An interview with Prof. Hannele Cantell on what goes into developing textbooks

Associate Professor, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences and Education Psychology, University of Helsinki, and a schoolbook writer,

March 10, 2024 10:00 am | Updated 10:00 am IST

Textbooks ought to connect to questions and creativity. 

Textbooks ought to connect to questions and creativity.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. In this interview, Hannele Cantell, Associate Professor, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences and Education Psychology, University of Helsinki, and a schoolbook writer, talks about textbook development, and the role of textbooks in Finnish schools.

Prof. Hannele Cantell from the University of Helsinki, Finland

Prof. Hannele Cantell from the University of Helsinki, Finland | Photo Credit: Susanna Kekkonen

Following the release of the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCF-SE), which recommends reducing textbook centricity and focusing on learning standards, the Indian government has set up a Textbook Development Committee. In this context, what role do textbooks play in the Finnish education system?

Historically, textbook use has undergone a change. Earlier, education in Finland was highly textbook- and teacher-oriented, but this later came under criticism.

Some schools and teachers trusted phenomenon-based teaching, in which a concept or phenomenon is explored from a multi-disciplinary perspective. For example, climate change is explored through knowledge of geography, science, data science and so on. Sometimes, phenomenon-based teaching overtakes learning of school subjects and tries to find answers to problem-based questions, such as “Why is there heavy rain during summer?” In this approach, the Internet became the main source of knowledge, causing problems, such as the absence of understanding of concepts of subjects/disciplines and structure in learning. In recent years, there has been a turn back to subject, content, and concepts.

In Finland, schools get money for their pedagogical needs from the government, which is also meant for textbooks that schools can choose and buy. The problem is that to save money, some schools don’t buy textbooks. Where there are no textbooks, only the Internet, we have noticed that children don’t learn enough. My suggestion, therefore, would be to make good, high-quality textbooks, and not to rely only on technology, especially the Internet!

What, according to you, should textbooks contain? 

A skeleton of the important concepts and main knowledge to be learnt. Teachers should create “the muscles around the bones”; i.e. all activities, pedagogical exercises and tasks. While each teacher’s style is different, textbooks ensure that every student has a similar opportunity to learn the basic concepts.

Textbooks ought to connect to questions and creativity. Developing thinking skills is the key focus in Finnish textbooks, which focus on the interaction between knowledge and thinking. Readers’ age is a critical component while designing them.

Textbooks don’t work in isolation; we offer teachers pedagogical background materials and teaching materials to go with the textbooks. Teachers’ materials/handbooks have a comprehensive, big picture of the teaching-learning process.

These are essential aspects of quality schoolbooks/textbooks that any country striving for quality education would ensure. What matters is the extent to which these elements and principles are practised while developing textbooks, and preparing teachers to use the material in the same spirit and intent with which it is developed.

You have been a schoolbook writer for more than three decades. What are some key principles followed in designing and developing textbooks in Finland?

A group comprising teacher educators, subject and pedagogical (university) specialists and teachers from schools plans, develops and writes textbooks, exercise books and teachers’ materials. All texts and visual material are peer-reviewed. The writers also design the pictures, maps, etc. Everything is age-oriented.

It is very important to have both subject and pedagogical specialists in a group. The newest research should be seen in textbooks. For example, new knowledge and concepts about climate change and loss of biodiversity come from university researchers, and pedagogical expertise comes from teacher educators. They understand, for example, how to deal with environmental anxiety. Describing only the problems can be socially and emotionally harmful for children; it is important to also write about the possibilities of solving some problems and encouraging students to act.

The school teachers’ role is to keep us focussed on classroom realities and the age group the book is meant for. In group work, it is very important to trust and respect each other. We have different roles and perspectives. Everyone writes and comments; it’s an ‘equal’ process.

All classrooms have a diverse range of learners. Inclusion is a critical aspect of ensuring learning for all. How can a textbook take care of this? 

In Finland, we collaborate with language planners (those who check if the language is correctly written). Often, we also ask Special Needs education experts to comment on the drafts so that the texts are easy to read and understand.

Visuals are important because many children/students have difficulty in reading very long texts; younger children can learn from pictures. The content of pictures is also planned carefully. Choosing pictures for a textbook has to be done responsibly. For example, if you have space for only one picture of Europe, Finland or India, what kind of picture would you choose?

It is good to split the text into smaller chapters and to use meaningful subtitles. For example, compare these: a. Muscles b. Muscles make us move. The latter includes the chapter’s main point. It gives the slower learners an idea about the chapter. But the first does not convey anything. These simple learning points help all learners.

In addition, it is good to have an abstract in a chapter as well as main/key points. Also, we have thinking questions and small ideas for student activities in every chapter so that it is not only reading but also thinking and acting. So, the textbook, in a way, is also an exercise book for students.

Views expressed are personal

The writer is Faculty at Azim Premji University

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