Paradigm, No. 14 (September, 1994)


Research on schoolbooks in France: a summary account

Alain Choppin1

Service d’histoire de l’education,
Institut national de recherchepédagogique,
29 rue d’Ulm,
75230 Paris Cedex 05,

The interest shown by French researchers in schoolbooks is certainly not a thing of today, having come to the fore over the last thirty years. This liveliness is especially notable in the increase of scholarly publications devoted to the subject, about 1000 since 1960. As in most Western countries, those involved with the French educational system, faced with the democratising of teaching, a variety of educational constituencies and the ever-present media, question themselves on the value and adequacy of these pedagogic tools, especially those in current use.

French research on textbooks shows a number of original characteristics.2 One must remember firstly that the regulations in force in France on class textbooks are very liberal: creation, production and distribution are given to competing private enterprises; the choice is made by all the teaching staff in each institution; the financing is undertaken by the Commune for primary schools, by the State for colleges, by parents for lycées. As the authorities have scrupulously pursued a policy of nonintervention in this area for over a century, except during the Vichy period, it cannot be an ‘official enterprise’, as in many other countries, for France does not have a centre of research on schoolbooks, to perform experiments on improving production or evaluating the quality of books in use. Research, which comes necessarily from private initiatives, is thus geographically dispersed.

Secondly, schoolbooks are the subject of very varied investigations, in widely varied fields: ideology, didactics, linguistics, iconography, page layout, etc., as well as many studies which look at schoolbooks without any of these themes being necessarily their main topic. This diversity of themes and of possible fields of research, the often very general description of the topic of research or the titles of particular works, make it extremely hard to keep a tab on what has been published, and even more so on work in progress.

However what is undeniably the most original characteristic of French research is the importance of the historical perspective3: the interest shown by the French in questions of education is often linked to their interest in historical investigations. Works which analyze textbooks of earlier periods are plentiful: 448 (34%) out of the 1,295 publications that we have managed to survey. Furthermore, this proportion has not stopped growing in recent decades, rising from 17% in the 1960s to 56% in the 1980s. French research on schoolbooks is crossed, as it were, by a dividing line, not always impenetrable, between contemporary and retrospective studies.

Contemporary studies are those which deal with schoolbooks in use at the present time. If one looks at the number of publications in this field (a little over 850 have been indexed to date) one sees that pedagogical questions are mainly treated (64%) and, in lesser measure, those concerned with sociological or ideological perspectives (25%). One notices too that publication consists chiefly of articles (69%), most of which do not exceed five pages (60%).

Disciplines most frequently discussed are history (32%); the French language (28%); foreign languages (12%) and geography (11%). Scientific disciplines seem neglected. Schoolbooks studied are fairly divided between primary (49%), and secondary (51%) teaching, due mainly to the fact that since the democratizing of teaching in the 1960s difficulties previously found in the primary sector have since been inherited by the colleges. This research is not carried out at the request of the public authorities, who simply define national programmes to which books in each subject and at each level must adhere. Research is but rarely initiated by the universities, even though educational studies are taught in a certain number of French universities. The rare masters’ or other theses that we have managed to index -- around ten in all -- are mostly sociological in character. Investigations dealing with essentially pedagogic questions are done by participants ‘on the ground’. Publishers, even though the results might remain confidential, regularly do statistical research, either to analyze their part of the market, or to learn what consumers want. Teaching associations and, very recently, an association of parents of pupils, do the same from time to time. However, the bulk of pedagogic work is done by teachers who experiment in their class or those involved in training, particularly the training of teachers in universities. These initiatives are many at the moment, often overlapping, rarely coordinated and generally not well known inasmuch as they are not always published.

Research dealing with the content of schoolbooks is usually involved with some current debate. For example, over the last twenty years, 37 publications have been concerned to denounce the sexism found in schoolbooks in use. The themes most frequently discussed nowadays are the law on ethnic minorities, social inequalities and human rights. The presentation in schoolbooks of the events of national history is also a subject for analysis, not always escaping polemic, as in the cases of the Occupation or the war in Algeria.

The most commonly-found area of research examines present-day schoolbooks as pedagogical tools, as we have noted. For a long time this subject was stuck in a firmly disciplinary approach, but in the past few years it has featured more general questions. The most recent work is concerned with evaluation, choice and the way books are used, dealing mainly with reflections which arise from the training process rather than research in the academic sense of the word.

Amid these abounding initiatives let us not forget the activities undertaken under the auspices of the Association pour les manuels scolaires who periodically publish critical analyses of textbooks in their bulletin,4 nor the program of research mounted by the Institut universitaire deformation des maitres de Montpellier who take a more theoretical approach, or the joint groups assembled by the Ministry and the publishers, with whom researchers, creators and users are associated.

Unlike research on present-day textbooks, that on those formerly in use has proved to be more interested in their ideology (39%) than in their pedagogic function (37%). But the sociological studies which formed one publication in two in the years 1960 and 1970 (47%) have decreased to less than 35% over the period 1980 to the present. This change, which only partially benefited studies undertaken from a pedagogical standpoint (an increase from 32% to 39%) shows both diversification and an extension in the field of research. Bibliographical studies and those on administration appear to be the most dynamic areas nowadays, but other fields are expanding swiftly, notably methodology and the structure of the book.

Historical studies are generally ambitious in character and publication which have appeared are quite broad. Periodical articles make up 44% of the 448 references, and a quarter only of these articles have less than five pages. Studies on universities -- almost non-existent for the contemporary period -- constitute 14% of the whole body of work, and close to 20% over the last twenty years. The disciplines treated most often are history (32%), the French language (206), civics (13%), moral education (77%) and geography (7%); that is to say subjects which offer the richest ideological and cultural content. Languages and the sciences are under-represented.

In fact, it is overwhelmingly primary schoolbooks which are studied (70% of the whole). This marked and constant interest in the tools of primary teaching is linked in the main to the structure of the French educational system. Secondary teaching was reserved to an elite up to 1960, whereas primary teaching, free and compulsory since the 1880s, took in most school age children. These textbooks for the majority, having the greatest number of titles, whose content is more ‘diagrammatic’, are a superior source of information for those interested in the history of mentalités as well as that of teaching methods.

While those who are interested in current schoolbooks are directly involved in their creation, choice or use (and seek concrete solutions for day-to-day problems) one must emphasize that those researchers who are interested in old school textbooks, even when they expect indirect answers, or answers diverted towards current preoccupations, nevertheless look at textbooks from a more distant perspective and generally adopt a more explicit and elaborate methodology.

Finally, we should draw attention to the fact that research on schoolbooks does not escape a recent fashion in historical studies generally: commemoration. Many works look at past periods or events which the media revive for a brief life in the present. Such was the case in the bicentenary of the French Revolution (17 publications in less than 10 years) and, more recently, the ‘discovery’ of America, or the occupation of France during the Second World War. The independence and dynamism which characterizes French research on schoolbooks has as a counterpart a geographical spread and a disciplinary construction which too often results in a redundant or fragmented scholarly publication. The ‘capitalization’ and diffusion of scholarly research seems today as necessary to avoid certain fields which have been overdone as to indicate the most promising areas of research. This is one of the objectives which the Emmanuelle research programme is pursuing, and one we would like our foreign counterparts to follow also.



1. English translation by Ms. Rita Bashi.

2. Statistics quoted in this article come from the database Emmanuelle 5. This tool, created as part of the Emmanuelle research programme developed by the Service d’histoire de l’éducation de l’Institut national de recherche pédagogique, in Paris, is making a census of the full body of scholarly publications devoted to schoolbooks.

3. For the historical research see Alain Choppin, ‘L’Histoire des manuels scolaires: un bilan bibliométrique de la recherche française’, in Choppin, Alain (ed.), ‘Manuels scolaires, Elats et sociétés, XIXe -- XXe siècles’. Histoire de l’education, no. 58 (May, 1993), pp. 165-185.

4. This association publishes the Bulletin d’information sur les manuels scolaires. One should take equal note of Helene Hunt and Francis Corblin Guide des manuets scolaires (Paris: Flammarion, 1990), 2 vols.

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