I would believe is far from an instrument of purveying neoliberal themes. Yet it also is an example of the commercialization of education and teacher training.

    My current feeling is that we are people of our time and the era we live in, and I have spent my whole life in the neoliberal era and so it is hard to think or act outside it. I understand that Gramsci suggests some solutions to this, and he is also on my reading list, but as yet I cannot comment further on this.

    Thanks again for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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