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Pondering Graphics in Non-AP World History Textbooks

Sigrid Reynolds
George Washington High School

    Over winter break, an interesting newspaper article gained my attention. It cited a study by the National Center for Education Statistics in which the literacy rates of college graduates were found to have declined in the last ten years. The subjects were tested on their ability to follow simple label directions and deduce meaning from charts and editorials. Literacy rates in the target population were 31%, truly a shocking figure. Perhaps even more surprising, the college graduates tested were no better at analyzing graphs than text. It was apparent that their ability to tease meaning from text has been compromised. The article posited that it may be the result of a childhood spent in front of screens, whether computer or television, since this cohort is the first to be raised on Nintendo and its equivalents. This may in fact be part of the problem. But I think an understudied aspect of the problem has to do with the nature of high school textbooks themselves—especially history texts.
    When I look at the average non-AP high school history textbook, one fact seems clear to me. In an effort to gain the attention of a graphic-sensitive generation, the textbooks have made each page a busy mosaic of boxes, colors and illustrations. Wrapped around the graphics is the actual text, appearing almost as an afterthought. While the use of graphic organizers is helpful, at what point do they hinder substantive learning? Is it surprising that the text is not front and center when textbook companies cater to a media savvy student population? When I compare the textbook with teen magazines, there is the same busy quality to the layout. Do we hope to attract teens with graphics in a format that warrants ten seconds of their time? Does anyone really believe that kind of format will tempt students to dig into the text beside it?
    The world history textbooks of the early 1980's and 90's did not have the clutter that we find today. Yet by the turn of the millennium, when I served on the textbook adoption committee for our school, we could not find a single textbook with a clear narrative and a reasonable choice of graphics. It seemed that the textbook companies had chosen quantity of resources over quality and stuffed them on to numerous pages. It is worth noting, by the way, that according to the study referred to above the literacy rate in 1992 was ten percentage points higher than it is today.
    In Advanced Placement and college classes, there are excellent world history textbooks that combine lively writing--even stories-- into a format that boxes an occasional primary source, table or graph but focuses the reader's attention on the text. It is clear in my AP classes that the first few months of work in these texts is tough going and many of my high school students rarely read entire chapters. Yet, when forced to do in-class reading, they agree that the textbook is more interesting than they had thought. 4
    While my AP students are well-prepared to deal with college-level textbooks by the time they leave high school, what about average high school students? When they get to college history classes, how many of them will be capable of reading a monograph if their sole experiences were with high school level textbooks? How does one move from worksheets and quick perusal of cluttered pages to serious reading? Indeed, is anyone surprised that history essay skills are poor in most high school students when they are rarely required to read substantive and lively history in their texts? 5
    What about students whose distractability is already hindering concentration? Does the presence of many graphic elements on one page vying for attention help? Can that student tease out the important aspects when faced with so many choices? Or do special education teachers and textbook companies have to rework the material for them?
    In an ideal world, a textbook would be one of many resources available, so that its format would not be quite so important. But in a world where public schools can only afford a textbook adoption every ten years, when there are no other history resources in the classroom due to fiscal restraints, when reading is being tested and the results really count, why are high school texts a smorgasbord of clutter and text a mere afterthought? I look forward to a day when lively text is the key point in non-AP history textbooks. After all, the Harry Potter generation is arriving, and don't we owe them that?
Biographical Note: Sigrid Reynolds teaches AP World and AP US History classes at George Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She has been an AP World Reader since the inception of the World History AP exam, and she has been a Table Leader for the last two years. Her education consists of two BA's twenty years apart: an anthropology degree from Duke University and a history degree with teacher certification from Coe College.  

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