Paradigm, No. 12 (December, 1993)
Review: Les manuels scolaires: histoire et actualité by Alain Choppin. Pédagogies pour demain. Références. (Hachette, 1992) £16.30 328 pp.
Alain Choppin is one of the foremost investigators in the field of textbook research and this book represents a synthesis of his work so far. It is, as its title implies, a review of the history of textbooks as well as an analysis of their changing forms and functions. It is also a guide for the future researcher as to the sources from which he or she may obtain data. Although reference is made from time to time to wider sources, the bulk of the text refers to French textbooks, to the French educational system and its history and to French sources. But within this framework it is very thorough.
The book is divided into seven parts, each part consisting of three, four or five short chapters. Part 1 essays a definition and a typology of textbooks. Part 2 examines the textbook as a means of social control; Part 3 looks at the changing ways of producing textbooks; Part 4 and Part 5 chart the evolution of textbooks as teaching aids; Part 6 is to some extent an elaboration of Part 2 since it is concerned with the textbook as a means of transmitting the culture and ideology of a society. Lastly, Part 7 details the kind of research which has been undertaken on textbooks and gives pointers towards the fields that remain to be ploughed; these are numerous and extensive.
My immediate reaction on reading this book was to regret that it had not been published much earlier when I was researching the history of geography teaching in French public secondary schools. It would have saved me a lot of time and much tedious library browsing. Future researchers in this area will certainly be grateful to Choppin for having broken the ground and laid down a number of useful guidelines. Particularly useful is the reference to the data base called Emmanuelle (manuel=textbook in French) which Choppin has devised and which may be accessed by research workers in this field. How easy it is to access, I am not sure, as I have not attempted to do so.
There is in this book a good deal of interesting information about how a textbook is produced, about which I, as a former textbook writer, was blissfully unaware. He refers particularly to the method of producing double-page spreads which has been common among French textbook producers for some time, but which is a relatively recent innovation in many English textbooks. I am impressed by the rapidity with which a textbook is produced in France today. For example, I was marginally involved recently, as a reviser, in the production of a textbook for the "Classe de 3e: Histoire, Geographie, Initiation Economique". I received the first rough proofs in August 1992 and the last in November; the printed book arrived on my desk in May 1993.
The book brings out the interaction that exists between the changing academic content, the changing technology of book production, changing pedagogy and changing value positions on the character of textbooks. Thus from the textbook being the source of information to be committed to the memory, where the verbal element was dominant, it has become a source of evidence from which the learner may be guided to acquire certain concepts, principles and skills. But new technology has permitted a much wider range of evidence to be presented to the pupil: photographs first in monochrome then in colour (including aerial and satellite photographs), diagrams of various types, graphs of different degrees of complexity and maps at a variety of scales. An interesting, but sometimes irritating, feature of this book is the way the author has conceived it in the form of a modern school textbook. Thus the full panoply of desktop publishing techniques has been used: different sized print characters, bold headings and some bold text for emphasis, or
white printing with dark background, graphics and so on, but not much colour printing (cost considerations?)
To me such typographical devices are irritating because they interrupt the narrative flow and the boxed-in sections are not always referred to in the text. Further, some of the boxed-in material is a quotation from another text, but some seems to be written by the author himself and it was not clear to me why it had to be placed in a box. But maybe the author was making a point?
There is a useful selective bibliography (mostly of works in French) at the end of the book, whilst references are in footnotes scattered in the pages of the book. I suspect that only some of the references are provided as a number of statements are made for which no sources are given. Lastly, in a work such as this, it is surprising that there is no index. It is true that the table of contents is detailed, but this does not have the same function as an index.
To conclude, in many ways this book is a tour de force. It covers a vast area of ground in a succinct manner with, in the manner of the "Manuel", short paragraphs and sections. Perhaps one could have wished, at times, for the author to have gone more deeply into the issues he raises, but no doubt he would argue that this would have exceeded the brief he set himself. Nevertheless, the book managed to keep my interest, perhaps because I have some familiarity with French textbooks, but also because it was a clear exposition of the issues facing those engaging in research on textbooks.
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