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Opinions of Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Columnist: Dr. Nii Moi Thompson

Dead knowledge in our schools: Who is checking the textbooks?

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“On p.280, we are told that Ghana’s per capita income “is about $400”. In fact, it was $1,490 in 2015, the year before the last revisions and five years after Ghana became a middle-income country.”

Out of curiosity, I recently decided to check the content of the economics textbook for Ghanaian secondary schools. I was horrified by what I saw. Although the authors claim the book contains “current figures on the economy”, most of what is presented is at least 10 years old.

That reminded me of Ghana’s poor performance in the international maths and science quiz of 15 or so years ago, when our students came in last but one (ahead of only South Africa). It subsequently emerged that the curriculum they used to prepare for the quiz was 10 years out of date.

Given the hype that currently surrounds the national maths and science quiz in Ghana, it is likely that we have been feeding our children dead knowledge, testing them on it, and then celebrating them when they excel in what for all practical purposes is out of synch with what is happening in the real world. Indeed, the high failure rates in some subjects in BECE and WASSCE may well be partly due to this dead-knowledge syndrome in our education system.

In the case of the economics textbook, it was ostensibly written in 1997 and has supposedly been revised seven times, the most recent being in 2016, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its contents.

Here are some examples:

- There is a “Table showing contribution of the sectors to G.D.P 1997-2002 (%)”, but the data presented are from 2000 to 2008, with agriculture accounting for the largest share of GDP at 33.6%, followed by industry, 31.8%, and services, 25.9%. The shares don’t add up to 100%, and there is a technical reason for that, but it is not explained in the book, leading to possible confusion among students.

Worse, the authors ignore recent developments in the study of economics in general and the Ghanaian economy in particular. In 2010, for example, the Ghana Statistical Service updated the country’s GDP from 1993 prices to those of 2006 in order to reflect changes in production and consumption patterns over the years. The services sector subsequently became the largest, 46.46%, followed by agriculture, 28.95%, and industry, 19.80%.

Since then, services have dominated the economy, accounting for 52.16% in 2017, followed by industry, 23.68%, and agriculture, 17.02%. (See the nearby graph). Yet, students will go into the 2019 WASSCE thinking that agriculture is still the largest sector of Ghana’s economy, when in fact it is the smallest.

- It gets worse in the rest of the book, as typified by the outdated and haphazard data periods in the following examples: Balance of payments (2009-2011); debt service payments (2002-2011); tax revenue (2001-2008); sectoral allocation of credit to the private sector (2000-2008); non-traditional exports (2007-2008); and direct taxes (2004-2011). On p.280, we are told that Ghana’s per capita income “is about $400”. In fact, it was $1,490 in 2015, the year before the last revisions and five years after Ghana became a middle-income country.

- Logical flow of topics is equally important for a textbook. The subject of “Population”, for example, is best treated under “national development” or “economic development” later in the book, instead of being at the very beginning – it is, strictly speaking, not a topic of “economics”. The same applies to “Business Organizations/Units”. Similarly, the treatment of “Contemporary Issues” needs to be updated to include new global groupings, such as BRICS and the G20, as well as international development frameworks, such as MDGs, SDGs, and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

- The treatment of concepts such as Gross National Product (GNP) and Net National Production (NNP) may be useful for “history of economics”, but it is equally important to cover more contemporary and relevant concepts, such as Gross National Income (GNI), and its derivative, per capita GNI, which is now the main statistic for ranking the wealth of nations.

- Recklessness in the preparation of the book is exemplified in the following glaring example: Unit 18 in the Table of Contents says, “Concept of Economic Growth and Development”, with a list of seven items to be discussed. What actually appears in the book is, “The Concepts of Economic Growth and Economic Development”, with a discussion of topics unrelated to what was promised in the Table of Contents.

- Technical deficiencies also remain a problem. To facilitate ease of use and referencing, every textbook must have at least the following, in addition to a Table of Contents: List of Tables, List of Figures, List of Boxes, and an Index in the back that provides detailed page numbers for specific topics of interest to the reader. These are missing in all the textbooks, creating a major void and a potential source of frustration for learners.

- Most of the subject matter in the book seem appropriate for that level of education, but others, such as price theory, theory of cost, and theory of the firm, are best reserved for tertiary education, where they can be treated with the rigour they deserve as part of a course of specialisation. At the secondary level, an introduction to the basics and principles of economics should suffice for whatever the students choose to be in the future.

- We don’t need only English courses to improve students’ grasp of the language. Every textbook, in one form or another, contributes to the teaching of English. Badly written textbooks, therefore, undermine the teaching of English. Educators must appreciate these inter-linkages and ensure only the highest editorial standards across all textbooks. A national policy may also be required to settle on which English spelling to use in our schools: British, as has historically been the case, or American, which is now the default on most computers and electronic devices? We need consistency.

The above is from only a limited review of the book; a comprehensive review may unearth more, despite the commendable efforts by the authors to treat what is admittedly a difficult and complex subject. The same observation may apply to other textbooks in use at the various levels of education in the country. Indeed, for years, university students have been complaining about the tyranny of lecturers force-feeding them lectures from decades-old notes that the lecturers had used when they were students or teaching assistants.

Worse, the students are often required to buy textbooks written by the same lecturers from the same outdated notes. This culture of mediocrity, sadly, has also been back-passed to pre-secondary education, where it has the potential to do the greatest harm, because it contaminates and weakens the very foundation of the entire system. (A JHS textbook, for example, gives Paris, France, as the location of the headquarters of the International Labour Organisation, when the correct city is Geneva, Switzerland).

The Ghana Book Development Council (GBDC) is supposed to prevent these lapses and ensure standards, but it is clear that it has woefully failed in that mission. Indeed, a visit to its website shows that it is plagued with the same dead-knowledge syndrome that it is supposed to be preventing: The most recent news item on the site is about a “workshop on standards….” that took place in 2016! The doctor, it seems, is as sick as the patient. (The situation is no different in the professions. There are accountants with no knowledge of Excel, and, according to a recent nominee to the Supreme Court, people with first degrees in law who don’t know the basic elements of a valid contract but want to pursue a master’s degrees in law. Such is the extent of the rot. Any wonder we can’t solve the basic problems of our development?)

As the government grapples with space scarcity for free SHS, it is critical that it also pay attention to the issue of textbook quality (and overall curriculum relevance) as part of a broader strategy to ensure a convergence between increased access and improved quality in Ghana’s education at all levels. The GBDC clearly cannot do this by itself. It will take a team of local and international experts working for at least the next 10 years, with a reform of the GBDC being a top priority.