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Macedonia’s Textbook Trauma

Risky experiments and wacky geography spur a massive review. by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova 30 November 2011

SKOPJE | Macedonian sixth-graders learn from their geography textbooks that the Slaviska Depression is a valley in the northeastern Kriva Palanka municipality, called a depression because it sits below sea level.


But the Slaviska Depression does not exist. That’s a mistake, but at least it’s not potentially dangerous, unlike the one that tells eighth-grade physics students to attach a wire to a large battery and then to touch it as electricity passes through to see if it is warm.


“It’s not fixable, unusable, and totally dangerous for the children’s learning and health,” Mimoza Ristova, a physics professor at the University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, said. The university’s physics institute, which Ristova formerly led, recommended that the book be withdrawn.


Ristova also criticized an activity in the same textbook that has students dissolve copper sulfate to create a blue liquid not unlike a children’s fruit drink, which she says can pose a danger to those eighth-graders’ younger siblings. Copper sulfate poisoning can damage the brain or internal organs.


Ferdinand Nonkulovski, one of the book’s authors, declined to comment on the criticisms, calling them “games,” while a national textbook commission has defended the book.


Widespread mistakes in Macedonian textbooks came to light last year when journalists wrote about an error-riddled sociology text for fifth-graders. The scandal resulted in the recall of that book and a massive, ongoing review of all of the country’s textbooks. Corrections and new books have still not been released, and in the meantime teachers and parents are essentially on their own to police the existing books.


Before he became minister of health, former Education Minister Nikola Todorov, who ordered the “super review,” remarked that there is practically no textbook in use in Macedonia that is error-free. Keeping them would have serious consequences for education, but replacing them would have serious consequences for the country’s bottom line.


In the case of the sociology textbook that started the controversy, the government spent 1 million denars ($22,000) to withdraw and replace a reported 15,400 copies. Among its shortcomings: listing popular entertainers alongside venerated names as lights of Macedonian culture; two visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad; no listing of Catholicism among the country’s faiths; contradictory estimates on the percentage of the population that is Muslim; and mistaken depictions of the flags of Macedonia and Kosovo.


The Education Ministry has sued the book’s panel of reviewers for the cost of pulping and replacing it.


The sociology book that took its place states, mistakenly, that Greece has a coastline along the Adriatic Sea.


Blagica Petkovska, an expert on teacher training at Sts. Cyril and Methodius, blamed the copious errors on a combination of lax reviewers, teacher-writers who lack expertise, and a lack of coordination between a government oversight agency and a national textbook commission.


The director of the national commission that reviews textbooks did not respond to repeated requests for comments.


The controversy has resulted in changes to the way books are approved for use in schools. The final say on textbooks will be transferred from the education minister to the national commission. One member of that body will take responsibility for each book it considers and the commission will appoint textbook reviewers, who must have at least 10 years’ experience in their fields. 


Officials from the government’s Bureau for Educational Development, which sets guidelines for textbook contents, announced they would conduct their own review of some first-, second-, and third-grade textbooks.


But Petkovska, who took part in the wider review of first- and second-grade textbooks, said the very existence of textbooks for first-graders contradicts a national strategy for teaching the youngest students, because children at that age are not able to understand the books.


Likewise, parents complained about a first-grade Macedonian language textbook that required students to complete stories or songs by filling in the blanks, even though many at that age have not yet learned to read and write.


The mother of a first-grader said her daughter fretted over her Macedonian homework until the teacher suggested that the parents fill in the blanks according to answers from their daughter. “But we’re asking, is this a textbook for us as parents or for our daughter?” the mother said.


In March, Todorov acknowledged that some reviewers had recommended withdrawing the first-grade textbooks while other experts had disagreed. In the end, Todorov decided it would be too costly to withdraw them.


Todorov’s replacement, Pance Kralev, became education minister this summer after parliamentary elections. He has said little about the review process, except that books found to have mistakes will be corrected and republished.


In the meantime, while they wait for revisions, the mistakes can make the classroom into a kind of educational minefield, some teachers say. Schools have taken it upon themselves to review the books they issue, and teachers warn students when their assigned reading will include a mistake.


Like the one spotted by a Skopje primary school teacher that identifies the capital of Colombia as Bogota on one page and Lima on another.


Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova is a journalist in Skopje.
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