Back to School (and the horrible schoolbooks Jordan’s children are given)

Jordan's school books
Can a schoolbook cover look more depressing? A miserable boy, asleep at the desk, writing in his copy-book, ink bottle by his side.

I want you to feast your eyes on the the photo above and the eleven other examples from 3rd grade government curricula schoolbooks, which I photographed three years ago (but always kept postponing blogging about).

Millions of students went to their classes this week. They will spend the better part of the year studying from the mandatory government schoolbooks handed out to them. For many kids, these are the only books they have. These books will shape their perceptions of what a book is and will contribute to their intellectual development and aesthetic sense. So what are these books saying to future generations.

Now, I am not an education expert. But I was a kid too some time ago! I have kids who, thankfully, have many other great books at home. And I am a designer and communication professional, and a concerned citizen too.

I will refrain from making comments on the content of the books, other than saying that they seem to be written with a very conservative mindset. There is a lot to be said about gender stereotypes and lack of diversity. Let alone being out of touch with Jordan’s contemporary reality or future aspirations. But I will not elaborate.

I just want to focus on the VISUAL design of these books. Colors. Photos. Layout. Illustrations.

I am honestly horrified every year when I see my sons’ schoolbooks. I mean come on.. We are a country with an impressive IT drive. A level of literacy unrivaled in the Arab region. A relatively good educational tradition. Jordan is also a country that is able to produce publications of the quality of JO, Jordan Business, Al Ghad, Al Sijjil, Living Well and a dozen other glossy titles. Jordanians created and sold it to Yahoo! We have amazing animators, cartoonists and designers, layouters and photographers.

We have printing presses that print glossy magazines for the European and US markets.

But we give our next generation books that scream “THIRD WORLD” in their faces. I will let the examples speak for themselves with minimum comment.

This morning, we had HM King Abdullah emphasizing the importance of developing curricula and improving education. And we had the Minister of Education respond in agreement.

These books are printed, in color, every year. How hard can it be to redesign them. Not just visually (although visual design and pictures are extremely important in children books), but also restructured and reconsidered from a content point of view.

Mind you, it wasn’t always like that in Jordan. My first or second grade Arabic language books, more than 30 years ago (with Basem and Rabab, for you who are old enough to remember) had some great illustrated stories and rhymes in them. Why are moving backwards?

There are tons of foreign examples to look at and emulate, especially in science and math (if people are too sensitive about “curricula change” in the subjects of religion, history or Arabic). We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Or we can re-invent it but after learning some lessons from around the world and applying some standards to the process.

I will leave you with the “gallery” of selected pages, hoping that every parent and every concerned citizen starts pressing for better books of our kids.

Jordan's school books
Great quality of illustration, no? The forgot to color the boys hand. The mother is giving us her back.

Jordan's school books
Nice pink transition and “bevel” effect on the header. Weird looking kids too!

Jordan's school books
Again, great illustration work. Coloring and shading are so amateurish!
Jordan's school books
Pink again.. And boring layout.
Jordan's school books
Colors and transitions used without any good reason. Again.. quality of illustration is “world class”!
Jordan's school books
What up with the borders? Straight out of the cheap ads in AlWaseet.

Jordan's school books
Can someone explain t us all these weird shapes and Photoshop effects. Just plain ugly.
Jordan's school books
Decoration that distracts from the text! And look at the squiggly “highlights” under the titles.

Jordan's school books
What a friendly teacher. She’s going to start hitting the girls with the stick, raised in her hand. Maybe taking out the eye of one of them.

Jordan's school books
Quality of illustrations.. NO COMMENT!

Jordan's school books
Aha.. a scientific diagram. Nice!

28 Responses to “Back to School (and the horrible schoolbooks Jordan’s children are given)”

  1. Samer Younis Says:

    I agree with you Ahmad on what you’ve said…
    BUT, can we bring together a team of freelance illustrators, and redesign one of the books and “donate” this book to the Ministry.

    If you like I can help in arranging for a meeting with such proposal, and maybe help in getting some funds to cover some basic expenses.

    As they say, it is better to light a candle than to curse darkness, and if you look at it from a positive angle, 20 years from now, whoever does these NEW illustrations, shall be mentioned on the books and remembered.

    What do you think?

  2. Amer Says:

    I just couldn’t stop laughing; a cover kid writing his suicide note, a kitchen of midgets, the teacher from hell.. it’s a book for 3rd grade students and NOT ONE of the drawn creatures is smiling (except for that girl who looks like anything but human). I won’t even tap into the constructive non religious “exercises”..

    can’t Syntax, Rubicon, and other leading agencies propose a joint offer (maybe funded by some authority) to elevate the standards of visuals? (I’m aware that the content is probably more important, but that needs a whole new blog to discuss it). Isn’t there anyone out there who is in the right seat to get the ball running? or at least put it on the agenda? Hello? anyone? (no i am not on the right seat, i am not even sitting.. )

  3. amjad Says:

    sack the minister. seriously tho what the heck is he doing?
    i must be inconsiderate, he is probably too busy trying to decide when the right time to start and finish school is, or maybe scheduling the Tawjihi exams. i’m sure he has a lot on his mind.

    this might sound a bit random but of all the public officials ive come to know i believe Mayor Omar Maani is the most passionate person to ever hold a public office. i feel like the guy is trying hard to make what he believes in happen.

    thats the kind of person we need to reform our education. an ambitious passionate, and intelligent one. not a DULL nerd. with all due respect to all nerds out there. talking about dull ones here.

  4. Humeid Says:

    Samer: I am sure a lot of designers out there would love to work on such a project. However, I don’t think this can be achieved by donating design services. I know that changing policies is hard long work. But there needs to be a decision to seriously tackle this issue holistically. If you can help pushing the idea of a design review of schoolbooks to people who are in a position of responsibility please do so. I would be willing to help in advocating this. But the case is so clear, it just needs a minimum amount of good taste to agree that this cannot go on.

    Amer: Yes, a team of companies can tackle this. But institutional capacity is needed to carry this through. It would be great if someone could give is an insight into the mechanism used to author books at the ministry to understand where this problem is originating from.

    Amjad: sacking the minister won’t help. And I think what you’re sayig might be too harsh. These ministries have a ton of problems to deal with and even the best intentioned of people get defeated by the system.

    But again, an advocated of good design is needed on the inside.

  5. Muhammad Says:

    My goodness! And I always wondered why do we still have generations with very little to zero aesthetic sense, now I know why.

    We certainly DO have qualified companies and individuals in Jordan who are capable of producing top quality books, I can’t really think of any good reason for the “people behind school books” to do that, this issue definitely needs some investigation.

    BTW, it’s interesting to know that Basem wa Rabab existed more than 30 years ago, I’m 27 and I do remember them.

  6. Dave Says:

    Ahmad, you forget that Photoshop styles are meant to be liberally misused! Take a look at any one of thousands of storefront signs in Amman and you will find enough drop shadows, outer glows, bevel and embossing, gradient effects, and opacity atrocities to blind the average bystander. Apparently the ministry of education is using the same designer. ;)

  7. Naseem Tarawnah Says:

    here’s the funny part…i actually remember one of these illustrations from when i was in school! now i understand why kids hate books in jordan and even tare them up on the last day of school

    that said, ive seen them being printed at the national press and the designers are locals hired by the ministry. this is one of those things that needs bottom-up initiative and not top-down.

    if i were you, i’d approach the ministry as syntax and offer your services or even a fellow company if you guys have too much on your plate.

    it needs private sector initiative otherwise, 10 years from now, when your fifth son (inshallah) enters the 3rd grade, he’ll get the same retro feel that his brother did in 2009.

  8. flyingspaghettimonster Says:

    “I was born intelligent, but education ruined me” this definitely applies to the Jordanian education system :)

    Notice that the “friendly teacher with the stick” lesson has the title “راي الجماعة”! Is the message of the lesson: anyone who speaks his mind is gonna get a beating? On the other hand it’s probably a good idea to start teaching “the basics of democracy” in Jordan at an early age…

    I think I’m gonna print a t-shirt with: “I am smart, despite the efforts of the Jordanian education ministry”

  9. kinzi Says:

    Oh, a mother’s favorite topic! Especially foreign moms, when we pay a fortune for private education and are stuck with curriculum like this, then have to ‘unlearn’ much of the content after school. I gave up on it last year, none of our kids are in that system now.

    Thanks for sticking with the art, because the content is just…unspeakable. Jordan’s new generation deserve better than this.

    Ahmad, if you start an advocacy group, I know 50 women ready to jump in.

  10. bambam Says:

    Really ? is the bane of our textbooks that they have unflattering illustrations ? and you didn’t even mention the important part about it and just left it for those who knew rabab to remember.
    Well one thing that made me pissed off about the illustrations is that i don’t remember seeing that many muhajabas during my entire education, i remember how girls and boys used to play together in these books… content aside the whole islamification of the textbooks is what was atrocious but the problem is that the majority of Jordanians are for that and thats why they were up in arms when the previous minister of education tried to change the curriculum. I think you need to educate the parents before you can un-educate the children. why would you even bother tackling a symptom ?

  11. Nadine Says:

    Just create a parallel learning system and resources – this local edu epidemic is a nightmare – let it eat itself into extinction.

    Imagine the education these students have access to through the XO! They are learning.

    We can surely conspire to obtain 1.6 million XOs. Meanwhile, invest in creating elsewhere with other tools, create an enlightening warehouse of dynamic Arabic content. Shift.

  12. amjad Says:

    well I’m a harsh guy Humeid. if i held shares in a company who’s customers are as outrageously dissatisfied i wouldn’t want the CEO to stay.

    if you wanna influence the government then lobbying is the best way to do so. we don’t really have lobbyists in this country do we? i think we should tho. the Parliament is just way too loose and it’s not like the MP’s or the citizens are better off.

  13. Mohammad Says:

    and we wonder why our kids lack the creativity when they grow up, i think it is the pages borders that make them always thing inside the box,
    i remember the books i studied in school (Basim & Rabab) were more colorful and with better drawings !
    if these drawing took from the books and made into a simple cartoon, i’m sure no kid will watch it! books should attract the kids not repel them

  14. hussein Says:


    But I can understand what was happened here when I remember that the Illustrator is the cousin of someone, and the (almighty) designer is a friend of another.. so that will make the theory of “Jordanian Design Curse” is real..

    The same thing goes for Jordan TV, Governmental publications, and most of Jordanian newspapers..

    A side note Ahmad, the great Illustrations in our school books during the 80’s was done by the famous Syrian illustrator Mumtaz Al-Bahra:


  15. kate Says:

    Dear Ahmed and friends,

    I have a project concept note I wrote two years ago for an international creative workshop exchange for Arabic children’s books (not textbooks); to work on themes, language and illustrations and ultimately produce book!

    If anyone wants to pick up the ball I am happy to share the concept note and help flesh it out to be a full project proposal; I just don’t have the hours in my day to lead on that! There are definately funding sources available to help support this type of project locally and internationally it just requires someone’s commitment to pushing the work along.

    Anyone interested? I’d be delighted to help.



    P.S. perhaps initial funding could come from spagetti monster’s t-shirt sales!

  16. Thamer Says:

    Ahmad: You are correct! In fact, a group of my friends and I were discussing this the other day and there is some sort of consensus that our Ministry’s school books should be completely overhauled, from the standpiont of content and design. This is, however, one task in the greater effort to reform education in Jordan. I believe that the royal commission on the reform of education is doing something about it. I will try to get more information on that and revert.

  17. yeah Says:

    “sorry i did not read the other comments, maybe some have mentioned what i want to say”

    why not contact UNICEF or UNESCO and see what they have to say or maybe have done about this so far.. maybe thy can help in terms of advocacy and funding as well..

    and i have to say that i sensed a very cynical and sarcastic tone in this blog post, not something that we usually see in your blogs Ahmad!

  18. Ali Says:

    This is a shame, We are in 2009 and they’re still giving out STONE AGE books with lame graphics, What a retarded system!

  19. Yousef Khalili Says:

    I hate to be a party pooper, but as much as I agree with you Ahmad and the rest of the guys that the design is pathetic , I think we need to look at the full picture and ask : if the ministry had a dollar to spend, should it be spent on more class rooms and schools so we don’t have 50 children sitting on top of each other, or should it be spent on heaters and A/Cs so children don’t freeze in the winter and melt in the summer, or should it be on revamping the graphic design of the school books as you’re rightfully suggesting?

    Few years back when I was at the launch of the Jordan Education Initiative that had a promise to connect schools with a network and an e-curriculum, a very famous journalist approached me asking privately: “did you know that there are schools in the villages without a roof and with broken chairs and desks? wouldn’t it have been better for you at Cisco to donate the money towards fixing those roofs and chairs instead?”. My answer was that we contribute with what we do best as a company- building good networks and enabling local partners to build e-curriculums, which we believe can be the “fast track” ticket towards the next generation of education (in which you won’t need those ugly books at all sooner or later, regardless if well designed or not ), but deep inside me, I left home thinking that night…this journalist is probably right. Maybe our vision as a country is years and years ahead of our bitter reality. Maybe we should just do first things first, step by step.

    My 2 cents

  20. Viken Says:

    Ahmed, thanks for pointing out an important subject, but don’t you think beside the graphics and illustration the substance of the books matter?
    As far as i know – and i am no expert – these books are way behind the modern way of teaching, not to mention the method of teaching..I believe the ministry of education should re-evaluate this matter from all the aspects and not only the from a certain angle
    Few private schools already achieved this goal by adopting western teaching methods and material books.

  21. Basil Says:

    guys…Ahmad said those pics are 3 years old…those designs were old and they were totally revamped and changed.

    take a look at the new designs, they are really good and different

  22. Humeid Says:

    Thanks everyone for you input on this.

    In response to those of you who said I focused too much on the design, I want tosay that I agree 100% that a content rework for these books is needed.

    Basil: yes the photos are from 3 years ago. The book might have changed. But let me also say, I have just seen the 1st and 6th grade books and they are horrible too.

    If you have photos of the new 3rd grade books please share them with us.


    The conversation has to go on. Many good ideas where presented here. Let’s see what the Royal Commission on Educational Reform has to say about this.

    This reality has to change.

  23. iris ronen Says:

    I am doing a research on Jordanian school textbooks (the connection between their narrative and the Jordanian national identity ) I would appreciate any help in this project
    Does anyone know if the Salt Museum for school textbooks still exist ?
    many thanks

  24. Raghda Butros Says:

    Please notice how in the two illustrations of the family at the dinner table, the mother doesn’t have a plate in front of her. In fact, in the first one, neither does the little girl. Hmmm, interesting.

  25. Khaled Says:

    WOW! Thanks for shedding some light on this issue. I didn’t realize how bad they were. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising at all. Look at most anything to do with building a new generation in Jordan (e.g. Sports teams) and the same level of attention and investment is visible – NONE!

  26. Omar Tahboub Says:

    Brilliant article Ahmed. Thanks for taking on this topic.

    For kids who go to bilingual schools and who happen to study from the gov-produced Arabic books as well as their much better looking English counterparts, they develop a strong sense of admiration of all that is English and repulsion towards all that is Arabic.

    By the time they are done with school, they are all set in their ways.

    (My older kid who is still in 2nd grade already shows clear preference to English stories over Arabic.)

  27. hussein Says:

    guys you should see this video:

  28. angel Says:

    هذه التعليقات قديمة لكن بالصدفة قرأتها هذا اليوم
    ليس من صفاتي الدفاع عن مجموعة من الأغبياء يديرهم مجموعة من محددودي التفكير والجهلاء وعديمي الخبرة في هذا المجال
    لكن هناك نقاط عديدة
    هذه التصاميم تعود لمناهج أذكرها لأني كنت طالبا في التسعينيات أي قبل ٢٠ عام
    هناك كثير من التصاميم والرسومات جميلة وتؤدي الغرض لكن لا أمتلك الوسيلة لإظهارها
    وبعد أن صرت موظفا في دوائر تعاني من نفس الظروف المعيقة أقول أن الكثير من الموظفين يمتلكون في البداية الحماس والموهبة لكن الظروف التي حولهم ومحدودية تفكير المسؤلين عنهم وعدم استعداد المسؤلين للقيام بتدريب الموظفين وزيادة مهاراتهم في أي مجال كان وتدني رواتب الموظفين الذي يممنهعم من القيام بالتطوير الذاتي لقدراتهم يؤدي إلى إعاقة التطور الوظيفي أو تطور مهارات الذين يقومون بهذه الأعمال الفنية
    لذا وقبل أن ننتقد ينبغي أن نعرف أكثر
    ثم نفكر بحلول منطقية قابلة للتطبيق في الظروف المتخلفة للتغلب عليها
    مع احترامي

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