Graphics in Non-AP World History Textbooks
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.
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
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?
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.