What Are Your Thoughts?

Today, I overheard a conversation that bothered me. I’m looking for some feedback here. As you know, as part of my Annual Learning Plan for this year, I have been focusing on math problem solving. My approach to teaching math has changed tremendously, and I really believe that it has changed for the better. I was never a textbook teacher, but more than ever before, I have students explaining their thinking, looking for multiple ways to solve the same problem, and asking questions and seeking answers to build their own understanding of math.

Based on this change to my teaching approach, I was troubled when I heard a discussion about the importance of using math textbooks in the primary grades. Teachers were concerned that if students weren’t taught how to use math textbooks in primary, they would never be able to do so in the junior grades, thus negatively impacting on their ability to be successful in math.

When I heard this, here is what I thought:

1) Why do students need to use math textbooks in any grade?

2) Will a lack of experience using math textbooks decrease student success on Grade 3 and Grade 6 EQAO? Why?

3) If math textbooks should be used, how do you differentiate with them?

I didn’t say anything though. This may have bothered me more than the discussion itself. Should I have said something? What should I have said? How do you approach this topic with others?

Today, I watched my Grade 1 and Grade 2 students go on a hunt for three-dimensional solids around the school. They took photographs of these figures, created an Animoto slideshow sharing what they found, took video footage detailing their learning, and even created screencasts sharing what they learned.

– screenchomp2’s libraryScreenChomp 12-03-01 226 PM.mp4 – 182.91KB DownloadFirstFrame.jpg – 15.15KB Download

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– screenchomp2’s libraryScreenChomp 12-03-01 243 PM.mp4 – 685.25KB DownloadFirstFrame.jpg – 10.67KB Download

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In my opinion, this was a rich activity. It allowed students to explore three-dimensional solids. It allowed them to make meaningful connections to these figures: sharing their knowledge while also building knowledge in others. Would this have happened if we completed the 3-D solids activity in the Grade 2 textbook or workbook? I would argue no, but maybe I’m missing something here. What are your thoughts on this? How do you balance textbook work with math problem solving? Do you balance the two or just use one approach? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!


29 thoughts on “What Are Your Thoughts?

  1. I am in 100% agreement with you. Math textbooks are not required for any grades. Most of the time the texts are old and outdated and don’t match the curriculum. For Juniors and up I have assigned problems from text books that relate to curriculum. Right now I am assisting a friend who has a 5/6 split class. I come in 1-2x a week to teach her grade 6 students. I don’t rely on the text but do use some of the material, specifically when I think students need the practice. I find the rich problems are not in the texts nor are exploratory type problems. Keep doing what you are doing!

    • Mary-Ann, thank you so much for your comment! As a teacher that’s only taught K-2, it’s nice to hear the junior perspective on this. Some students do need practice, and pulling some questions for practice is great, but I don’t think that many textbooks or workbooks offer rich enough problems for daily math activities. As you mentioned, they don’t offer enough opportunities for exploration either.

      I appreciate you contributing to this conversation! Thanks!

  2. Aviva,

    I’m with you 100%! The idea that students need experience using textbooks at an early age so that they will do well with textbooks later is bizarre! This implies that there is some inherent value in using textbooks, that we have to prepare students to be good at this skill. Nonsense, I say!

    IF the argument is actually “we are stuck with textbooks in older grades, and we know that some students find this difficult, and we don’t have time in the older grades to develop the required skills”, THEN you could perhaps justify this point of view.

    But in my view, and I am certain in the minds of many other teachers, textbook use by students has so many negative consequences that we would be better developing other pedagogies, like the approaches so evident on your blogs, to engage students in learning. Your approach takes a lot more time and is risky (because you might make mistakes), but I would still vote for it every time.

    Keep up the good fight!

    • Peter, thank you so much for your comment! It’s nice to hear an outsider view on this textbook debate. Seeing what members of my PLN (for all grade levels) do every day in math, it makes me confident that no grade level needs to rely on a textbook to learn math. I’m curious to hear what others have to say on this.

      Thanks for your continued support!

      • Thanks for your comment! I’ve asked that question before, but not necessarily left it open so that the discussion continues after class. What a great idea! I’d love to videotape this discussion, end with a question like this, and then have students continue the discussion at home with their parents and friends. What a great way to keep “math talk” going outside of the classroom.

        Thanks for getting me thinking!

  3. I hear this a lot. They have to do this in primary to get them ready for junior. They need to get use to this in junior to prepare for intermediate. Intermediate is all about preparing them for high school. High school needs to get students ready for college and university.

    Students are going to encounter bad pedagogy at some point in their education. That’s why we’re doing our best to avoid subjecting them to it now.

    • A very interesting comment, Colin! Thanks for contributing to the discussion here. As someone that sees all of the different grades in action, it’s really nice to hear your perspective!


    • I agree with you! I think that what we can get in the textbooks, we can get elsewhere, and we can get so much more too.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

  4. Just last month I was offered a class set of grade one math texts books. My immediate response was why? My second response was can I have the money you are planning to spend on math textbooks be spent on technology for my classroom instead? I won in the sense that they will NOT be buying me textbooks (although the other two Gr 1 classes are getting them) but I lost because they aren’t buying technology either.

    I also went another step further and contacted one of our math helping teachers. I told her about Math Exchanges by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and asked if it was on our recommended learning resources list. She read it and recommended it. She also read Number Sense Routines by Jessica Shumway. I have since asked my admin to purchase Number Sense Routines for me. Fingers crossed I get it.

    Open ended, real life, differentiate math is where it is at. Yes, it takes more work to plan and organize for lessons this way but it also keeps our students highly engaged and motivated. One day everyone will get that too. In the mean time ignore those who feel the *need* for textbooks at the younger levels.

    • Karen, thanks for your comment on this post! I agree with you too. There’s some great resources out there, but when it comes to buying math textbooks, I’d rather purchase something else instead. I think that theapproach solving approach to math leads to great engagement (as you mentioned), but I also think that it allows all students to be successful. My biggest concerns with textbooks are,

      1) There’s too much practice for some students and not enough for others.

      2) Some students struggle with copying questions. Even on EQAO, our provincial test, questions are given to them, and they just need to answer them.

      3) It’s time-consuming to copy questions, especially in these young primary grades. I think that the time should be spent doing math, not copying it.

      4) There are not enough rich questions that allow for collaboration, exploration, problem solving, and rich communication. Creating my own three part problems or collaborating with others to create problems provides my students with more, at least in my opinion. Students can even learn the basic facts as they solve these problems.

      Thanks again, Karen, for your reply. Your comments really helped me formulate some of my biggest concerns about math textbooks.


  5. I agree with you about textbooks. I look at textbooks are a resource only. I have found some great problems in them and even lesson ideas that I pick and choose from along with ideas from the internet, Van de Walle, Small, Burns, etc. etc.. I have seen teachers use them successfully to pull independent practice from (after a lesson that went deep into the concept). The problem with textbooks is that they become the program. In many classes students are learning concepts that are not in the curriculum but are in the grade textbook. Another problem is context. Math is a real world subject and when it only comes from a book it loses its connection to solving problems in our lives. OK, one more problem, engagement. How many kids say math is boring. Math is never boring when it means something to us.

    People often talk about getting students “ready” for the next grade/division/school. That is not our job – our job is to teach the expectations of the grade that we are assigned, and make sure that students are solid with the skills and concepts of our grade. If we do that, then the next teacher can build on the foundation we provide.

    Aviva, your thoughts instincts are right on.

    • Thanks Kelly for your comment! I like how you’ve shared why to use textbooks and also why not to use them. I agree with you that there can be some good practice problems in them or even options for review of difficult concepts, but like you, I think that when the resource becomes the program, it’s more problematic!

      As always, I appreciate your insights!

  6. I am growing tired of “we need to teach them this… Because they will need to use it next year”. We need to be teaching students skills that are relevant NOW and for the rest of their lives… I am sorry, but the “skill” of using a text book is not high on my list.

    We need to work with students so they can become confident learners and have a growth mindset…. With THAT in their toolbox, they will be able to learn anything…. Even how to use a textbook. 😉

    • Chris, I completely agree with you too! Thanks for your insight. It’s great to get an administrator perspective. I absolutely LOVE your second paragraph. You’re right: if we do get students to have this “growth mindset,” they will be able to do anything that we ask of them, including using textbooks.


  7. I love the cylinder video. they clearly demonstrate what it is and is not. However, on the discussion of textbooks, it is vitally important that they learn to work between “hands on” 3D objects and 2D drawn representations of shapes. The text can be the link between 3D and 2D discussions. Books (and digital mediums) allow us to share our knowledge so they must be able to use 2D representations. Good topic!

    • Sharon, thanks for your comment! I completely understand what you’re saying here, but does this need to be done using a textbook? Some students spend as long copying a problem as they do completing one. Even on EQAO (our provincial standardized test), students are given the problem and they just need to solve it. I know that there’s still value in doing paper activities, but I would rather make these activities ones that are differentiated to meet the individual needs of my students (i.e., ones with different questions for different students and even different numbers of questions for different students) instead of textbook ones that are the same for all. If there is a great textbook problem then fantastic: I will definitely use it as a resource. I just think that as @kmcc said, the resource should not be replacing our program. What do you think?

      Thanks for getting me to think and reflect on this issue more!


  8. Aviva,

    What a great conversation you have started! I agree with many in this discussion that often when textbooks are used they become the program instead of a resource to support the program. I find, especially in the early year of schooling, it is very difficult to find textbooks that have lots of hand-on activities included and provide rich problem solving. In my previous employment textbooks had to be used. I used them as a finishing off activity at the end of the lesson. Those that understood the concept took 5 mins to complete. But the expectation that the books were completed was a burden and they were not beneficial, especially to the stuggling students who were trying to understand the concept and the layout of the book at the same time. after many people sharing the same view the expectation was changed and books were not to be completed but only used as a resource. This was explained to parents too as many still believe worksheets and textbooks are signs of good learning.
    It’s does take more time and effort to source good activities. It’s messier to do hands-on activities but the benefits to our students are much greater.

    • Kylie, thank you so much for your comment! It’s interesting to hear how you’ve used textbooks in the past. I agree that it may be harder to use the other approach, but the pay off (at least in my opinion), is much more!


  9. It was quite interesting that I read your blog post this morning and then this evening reaad an article about educational things that will be absolete by 2012. Lo and behold the text book (as well as the chunky student desk) was quite high on the list. As an intermediate teacher, I do not find the text book to be the end all of my math program. We take things from so many different forums to make our math units, vandewalle, marilyn burns, math literature, the internet, current world situations, etc. Students need to learn the material in an engaging way that they can make real-life connections to them and totally see math relevance. Couple months ago to start off our patterning unit we made collages so that students can see that patterning is everywhere around them. Afterwards, I did not have one student ask me why we had to learn algebra. We used string over and over again to show how the formula for circumference was developed. Students need meaningful activities and this can be done without a textbook.

    • It can indeed, Jo-Ann, and I love hearing about how this is being done in your Intermediate math program. I really enjoyed the specific examples that you shared here as well. What great information in the article that you read too.

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion!

  10. Pingback: Things to Talk About – Friday, March 2, 2012 | The Falcon's Nest

  11. I wish more primary grades, and intermediate grades approached math in a problem solving context. I teach middle school math, and although we have class sets of textbooks, I have found student’s understanding to be much deeper when texts are not used. I’ll be honest, I used to use te textbook a lot. I was new to teaching math, and was intimidated by my own thoughts of “what do I know, and what do I do now?”. The textbook was an easy way out. Now that I’m a couple years in, I look back and shake my head. Through my PLN and PD I have access to instructional resources and problem solving methods that have added richness to my teaching. What do we really use texts for? For finding practice questions? How many times have we as teachers assigned or given practice work, only to have students say, “do I have to do ALL this? Why? I get it?” and other students look at the text and lose interest because the presentation of the questions is overwhelming.
    My goal is that any time a student needs to pick up a textbook, they first have to dust it off.

    • Cameron, thank you so much for your comment! I completely agree with you too. My concerns with the textbook are much the same as yours. Do you think that our access to Twitter and a strong PLN makes it that much easier to try problem solving in the classroom? We have a network on people that support us online as we try something new, and a network of people to push up to step outside of our comfort zone. I wonder if others would feel like we do if they had this same supportive network. What do you think? Your comment made me think of this!

      Thanks again!

  12. This year I didn’t get the math workbook for my grade level. I have used a combination of activities, games, and booklets I’ve created with the help of abcteach.com and other resources. We are looking at new workbooks for next year but some of the other teachers are also looking at using them more as a resource and not the only instruction. The Two Sisters who developed Daily 5 for Language arts also created Daily 5 for Math. I do a modified Daily Math. I really am glad that I found your site and all of your ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for sharing what you’ve done to meet the individual math needs of your students. I also think that we can plan and implement math programs that are far richer when the textbook becomes a resource and not the program.


  13. I love the way your students explain what a cylinder is, in a very constructivist way. A cylinder really is like a circle that’s been “stretched really high”. I wonder how you could use the video as a discussion starter for more investigations?

    This is so much better than a textbook exercise on this topic!

    • Thanks for your comment, Peter! I love this description too. I wonder if we could use this video as a way for other students to look at making comparisons between other shapes and solids. See if they can construct knowledge about these other solids as well. Thanks for giving me so much to think about!


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