In 2016, Minister Motshekga commissioned a task team to evaluate officially selected school textbooks, for ways in which diversity across a number of social categories is represented. A Ministerial Task Team (MTT), headed by Professor Crain Soudien was formed and the team analysed a large sample of textbooks in six subjects, evaluating representation across eight categories including race, gender, class, sexuality, religion and ability. Their report, “Evaluation of a broad sample of existing textbooks and learning materials towards developing a textbook policy that promotes diversity”, has recently been made public and it raises important questions about the role of textbooks in promoting diversity.

One of the key findings of the report is the overwhelming lack of diversity among textbook writers: the report noted that over 80% of the writers in the large sample they evaluated, were white! We have written about this issue and its impact, in our paper . This situation is an indication of the prevalence and power of whiteness in the publishing industry and it reflects a lack of commitment by publishing companies over the past 25 years, to invest in the development of a corps of diverse South African textbook writers and illustrators, able to represent diverse South African worlds in a respectful, nuanced and richly detailed way.

A second key issue that the report identified, is the complete lack of representation of members of the LGBTIQ community. The effect of these omissions was powerfully stated by a pupil quoted in the Sunday Times on April 21: “When school is your primary window into your society, the lack of representation within a school context can be severely damaging to one’s comfort, esteem and identity.”

In summary, the report found “… some bias and prejudice with respect to almost all categories with a middle class normativity present and with obvious omissions of orientations  such as LGBTIQ that do not conform to the norm.” (pg 125).

The report makes recommendations to the Minister, about the need for the selection panels set up by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to also be made up of  “… reviewers from diverse groups and constituencies.” This recommendation is important because it signals that textbooks are not produced in isolation. On the contrary, textbooks form just one part of a cycle that includes curriculum planners, DBE officials who set criteria for textbook selection processes, and those people appointed by the DBE to make the selections that determine what textbooks all government schools must use.

To illustrate this point, with regard to the absence of representation of members of the LGBTIQ community, selection panels appointed by the DBE have in the past rejected novels for teenagers about homosexual relationships, on the basis that they deal with homosexuality. That sent a strong message to publishers about the power of a heteronormative culture and changing that culture must come from within the DBE.

Once the report was complete, the MTT held consultations with stakeholders in meetings around the country. One of the common issues raised in those consultations was that of indigenous knowledge and a need for the decolonisation of the dominant knowledge selection. The report concluded that “… the texts did not sufficiently acknowledge that there are different epistemological traditions in the world.” (p 130). The report proceeds to propose, among other recommendations, that one enabling condition for realising greater representation of diverse subjectivities and lived realities in textbooks, as well as creating opportunities for learners to engage critically with a range of epistemological traditions, requires “Revisiting the CAPS specification which forms the basis of textbook production.” (p. 133). This point is critical, because the contents and pedagogies privileged in textbooks reflect the curriculum directly. The CAPS curriculum is a highly prescriptive one, in terms of what knowledge must be covered and how that knowledge should be taught. The DBE only selects those textbooks that follow the curriculum to the letter.  We would argue that the MTT’s recommendation that the CAPS be revisited is essential if we are to see textbooks that create opportunities for learners to “… think more clearly about their own privileges and disadvantages and how they might act on their privileges and disadvantages.” (p. 132)

A second common issue raised by stakeholders in the MTT consultations was the use of the Flesh-Kincaid readability test, an analytic tool from the US that the MTT chose to assess the ‘readability’ of the textbooks they evaluated.  Many participants at the consultations “…expressed their unhappiness that there was not a South African-appropriate test.” (p. 128) As we have shown, what makes a text ‘readable’ has to do with the context in which it is read and that learners require both a set of resources for making sense of texts and need to develop those resources over long periods of time at school and in higher education. We would argue that the result of the readability evaluation delivered in the report, is not a reliable indicator of the accessibility of those textbooks to a wide range of South African learners.

One class of diversity notably absent from the report is that of language. If textbooks are going to be part of the project to build inclusivity and enable all students to find themselves and their ways of being in the world represented at school, textbooks need to celebrate multilingualism. This can happen in a number of ways: first, multilingualism needs to be represented as the norm in South Africa. Second, as we have proposed in our paper, textbooks can promote pedagogies that harness the multiple language resources that children bring to their learning. Third, textbooks themselves should be multilingual.

The MTT report has provided valuable insight into the kinds of representations that dominate in textbooks and identified important missed opportunities for building inclusivity, celebrating diversity and engaging learners in critical assessments of their worlds and ways in which those could be different. We endorse the recommendations in the report for the need for changes in the textbook selection process, for a revisiting of the knowledge selection in the CAPS and for diversity to be reflected in both the corps of writers and publishers of textbooks, as well as in the selection panels, among other recommendations. We would like to repeat our call for the Minister and DBE to build an open and transparent culture in which the processes and people involved in developing the curriculum, setting criteria for textbooks, and selecting textbooks and literature are made public.

Finally, we would suggest that the proposal for a one textbook for all policy be revisited, in the light of the MTT’s recommendations. We would suggest that teachers be offered a range of textbooks to choose from, in which different contexts both social and linguistic can be explored and interrogated in depth and with complexity. A choice of textbooks will create opportunities for building teachers’ agency in their engagement with learning texts, as well as provide textbooks that are better suited to the wide variety of literacy and linguistic learning needs and strengths that our children, in all their diversity, bring to our schools.

Glynis Lloyd, for the bua-lit collective

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