Textbooks – A useful piece of the puzzle?

Blog: Dr. Helen Drury, Director of Mathematics Mastery

Textbooks – A useful piece of the puzzle?

Posted: 19/06/15

Late last year, Ian Davies discussed Text Books – Good or Bad, and I admit, had he asked me about textbooks a few years ago I’d have focused on the negatives.

My initial concerns

I was particularly concerned about these three potential downsides of textbooks:

  • Any adaptations that a teacher makes stay with that teacher, or at best with that school. Copyright reasons mean textbooks don’t lend themselves to partnership working, collaboration, and ongoing improvement.
  • Textbooks are only one small part of transforming achievement, but their cost and publicity can make them seem like ‘the answer’. Their promotion therefore risks downplaying the pivotal role of quality teaching.
  • We still don’t have any brilliant UK textbooks yet! We are pleased that the NCETM is supporting Inspire Maths and Maths No Problem (both based on Singapore textbooks) and we’re all learning a lot from the intelligent practice used in the Shanghai textbooks, but surely borrowing teaching materials from higher performing jurisdictions is a short-term stop gap, not a long-term catalyst for transformation? We believe that we can find UK solutions – inspired by successes both here and overseas – rather than directly importing the methods that work elsewhere.

So what do we offer?

For these reasons, the resources we create for and with teachers in our 250+ partner primary and secondary schools have included:

  • Ideas for tasks that involve talk and apparatus – no paperwork required!
  • Tasks that can be shared on the interactive whiteboard, with workings recorded in pupils’ exercise books
  • Photocopiable ‘task sheets’ (game boards, scaffolding for intelligent practice, representations)

All of these can be adapted to the particular context of the class or school, or to fit in with a current topic or interest. They can have extra support added in, or additional challenge. Perhaps most importantly for our Mathematics Mastery partnership, they can be reviewed and improved every term in response to feedback from the real experts – the professionals using them in the classroom. By working in this way we are developing a UK approach that will perpetually develop and improve, even once every pupil in every partner school is outperforming the successful pupils internationally.

Recording and coherence

However, this approach brings a couple of important challenges.

1)   Independent pupil recording

Some teachers feel obliged to print and copy ‘task sheets’ when we provide them, even when their pupils would benefit from recording their work in their exercise books. This can lead to some pupils becoming over-dependent on the ‘scaffolding’ of printed sheets, and less independent in their mathematics recording. Textbooks would encourage pupils to record their own work, rather than ‘filling in blanks’. On 15th June, Chief Inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw said that school leaders should ‘ insist that children should have good materials to work with, including textbooks, readers and library books which they can use for classwork and homework’. I’m confident that our approach doesn’t encourage teachers to ‘tolerate scrappy worksheets’ (as Sir Michael puts it), but are we yet doing enough to promote pupils working independently? As we don’t use textbooks currently, we’re removing any ‘task sheets’ that we think might be unhelpful in this way, supporting teachers with guidance as to how pupils might record their work, and making sure there’s a progression from Year 1 through to Year 6 so that pupils increasingly take ownership of recording their learning.

2)    Sharing the coherence and structure of the curriculum content

One of the key transformative levers of Mathematics Mastery’s approach is the coherent, cumulative structure of our curriculum. Pupils in our partner schools focus on each topic for longer, in greater depth. Arguably this coherence is currently much clearer to teachers than to pupils and parents though. On 11th June 2015, schools minister Nick Gibb argued that “Good textbooks provide a structured, well-honed progression through a subject’s content”. As we don’t use textbooks currently, we’re improving our website to include a wealth of curriculum information for parents and pupils.

The workbook pilot

The observant amongst you will have spotted the repeated use of the phase ‘we don’t use textbooks currently’, and may recall that Ian told you to “keep watching this space” in December… That’s because we’ve far from ruled them out. If we can avoid the potential disadvantages, and maximise the advantages, high quality textbooks may very well be a useful piece of the puzzle. With this in mind, we’re developing and piloting pupil workbooks in key stages 3 and 4 during 2015-16, complementing our curriculum and encouraging intelligent practice.  We’ll monitor their impact carefully and listen to the feedback from our partners to ensure they’re of the highest quality. Transforming achievement in UK maths is as ambitious as it is vital – we must employ every effective tool to support our partner schools to achieve success.