Textbooks – good or bad?

Blog: Ian Davies, Director of Secondary

Textbooks – good or bad?

Posted: 1/12/14

It’s been really interesting reading the resurgent debate about the use of textbooks in the mathematics classroom following the recent publication of a paper on the topic by Tim Oates, one of our Advisory Group here at Mathematics Mastery. 

I’m from the generation (or possibly “one of the generations”?) whose maths schooling seems to mainly consist of the following recipe:

  • Teacher does worked example on the blackboard (later generations please adapt to chalkboard/whiteboard/IWB)
  • Class copy down said worked example into their exercise books
  • Teacher says turn to page…
  • Class do 20/30/40 near identical examples with little or no variation (nor any development)
  • Complete for homework
  • Repeat until “O” level is obtained. Or not…

The textbooks in question (this process went on for several years and not just at secondary school) contained little more than a series of repetitive exercises, often without any sort of progress in demand and with little or no instruction/support for the learner.  Textbooks like these (and the associated low quality teaching) gave the whole genre somewhat of a bad name and are a far cry from the pedagogically well-constructed and interesting texts from other jurisdictions that Tim discussed in his paper. Consequently many of my generation of teachers have an ingrained anti-textbook bias.  On the other hand, many teachers moved to using a seemingly endless series of similarly poor quality worksheets, not necessarily in a coherent sequence…so are textbooks per se good or bad? Or should the question more nuanced than that? And, as I am increasingly more often being asked, “What do Mathematics Mastery think?”

Here at Mathematics Mastery we make it very clear that we are not “just a scheme of work” but a professional development programme aimed at developing teachers’ subject knowledge and pedagogy alongside providing high-quality classroom materials to support children’s learning.  So how does this sit alongside the use of textbooks?  Well, as Tim indicates, it all depends on the quality of the textbook in question.  In the right hands, even an apparently unstructured text can sometimes be used effectively by picking out key useful questions or parts of exercises that may be needed to help develop fluency.  Similarly, a well-constructed text with clear progression between questions and topics (especially if links are made to previous learning allowing interleaving of intelligent practice) could support any teacher to deliver better planned lessons and also support children in their independent learning by highlighting and/or leading them to make connections.

This of course begs the question – does this Holy Grail of a textbook exist? Certainly there are examples from other countries that we can learn from (Shanghai and Singapore in particular we are aware of) and our plan is to look at these carefully and to start to see how a similar product could support our programme.  First and foremost is the ongoing professional development of teachers, but a well-structured pedagogically thought through textbook/workbook that could help them and their learners on their journey can only be a good thing.  Keep watching this space…

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