Canada Revisited 8: Confederation, The Development of Western Canada, A Changing Society – ARNOLD et al (CSS)

ARNOLD, Phyllis A.; CLARK, Penney; WESTERLUND, Ken. Canada Revisited 8: Confederation, The Development of Western Canada, A Changing Society. Arnold Publishing: Edmonton, 2000. 392p. DEIR, Elspeth; FIELDING, John; ADAMS, George; BRUNE, Nick; GRANT, Brune; GRANT, Peter; ABRAM, Stephanie Smith; WHITE, Carol. Canada: The Story of a Developing Nation. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2000. 376p. Resenha de: GLASSFORD, Larry A.. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.2, p., 2004.

What is the purpose of a history textbook in 2003? Is it yesterday’s learning tool, the pedagogical equivalent of spats and buggy whips – hopelessly out of fashion, and no longer very useful? Has the computer, with its CDs, DVDs and program software, plus the Internet with its virtually limitless websites and e-mail possibilities, rendered book learning obsolete? Only if teachers and students lack flexibility and imagination. Having access to an attractive, informative and challenging print resource does not exclude any of the electronic learning possibilities. The two are compatible, even complementary. If the roles were reversed, computers were the traditional technology, and books had just been invented, imagine the excitement. For that matter, imagine the advertising: So durable, so compact, so interactive, so cost-effective, so easy to use. Put one of these new lightweight ‘books’ in your child’s hands, and watch the learning curve rise. Beg, borrow or buy one NOW. Use books every day! Little more than a decade ago, history textbooks aimed at the senior elementary/junior high school market were still largely dependent upon traditional print communication – black-ink words on a white page – to convey a mass of factual information to students. Accompanying illustrations, be they photographs, diagrams, charts or cartoons, were usually black and white, too. Authors considered themselves lucky to be allotted one accent colour – blue, say, or red – to add a bit of variety, and serve as a means to emphasize key points. Such books were essentially narrative texts, with periodic breaks for the usual questions of recall or comprehension, perhaps supplemented by a few suggested learning activities of a higher order.

Nowadays, history textbooks for this age bracket have a dramatically different look. Bigger, bolder, and brighter, they are awash in colour. Marginal notations, boxed vignettes, captioned illustrations and full-colour charts augment, perhaps even interrupt, the flow of the central narrative, which is purposely kept short with frequent headings and sub-headings. It is as though the original designers of USA Today have been at work, creating a new kind of textbook for students who do not particularly like to read. The end result is a visually appealing book, though, and one that invites pupil browsing.

The two textbooks covered in this review are similar in many ways. While Arnold Publishing was a pioneer in Canada of the more visually oriented textbook, the Ontario publishers such as McGraw-Hill Ryerson soon caught on, and there is now little to distinguish the two on this score. Both of these books are clearly aimed at the Ontario Grade 8 history course, which covers Canadian history from the 1860s to the 1910s. To be absolutely clear to potential buyers, the Arnold book deliberately lists the three prescribed topics from the Ontario guidelines in its sub-title, namely Confederation, The Development of Western Canada, and A Changing Society. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, by contrast, is content to make those three topics the basis of the three main units prominently listed in its Table of Contents. Both books have received approval from the Ontario Ministry for this grade and course.

Following the lead of the Ontario curriculum document, the two books focus on comprehension of material over rote recall, and provide frequent suggestions for learning activities by which the students will demonstrate their mastery of the content. For the topic of Confederation, the McGraw-Hill Ryerson text suggests that students design a poster either supporting or opposing Confederation (p. 97). Under the same topic, the Arnold text invites students to create a series of diary entries that might have been written by John A. Macdonald (p. 115). In each case, the learning task would require students to take information provided by the textbook and communicate it in a new way.

Similarly, the two textbooks overtly provide opportunities for students to practise and acquire key skills in the areas of inquiry research, critical thinking and communication. For example, as part of a chapter on the National Policy, 1878-1896, the Arnold book presents a series of questions by which students can critically analyse a political cartoon (pp. 244-5). In the McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, a pioneer’s account of settling in Manitoba in the 1870s is presented, with suggestions for ways to test its authenticity by examining other available evidence (p. 187). Each publisher offers further support materials and activity ideas for teachers in an auxiliary resource package (sold separately).

The Ontario history curriculum shies away from overt expectations in the values domain. However, it is clear that both author teams have understood the need for equity in terms of both gender balance and attention to visible minorities. While males outnumber females in the Indexes of both books by a sizeable margin, a clear effort has nevertheless been made to depict women as well as men in the numerous illustrations. The extension of full legal and political rights to women is highlighted in both books as part of the changing society at the turn of the twentieth century. Attention to various aspects of social and cultural history also provides valid opportunities to focus on the contributions of female Canadians. Aboriginal Canadians warrant significant coverage in both texts, as well, particularly in the chapters devoted to the development of Western Canada. Other visible minorities – Asian Canadians and African Canadians – are periodically mentioned, along with supporting photographs. Furthermore each of the books invites students to imagine situations from more than one perspective, thus encouraging both empathy and tolerance.

It is easier to describe how the two books are similar than to point out how they differ, although there are some minor contrasts in how a chapter is laid out. In each case, the authors provide a highly visual opener, previewing what the student will encounter in the pages to follow, along with a listing of key phrases. A combination of short narrative bursts, punctuated by colour headings and frequent illustrations – photos, cartoons, maps, charts, historic posters – constitute the body of each chapter. Boxed items provide supplementary information, such as a thumbnail biography of a related historical personality, invariably accompanied by a photograph or other visual material. In the Arnold book, the periodic questions of comprehension spaced throughout the chapter are grouped under the heading, For Your Notebook, whereas in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson text, the corresponding heading is The Story So Far. The kinds of questions provided appear to be similar, however, as do the more substantive tasks offered at the end of each chapter. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book does provide a one-paragraph summary at chapter’s end; the Arnold text moves right into its series of learning activities.

Here are a few general differences to guide a curriculum committee’s choice between these two fine print resources. The Arnold book leans a little more to bright colours in its presentation, though the ratio of print to visual is close to 60:40 in both cases. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book seems to follow the suggested content of the Ontario curriculum a little closer, although an alert teacher would have no trouble matching chapters to expectations using either resource. The references to related Internet websites are more frequent in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson text, and more likely to be used by students. An appendix on learning skills in the Arnold book is more comprehensive than the scattered items entitled Research Is Happening Here in the McGraw-Hill Ryerson book. The ongoing visual timelines in the latter book are very helpful; the frequent appearance of colour maps in the former serve a similar purpose in illustrating changes over time. At the risk of gross simplification, it seems that the Arnold book might work better with students who have not yet developed any real liking for history. The McGraw-Hill Ryerson book, by contrast, might be a better fit for students already turned on to the subject, and ready for a little more challenge.

Has the trend to a more student-friendly textbook, replete with colourful visual content, and broken up into the print equivalent of short sound bites, been a positive one? One well-known critic of progressive educators does not believe so. J.L. Granatstein, in Who Killed Canadian History?, has bemoaned the fact that a certain textbook familiar to him had been noticeably glitzed up in appearance but watered down in language and detail between its first and third editions (p. 39). Granatstein is determinedly old school, in that he continues to insist that factual content is important, and chronology is vital. Not for him a present-minded issues approach that begins and ends with the present. Nevertheless, the two books featured in this review have managed to retain a fair amount of factual information, have not abandoned their chronological integrity, and yet have managed to integrate a skills-based approach that trains students in how to do history, all the while presenting the course material in a lively and challenging fashion. This is no small achievement, and both author teams deserve credit for blending the traditional and progressive approaches to history so skilfully.

Assuming the curriculum guidelines stay the same, what should the authors and publishers be doing for the next edition of these books? For starters, they should continue to look for ways to dovetail the print-oriented textbook with burgeoning Internet resources. Specific website references that are integrated into the flow of the textbook will promote meaningful investigation, and discourage aimless fishing trips on the web. Secondly, the skills components can be more overtly and systematically woven through the content of the textbooks, possibly arranged in such a way that simple skills from previous years can be practised again, then developed into more complex ones as the students move through the book. Thirdly, more thought can be given to the values potential of history, in particular the opportunities for values clarification and values analysis exercises. Admittedly, the Ontario curriculum guidelines for this grade are largely silent on values, so the authors have had to tread carefully here. Finally, new discoveries and interpretations from academic historians must continually be woven into the fabric of the text, so that the students, and their teachers, are exposed to the best and most recent syntheses of our country’s history. Otherwise, a text can easily become outdated.

That there will be a need for new editions of these textbooks, I have no doubt. Just as print newspapers have survived the arrival of the radio, then television, and now the Internet, so print textbooks will continue to play a useful, albeit modified, role in the schools of the future. These two books under review represent the current state of the art in textbook technology, and properly updated, should continue to inform, stimulate and challenge Canadian students, well into the future.

Granatstein, J.L. (1998). Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: HarperCollins.

Larry A. Glassford – Faculty of Education. University of Windsor. Windsor, Ontario.

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