Out of date textbooks put sustainable development at risk.

Today, we’ve launched a new study into secondary school textbooks around the world, continuing our focus on the content of education, which we began in the 2016 GEM Report with a focus on curricula.

Mexico: http://libros.conaliteg.gov.mx/content/common/consulta-libros-gb

Our focus on textbooks comes from a strong belief that few instruments shape children’s and young people’s minds more powerfully than the teaching and learning materials used in schools. Often, textbooks are the first, and sometimes only books that a young person may read. They don’t just teach about facts, but also convey social values, political identities, and an understanding of history and the world. Teachers and students trust textbooks as authoritative and objective sources of information. Here we aim to hold governments to account for the truth behind that trust.


Our new analysis looks at secondary school textbooks in history, civics, social studies and geography from the 1950s until 2011. The materials were drawn from the Georg Eckert Institute in Germany, which holds the most extensive collection of textbooks from around the world in these subjects. One of the most in-depth analyses of textbooks ever done, it shows that many have missed or misrepresented key priorities now shown as crucial to achieve sustainable development

We have launched our paper in order to coincide with the week of Human Rights Day. For the purposes of this blog, we will be showing its findings in relation to that theme, intending to take you through each of the other themes in turn over the course of the coming weeks.

figure-7Our analysis shows that the percentage of textbooks mentioning human rights increased from 28% to 50% between 1970-1979 and 2000-2011, with the greatest increase in sub-Saharan Africa. The coverage was lowest in Northern Africa and Western Asia, at 36% in 2000-2011, up from 14% in the earlier period.

But, from 2000-2011, only 9% of textbooks discussed rights of people with disabilities, up from a very low level of 2% in the 1970-79 period. Our new paper looks at England, Iran, South Africa and Spain to demonstrate the extent to which people with disabilities are missing from the pages of textbooks, perpetuating their invisibility and disadvantage.


We know that many governments simply don’t realise just how out of touch their textbooks are – certainly in relation to the new vision for sustainable development, which countries adopted at the United Nations in September 2015. And we know that textbook revisions usually happen only every 5-10 years, and often involve slight revisions, rather than major overhauls of content. With our new paper, Textbooks Pave the Way to Sustainable Development, , we hope to draw attention to the need for governments to review and revise their textbooks now and look at the ways that concepts that are crucial for sustainable development – and are integral to Target 4.7 in the SDGs – such as gender equality, human rights, environmental protection, global citizenship, peace and non-violence and cultural diversity are covered.

What does a lack of focus on human rights in textbooks look like?

figure-9-newIf asked, we likely would all say that there has been an increased interest in multicultural education to teach respect for diversity, and to empower minorities and disadvantaged groups. Yet our analysis shows that coverage of diversity in textbooks still remains uneven. Mention of the rights of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic groups has indeed risen: from 13% in 1970-79 to 28% in 2000-11.

Coverage of immigrant and refugee rights, by contrast, has steadily increased from 1% to 14% from 1970-79 to 1990-99, but advanced no further in the period 2000-11. Some textbooks still produce prevalent stereotypes of migration and migrants. In Austria, for instance, migration and diversity were depicted as problems in 22 secondary school geography and history textbooks in use between 2011-13.


Similarly, a study in France uncovered a pattern of negative stereotyping of immigrants in 29 primary and secondary textbooks on different subjects from 2007. Most images of racial minorities depicted them as poor or living in difficult conditions. There were many insidious insinuations, such as a photo in a mathematics book showing two girls doing a geometry test. While the student from an immigrant origin fails, her native peer succeeds.

In addition to a lack of diversity, some textbooks have been criticized for stereotypical, simplistic interpretations of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic minorities. Take a look at the example on the right taken from Hong Kong, China, for instance.

Or read #betweenthelines with the help of a study from the United States, which showed that nine secondary history textbooks in use in 2008 failed to mention that leaders of influential Muslim organisations within and outside the United States condemned the 9/11 attacks and called upon Muslims to alleviate the suffering of the victims.


The values and principles written into target 4.7 in the new global education goal must be kept in mind as governments review their textbooks. These values should be built into national guidelines used during the process of textbook review, and taught in workshops for textbook writers and illustrators.

We will be raising awareness of the urgent need for textbooks to be reviewed and revised over the course of the next month, through and beyond the festive period, with a blog series featuring insights into different countries’ learning materials. Among many subjects, we’ll be looking at the way that the genocide is taught in Rwanda’s classrooms, at the positive changes made in Vietnam to rectify gender stereotypes, at the narrative chosen by India and Pakistan to cover their tangled history, at the way that US textbooks have changed their approach to reporting the Vietnam war, and at Turkey’s denial of minorities in its learning materials. Stay tuned!

And meanwhile, don’t forget to look at your own textbooks, or your children’s, and think about the values you think they may be prioritising. Use our checklist to guide you as you flick through the page. And let us know what you find #betweenthelines. Send us examples to gemreport@unesco.org or tweet/Instagram what you find, tagging @GEMReport and using #betweenthelines.




  1. The focus on the content of textbooks is important. But even more important is a focus on whether young people in schools can read them or not. There is ample evidence that in developing countries, where learners are working in a second language, the textbooks are far too hard for them to read. There is also good evidence that the books – even if they reach the schools – are not used by teachers and learners. These two issues are clearly related. Many learners learning in a second language are not reading in school. It is a source of unending frustration for those of us concerned with levels of ability in the medium of instruction, that this issue is not taken up by ministries, publishers, teacher-educators, NGOs and even websites such as this one. The content of the textbook is important, but it is actually a second-order question. The ability to read it is a first-order question. We must pay more attention to this.

  2. But, the Reading Wars will interfere and sabotage all best intentions.

    I agree with John Clegg that even before much attention is spent on review of high school textbooks it should be determined and ensured that students can at least read. I go back to my first sentence about the Reading Wars. Recently there was developed — for the World Bank Office of Human Development — an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Toolkit. This is to be a diagnostic tool to help customize programs for beginning readers in developing counties. Amazing effort and funds were spent on development of this approach.

    But on page 4 of this 95 page document is this observation: “The reading ‘wars’ are alive and well in many low-income countries, often miring ministries of education and teaching centers in seemingly endless debates between the ‘whole-language’ and ‘phonics-based’ approaches.”

    To this day, from my watching the education world, the Reading Wars continue to undermine education efforts. Many high school students are not functionally literate. It is sad that of all fields of service to mankind the education field is largely immune to accountability for the human suffering inflicted on countless populations in the last half-century. It should be more harshly judged, not less.

    1. Hello, Tunya.

      The full quotation in the EGRA document is:

      “EGRA is designed to be a method-independent approach to assessment: It doesn’t matter how reading is being taught—research shows that the skills tested in EGRA are necessary but not sufficient for students to become successful readers. The reading “wars” are alive and well in many low-income countries, often miring ministries of education and teaching centers in seemingly endless debates between the “whole-language” and “phonics-based” approaches. Nonetheless, the evidence for reading acquisition in English points to a comprehensive approach”

      I take the “comprehensive approach” to be the key phrase here.

      1. Hi Andy:

        Thanks for bringing forward the fuller context for the quote I supplied. It suggests that prospects are hopeful for the success of the EGRA program as the workers will not only be aware of, but may successfully circumvent, problems that arise when political Reading Wars surface.

        About the “comprehensive” approach for English reading acquisition — I am unaware what this will entail. I do know that Daniel Willingham, a rather noted education “expert”, suggests something called “balanced literacy” (at least 20-25 percent phonics, pg 83, Raising Kids Who Read).

        My earlier comment was a caution regarding harm that happens when disputes about methods obstruct teaching. Some students are left on the wayside and never get to the point of reading textbooks because their teachers failed to teach them to read in the first place.

        About this GEM project and the topic of outdated textbooks in high school: I’m dubious about the goal of wholesale revision of textbooks, urgently and internationally, just to inject “sustainability” agendas. Will have to read the complete report.

Leave a Reply