Why Today’s Math Textbooks Just Don’t Add Up
By Al Noyes
How school districts can empower teachers with dynamic resources that help them teach more effectively and respond to emerging needs
Pick up a traditional high school mathematics textbook and you’ll see that it was authored by a number of collegiate luminaries, put through a series of pilot tests, and run through numerous developmental cycles over a period of time. After getting feedback and input from various schools and experts, the textbook publisher puts together a beautifully-packaged set of materials that instructors rely on to teach mathematics.
Assuming the publisher is successful, schools then buy its textbooks and plan to use them in their classrooms for five to eight years. Teachers are trained on how to do so and—when the five to eight years are up—each school goes through a new cycle of evaluating and adopting new textbooks that happen to look a lot like the old ones.
What’s most striking about this approach is that it assumes that all school districts, all schools and even all teachers can be well served by the same textbook. This lowest-common-denominator approach doesn’t serve anyone well. In fact, it’s inevitably a big compromise—for the school, the teacher, and the textbook provider. Not surprisingly, no one is happy and the odds that a school district continues with the resources it bought last time around are minimal. The entire approach is obsolete. This opens the door for newer, more dynamic and “customizable” instructional resources that modernize textbooks and put educators in the driver’s seat.
From Static to Dynamic
Math textbooks today assert that their “scripted” way of teaching is best for all schools, all classrooms, all teachers and all topics, and that the biggest challenge is to ensure that they are used with “fidelity”. Much like “one size fits all” training is no longer relevant to the world’s workforce; this model of teaching is obsolete.
The educational world has pretty much come to accept textbooks as necessary for teaching math, understanding how rigid and cumbersome these books are, but lacking alternatives. Of course, when resources are the same for everyone, they can’t be well suited to anyone. We have found, encouragingly, that a number of math instructors and curriculum directors are actively looking for a better way.
Teachers are People Too
Different schools and different teachers have different needs. Conventional wisdom recognizes that every student is unique; no one seems to understand that teachers are people too. Districts have different demographics and different levels of funding. Teachers have varying levels of experience, training and content knowledge. There is a lot of focus on personalized learning for students, but there is also a need to differentiate and personalize teacher resources to maximize effectiveness. What may work for one teacher in one classroom may not work for the next.
Recently, online solutions like Teachers Pay Teachers and LearnZillion and even sites on Pinterest have appeared on the scene in response to teachers’ need for more personalized and targeted lessons. Moreover, a lot of money has been funneled into not-for-profit efforts to deliver free resources on the web. Khan Academy, Mathematics Vision Project, Engage New York, Illustrative Mathematics, and Open Up Resources to cite a few are all attempting to fix the core problem of “one size fits all” obsolete textbooks. But these resources can only go so far. More can and should be done. No one resource can meet all of a district’s needs.
It’s time for Education to Catch Up
In many industries, the mass “one size fits all” production of products and tools is losing ground to small batch, tailored production (even enabling end users to tailor products themselves). Craft beers, golf clubs, and self-published books can be designed and produced, in smaller quantities and at the point of use, precisely targeting tastes and needs and optimizing performance. The music industry’s shift from selling albums to allowing listeners to create their own playlists is an interesting example. Even DNA can now be edited. 3D printers have become common place and affordable, enabling many complex products to be manufactured one at a time, as needed.
Teachers are frustrated, and districts are taking matters in to their own hands but augmenting or replacing traditional teaching resources with more tailored ones is tough. Point solutions and isolated lessons can fill gaps, but technology as a whole can do a lot more—as it has in so many other industries. Unfortunately, a plain old textbook just doesn’t fit the bill anymore.
Tailored resources at their fingertips
To be their best, math teachers need to be empowered, and a big part of this is having the right resources at their fingertips. Not the same resources as everyone else, but resources that can be tailored to each school’s and each teacher’s specific requirements. There needs to be a way to ensure that teachers have what they need to teach, and what students need to learn, designed and delivered to maximize effectiveness given each’s specific circumstance.
And that resource needs to be responsive. It not only needs to enable the tailoring of a given course or curriculum to meet defined needs, it needs to be able to generate coherent, targeted new lessons, learning modules and courses as needed. Schools districts from Wake County, NC to Canyons, UT among many others have been doing this up to now, by hand. Now what’s needed is an easy-to-use platform and ready-made resources to facilitate robust tailoring, with built in algorithms and logic to ensure that the appropriate objectives are being addressed in the most effective way and with unlimited capacity on an “all you can eat” framework. This can give teachers the next generation of curriculum. Tailored, dynamic curriculum for our dynamic world.
About the Author
Al Noyes is CEO of Walch Mathematics
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.