When Egyptian children returned to classes after the winter holidays, schools were given official textbooks for the second semester; books that were distributed, covered with foil and stored in a corner office never to be touched, neither by students or teachers.
"The textbook is used only inside the classroom. I bought several other books at the beginning of the year and I use the least complicated ones to explain the lessons to my students," says Ola, professor of Arabic for primary students in the governorate of Menoufiya. "As teachers, we suffer from the poor quality of books. Syllabuses are flawed and textbooks ambiguous."
Many students think that the textbook gives unnecessary or confusing information. Youssef, a sixth grade student, no longer relies on the textbook, especially for the Arabic language class. "In the textbook at the end of each lesson there are only ten explanations for difficult words, but for the exam we are required to answer questions on terms not mentioned in the book. If I rely solely on this book, I will not pass," says Youssef. "In the textbook, everything is mixed: grammar, poetry and texts, while the extra book I got deals with each topic separately, which makes it easier for us."
In sum, parents, teachers and students are not fond of the official textbooks of the Egyptian school system and if they want students to get good grades, they all rely on other books as supplements.
The giant supplementary book market
"Nothing is done to make the schoolbook attractive. For the primary grades, the lessons are difficult to comprehend. Students are asked to memorise long poems. We do not push neither for progress in spelling through dictation, for understanding basic ideas of a text nor encouraging students to read between the lines," said Mahmoud Al-Naqqa, president of the Egyptian Association for School Curriculum.
Indeed, official curriculum textbooks lost their value; they are cheaply printed on poor quality paper with monotonous print and few illustrations that lack exercises, in addition, of course, to errors in translation and spelling in science and maths books for students of language schools that teach these subjects in either English or French.
In addition, the course design and its textbook do not take into account in-class time constraints and overcrowded classrooms. The Arabic language book for the first year prep (high school) students sometimes only mentions a title for the lesson and students are expected to discuss this with the teacher.
"This [discussion] never happens in the classroom, so the student is obliged to seek information elsewhere. A textbook that calls students to dialogue to deepen their knowledge is good, of course, but how can this be done while the whole system pushes students to memorise mechanically?" asks Heba, mother of a student in preparatory stage.
At the beginning of the school year most students flock to buy books outside school to start preparing. Anxious to give them the best education, one mom took care of translating, photocopying and distributing extracurricular books on science and mathematics from Arabic to French to make it easier for her children and their classmates; including books that give model answers to exam questions. "For primary schoolchildren, I translated several chapters of the science book in a few hours, but the preparatory schoolbook translation took me much longer," recounts Mona Abdallah, a housewife whose children are enrolled in a French school. For this teacher of 45 years, relying on other books is not a luxury, but a necessity. Each semester she pays LE500 - not a small sum by Egyptian pocketbooks - to buy these extra books.
The exam dilemma
Exams are a whole other matter. Every year the education ministry announces that final exam questions will be taken from the textbook, but it fails to persuade students to stick to the curriculum textbook. According National Centre for School Curriculum Director Mohamed Ragab, it is the nature of examinations that pushes students to use other sources of information, and so it is necessary to change it. Coordination is needed between those who write the curriculum and those who prepare the exams. "We must write the exam questions from the textbook in collaboration with experts in the field," says Ragab.
Alternative books for better understanding of the curriculum are the only solution for students and their parents. "If my son should just solve questions using the textbook, he will fail his examinations. The maths exercises in the middle school textbook are only a page and a half, while in the external books, there are over seven pages of exercises," says Mona.
Kamal Moghith, head researcher at the National Centre for Educational Research, thinks that, unfortunately, parents send their children to school in order to pass exams at the end of the year and not to expand their knowledge or learn to think. Thus, these parents look for an easier, more concise book that relies mostly on questions and answers that do not stimulate students to think.
"Even though the textbook contains texts, questions and dialogues, students do not take them into account, since these will not be part of the exam," explains Moghith. The educational system is only a reflection of this stage of history.
"It is the state that decides the education goals. Every authoritarian regime seeks to shape its citizens so that they obey without thinking. Teaching is one of the tools to achieve this goal," concludes Moghith.
Originally published in Al-Ahram Hebdo