Written by Sarah Stecher published 1 month ago
If you ask any adult about their experience in math class, the vast majority will refer to math class and their math textbook almost synonymously. The textbook was the course.
Working from a math textbook is a tradition as old as time. Every year we would take students to the school bookstore to sign out their textbook for the year. We told them they should bring it to class every day. After a couple years, I started telling students they could just leave it at home and use it as an extra reference in case they needed it. When schools shut down for COVID, we didn’t use textbooks for a year because everything was digital. And after that? I didn’t even have students sign out a book anymore. The textbook was no longer serving its original purpose and I decided it was time for a change. Here’s why I transitioned away from a textbook.
The textbook was no longer being used to provide the scope and sequence of our course. In our school we had a shared pacing guide and common assessments for every section of the same prep. In the early years we used the chapters and lessons of our textbook to divide our course into units. When we said “Quiz on 8.1-8.3 this Friday”, we were referring to the lesson numbers of our textbook. However, once we looked carefully at our state standards and narrowed in on the actual ideas we wanted students to understand, we found that the textbook had A LOT of things we didn’t need. We cut certain chapters and certain lessons, which meant we were going from Unit 4 to Unit 6, but only doing 6.1 and 6.2, then moving on to Unit 7. When it was time for a new textbook adoption, we knew that committing to use the same textbook for the next ten years wouldn’t work. Textbooks are static and wouldn’t provide us with enough flexibility to meet the changing needs of our students. We opted to forego purchasing new textbooks in favor of piloting the Math Medic Precalculus curriculum. This gave us the flexibility to tailor the curriculum to our department’s needs.
The textbook offered large quantities of questions, but not necessarily quality questions. As I was developing as a teacher, assigning homework problems from the book became more and more problematic for me. Every textbook I saw had the same structure: dozens of skill-based questions that were modeled after the example problem that students could mimic step-by-step, a few “out there” application problems that simply disguised the necessary calculation (rather than deepening students’ problem solving skills), and then a couple test prep or “writing to learn” exercises. Some of these were interesting problems, don’t get me wrong, but it was very difficult to create the kind of homework assignment that I envisioned using only these problems. I ended up using a hodgepodge of textbook questions, my own questions, and questions I found on the internet to create my homework assignments. This is why many years later, we ended up making the Math Medic Assessment Platform. Teachers need good, interesting problems to give to students to deepen their understanding and build fluency over time. And those problems should build on the ideas explored in the activity from class!
Students weren’t actually using the textbook as a “reference” as we had always assumed. As teachers we want our students to feel supported with resources they can access when they’re stuck. When students explained what they did when they were confused on their homework, their response was always that they looked up a video. No one was using their textbook for help. Students preferred finding something visual that showed a teacher going through a problem instead of parsing through long paragraphs of text.
Another reason why students didn’t crack open their textbook as often as expected is that when they needed a quick reference to a vocab word or formula, they went to the QuickNotes of their lesson, not the highlighted box on page 673. During COVID, I started making my own set of videos that aligned with the EFFL lessons students were doing “in class”. This ensured that there was a consistent vocabulary being used and that the emphasis was on conceptual understanding, not just how to get an answer to a problem. I’ve continued to use these as extra resources for students to access at home, even after they’ve all returned to in-person learning. But you don’t have to make all of your own videos to make this work. There are many rich resources already available online that you can share with your students.
Textbooks are EXPENSIVE. Our admin was more than happy to consider alternatives, especially after being convinced that students would still be supported in their learning. When we stopped buying new textbooks, funds were available for other lower cost resources. We hope that your admin feels the same way. A yearly per-teacher subscription to the Math Medic Assessment Platform is much cheaper than a textbook for each student. Check with your admin or curriculum director to see if they would be willing to reallocate funds. Coupled with the lessons available for free on Math Medic, you’ll have everything you need to teach so that you too can ditch your textbook!