When the KBSR (Integrated curriculum for primary schools) was implemented in the early 80’s, if my memory serves me right, there were no textbooks. Teachers had to prepare EVERYTHING for use in the class.

Teaching aids had to be produced in sets of two, one for the teacher to use when teaching and the other to be displayed in the classroom. So if a teacher had three classes, he/she had to prepare one for use and three to be left in the class after the lesson. Many were on the verge of breaking down, and the acronym KBSM came to mean “kerja berat sampai runtuh” (Work hard till you collapse).

Mercifully, the PARENTS came up in arms, not in defence of the teachers but in protest that no textbooks were being used. They could not understand how without any books, there could be any education.

Well, on one of my parents’ visit to my brother’s place in Auckland, my mother was perplexed when she saw the grandchildren going to school with just a backpack containing their snacks for breaktime and lunch and a tumbler of water, and she was also wondering why they seemed to be going here and there all the time and not staying in the classrooms in the school studying. I will not deliberate on the principles of teaching and learning as there is so much to touch on, and it is impossible to cover all of it in just one post. All I will say is that there is much method in the madness.

Anyway, back to the Malaysian scene, upon the parents’ demands, textbooks were brought back into the classroom and then came the issue regarding the heavy school bags that the tiny tots have to cart to school day in and day out and to make matters worse, there are the exercise books, the workbooks, the report/record books for all kinds of things like the Science practicals or NILAM, for instance and so on.

I will just narrow the discussion to just one thing – the workbooks. Are they necessary? This was the headline in our local daily the other day…

News headline - workbooks 1

I am appalled that the main concern is the money – not whether the use of workbooks is of any importance at all. For one thing, it seems that the workbooks for primary schools are thin and more often than not, much more expensive than those for secondary classes. There is a reason behind that but I am not at liberty to reveal it.

When I was teaching, I used workbooks as well, instead of the textbook. For one thing, each textbook costs around  RM12 to RM15 (for English Language) and with that amount of money, I would be able to buy no less than two or three workbooks and have access to a whole lot of teaching materials – comprehension exercises and what not. But now, under the SPBT (Skim Pinjaman Buku Teks or Textbooks-on-loan Scheme), every student will be able to borrow the books free of charge for each respective year.

So should we use the textbooks instead? For one thing, there may be a whole lot of activities in them but they are not geared towards the examinations. Let us look at this as an example. Students are expected to write a summary in the PMR and SPM Examinations but there is hardly any opportunity for them to learn the skill, or at least, not enough, if the teachers were to follow the textbook strictly from cover to cover.

Of course, there are a lot of things in the textbooks that the teachers can exploit and adapt for use, but looking at the quality of our Englsih language teachers these days, I wonder how many have the linguistic ability to do that, much less the creativity or innovativeness to handle such a task.

Furthermore, teaching is not as easy as what many people think. There is so much extra work to do, all the paperwork and the filing – plus the co-curricular activities and the extra classes (plus the stress, the pressure, the tension…or whatever you may want to call it); I would not think they have much time (and energy) left to go and adapt materials, not just from the textbook but from other sources like the newspapers and magazine or even the internet.

The next best thing to do, therefore, is just to get whatever they need from the workbooks. Whether they get the students to buy or they plagiarise – photocopying whole chunks in violation of whatever copyright laws there may be – from the workbooks for use with their students, is another story altogether.

But no, the union leader is not, in the least, concerned with all that – only with the burden on the parents who will have to fork out the money to buy those workbooks…

News headline - workbooks 2

But how good are those workbooks? If we look at a few English Language workbooks for Forms 4 and 5, we may be horrified to find all kinds of errors e.g. in grammar usage – “We cannot take the problem of dengue fever lightly. We heard about deaths related to it again and again…” and “I am sorry to hear about the sad news of your father’s untimely death…” or vocabulary and spelling – “Describe a historic event which you withnessed or read about…” So, the next question is: are teachers able to identify these when selecting workbooks or materials for use in the classroom or are they merely choosing at random or based on the attractiveness of the cover?

For one thing, there are fewer and fewer good writers these days because the publishers pay a pittance for their effort. As the saying goes, “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys!” Year in, year out, you will see the same workbooks being reprinted – only the cover has been changed like “old wine in new skins”. Just browse through, say – the comprehension passages, and let me know whether you find them interesting, stimulating and motivating. Most, if not all, of them will bore you to tears! No wonder the kids in school are not in the least interested!

Gosh! There is really so much to dwell upon on this matter but my word count is fast approaching 1,000! I think I’ll just stop here with a word of advice to parents. If your child has been asked to buy workbooks, these are the things that you should do. Check the workbooks to make sure that they have been carefully selected or at least, have a look regularly to see whether the teachers are actually making use of them or not – AND when the teachers have confiscated the answer guide, do NOT go and buy another copy from the bookshops for your child to copy!!! LOL!!!

There is usually a discount given by the bookstores – around 5 or 10% or maybe more. Find out whether that discount has been given to the students or perhaps used for certain funds in the class or school e.g. the PIBG and what not. If the teacher has pocketted it, you have every right to write to the department or the newspapers and complain about it…or for that matter, on any of the aforementioned!