Thinking Aloud: Textbooks, etc

To be better equipped for the tests that the year will bring — read a textbook. To prepare for the tests that life will bring — read a book.

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

This is a kind of follow-up to @srcav’s recent blog post on textbooks, but it’s also a consideration of other things.

Automatic obsolescence

Since I started teaching around 10 years ago, there has been at least 1 change to the GCSE curriculum or examinations every year. Compare this to say, computing, where average processing speed of CPUs has roughly doubled year on year (Moore’s Law), or in cars, where new innovations and technology is introduced yearly.

This means that as soon as a computer or car is built and purchased, it’s obsolete. Likewise, because of the frequency of changes to curricula in schools, this means there’s a belief that a textbook is obsolete as soon as it is bought.

There is a shift towards ‘e-books’, but in the majority of cases these are simply print books in electronic form, with some bolt-on interactivity to make it look a bit more swish. Rarely have I seen adaptive materials, because they’re so hard and time-consuming to create that their cost would be prohibitive. There are moves to address this – Complete Mathematics for one – but this is an emerging situation in a market that tends to stick to what it knows.

The trouble with textbooks today

Even in my relatively short life as a teacher, I’ve come across a vast variety of textbooks, even though we have relatively few core publishers on the scene. The thing is, the idea of a textbook isn’t a problem. I actually use textbooks in lessons, just not all the time, as a) I don’t think many of them are any good and b) I like flexibility in my resources. My major bugbears with textbooks are:

  • Poor design
  • Lack of opportunity for consolidation
  • Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems
  • Price
  • Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

Let’s go into more detail for these points:

Poor design

As someone versed in the principles of design, many textbooks make my blood boil. First of all, font choice. The readability of a piece of text is a function of the typeface used to display it. Serif typefaces (funnily enough, like the one this very blog uses) are a nightmare in books for students. Type-setting is also a problem. I cannot emphasise the importance for good use of whitespace and line-spacing to simplify readability.

OUP Framework Maths is a notoriously poorly set out textbook series.

Colour choice is also one to be aware of. Why textbooks for children, sorry, young people are coloured in a way that makes one think of a print-version LSD trip is beyond me. Often the choice of colour is distracting, clashing and ultimately pointless.

Formula One Maths – a colour explosion

There’s a philosophy that colour is important in textbooks. I wholeheartedly disagree. When it comes to colour in any printwork, it is almost always the case that less is more, unless it is art or graphic design book itself.

Lack of opportunity for consolidation

The name of this textbook shall name anonymous. But seriously, look at it...

The name of this textbook shall be anonymous. But seriously, look at it…

How do you get better at Mathematics? By doing lots of it. It’s remarkably simple. So why do we have so many textbooks that avoid consolidation exercises and emphasise the visuals? By consolidation I don’t necessarily mean just lots of repetitive sums. I mean lots of opportunity for practice, application and extension.

This also fits in with the present trends for mastery and fluency. Many textbooks avoid extensive practice tasks because they don’t look visually appetising. But what are we trying to do here, entertain or educate? Plus I’d bet my house on the idea that to many students it doesn’t really matter what textbook they have in front of them.

Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems


Please guys – leave the real-life context to us. As Dan Meyer is always quick to point out, you almost always get it so very wrong.


Want some real-life context? Lay your hands on the Maths4Real videos. They’re a bit dated but the contexts used are timeless.


Many textbooks are the best part of £20 a piece. Before you’ve even got into the ‘exciting’ things like e-books, test builders, homework generators and the like – all of which apart from the e-books you can get similar systems that are much cheaper, simpler and more flexible to use – you’ve looking at upwards of £4000 for a decent set of GCSE books, and probably the same for lower school.

What is it you’re actually paying for though? Many, many publishers don’t actually re-write the whole textbook if a specification changes. So you’re not paying for a brand-new book. What you’re doing is subsidising the electronic bolt-ons that are sold at a cut down price, but are actually the most time-consuming to make. That’s why publishers push the electronic resources: they’ve got to justify the investment in creating them.

Where’s my evidence? Look at the price of Elmwood Press and CGP textbooks. They cover the whole GCSE syllabus, just like the fancy Collins, Pearson or OUP books, but are nearly £10 cheaper. They’re not as colourful, or linked to whizz-bang electronic stuff, but they do the job. Which is what a textbook should do. It’s not an entertainment piece, it’s a source of mathematical practice.

The Elmwood Press books are particularly of note because they’re not constantly republished. They cover the GCSE specifications and more. Which leads me to…

Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

This is particularly a concern of mine at the moment. Textbooks are often sold on being ‘ready for the new GCSE specifications’ or ‘includes more functionality’ or whatever. Lies, lies and lies. As I say before, most textbooks are simply tweaked reprints, either reordered or with a few extra bits in. So when they’re ‘ready for the new GCSE specification’ what’s happened is that the publisher has taken all the chapters, put them in line with whatever modules or specifications are now in place, and maybe placed or taken away some calculator signs next to questions.

Why waste time on this? Get the textbook right in the first place. The basic concepts in Secondary Mathematics don’t change that much – if anything what changes is the difficulty – as we’ve seen with 2015 spec. What CGP have done is make sure there’s an overlap with A-Level to support this extension and the introduction of the Level 2 Further Maths Certificate. I know they’re relatively new to the textbook game, but they’ve been doing revision resources for so long they know the curriculum well enough.

It is worrying that new specifications are used as an excuse to invest £1000s in new textbooks. The only time that textbooks should be bought is either because they’re physically falling apart or they’re over 10 years old.

One area that nearly all publishers fall into is the idea of different textbooks for different specifications. This needs to be knocked on the head. There is one GCSE programme of study, and all examination boards follow this. But no – there’s an ‘Edexcel version’, and ‘AQA version’, etc. Why? Money. As Lester Freamon constantly says in The Wire – follow the money.

And yet, and yet…

I actually quite like a good textbook. A good textbook. I’m still gutted about giving away an original GCSE textbook that covered sets and matrices. It was comprehensive to say the least. You’ve probably seen by now that I rate Elmwood Press and CGP books, but I’m not on a commission: they’re good textbooks, plain and simple. They’re cheap, well written, have plenty of practice and are simple and clear in design. The Elmwood Press books have plenty of problem solving opportunities too. I also rate the SMP Interact series, although they’re a little more pricey.

Much of what is out there textbook wise is simply practice packaged in a way to mask the Mathematics in ‘fun’ and pretty pictures. It distracts from what’s important. Stop the distractions. Focus on what matters – the exercises. That’s what my recommended publishers do.

And breathe!

Textbooks are useful, but as part of a repertoire of resources. They don’t make great teaching. Great teachers use them effectively. The best textbooks are simply designed, clear to read, cheap (by this I mean good value, rather than their quality) and focused on practicing concepts rather than looking ‘fun’. They also avoid tacked-on ‘real life’ problems and focus on the connections between concepts rather than treating Mathematics as a ticklist of topics to cover. Often, they don’t need to be ‘updated’ for new specifications because they’re so comprehensive in the first place.

The government agenda of placing textbooks as a central part of learning is not necessarily a bad one, but it does need caveats. One is that they’re not a panacea, and the other is that the bigger publishers drive form over function, which is counter to the whole principle those in charge want to work towards in the first place.

It’s once again a case where those in the know – teachers – need to have their voices heard. Will that happen? Who knows???


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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