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‘Textbooks aren't professional straitjackets’

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), writes:

‘Good morning Year 4. Open your textbooks to page 17, please. Exercise 4a) Questions 1 to 15. You can start now. ‘ 

For many of us, that sentence will ring a familiar bell. The word "textbook" conjures up an image of something teachers use to keep us occupied while they do something else. It’s an image that is grossly unfair to most teachers (and textbook authors), but it’s there nonetheless.

And it’s an image that, I suspect, coloured some of the reactions to last week’s speech by school reform minister Nick Gibb, in which he called for more textbooks to be used in schools, particularly primary schools. But not just any old textbooks, he added. They had to be high quality, like the ones about to be used in a trial by the NCETM.

His message attracted some criticism, exemplified by a leader here in the TES, which identified "prescription and a threat to (teacher) autonomy", sensing an "unnecessarily restrictive overemphasis" on textbooks that threatened to take away the "important, enjoyable and creative" part of teaching.

I can only speak about maths textbooks, but I certainly don’t equate their use with the imposition of a professional straitjacket. I veer in the opposite direction. I am convinced that a good maths textbook has the potential to significantly improve how maths lessons are taught, and how, in turn, pupils progress in the subject.

This belief has been strengthened for me, and my colleagues at the NCETM, during the past year, as we have seen how maths textbooks are used by primary teachers in Shanghai. This first-hand experience has built on our research into the role and power of the textbook in other jurisdictions where maths education is also particularly successful.

This has, for us, crystallised a crucial point – perhaps missed last week – that a high-quality maths textbook is so much more than just a source of questions to set pupils in class.

One teacher from Shanghai, who has been teaching in a London school this month, referred to his "constant reference book". That begins to communicate how a textbook can be a guide and support in the planning and teaching of lessons, and in the analysis and ongoing refinement of lesson design. A good maths textbook contains illustrations and examples that begin to construct solid mathematical understanding, fostering the development of procedural and conceptual knowledge in parallel, so developing deep, sustainable learning. And an associated workbook complements the textbook, so that, together, they can be used in class and independently at home by pupils.

With this as a constant aid, a teacher can really concentrate on what pupils do and say in class, using his or her professional judgement to make minute adjustments to a pupil’s journey of mathematical learning.

But this only works if the textbook is of high quality and matches the curriculum. Which brings me to the research project, mentioned by the minister, that the NCETM is running as part of the government-backed maths hubs programme.

From January, for two terms, Year 1 teachers in 68 primary schools will start using a textbook, which matches the new national curriculum, to support them in lessons. The schools, all of which volunteered for the project, had a choice between two books: Inspire Maths published by Oxford University Press and Maths No Problem, from the publishers of the same name, Maths No Problem. Both have been adapted from textbooks successfully used in Singapore for many years.

Why only two books to choose from? Because, after a thorough review of the primary maths textbooks currently available, these two were considered by us to be the only ones structured in a way that properly supported teaching in line with the three aims of the national curriculum – fluency, reasoning and problem-solving.

So we’re at the outset of a trial, which will be evaluated and used to shape further work. It is very far from being the mass imposition of one chosen text. 

That said, I strongly suspect that wider use of high-quality maths textbooks can help primary teachers in their work, and, more importantly, help children to build better foundations in their early mathematical understanding.

Surely that’s a worthwhile avenue to explore?


Related links

Editorial: Teaching by the book is no miracle cure – November 2014

Turn the page on ‘anti-textbook ethos’, report urges – November 2014

Shanghai-style maths comes to central London – November 2014

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