Replacement Units and School Textbooks

Some educators consider it a virtue for teachers to not use textbooks. My view is that textbooks can play an important role in instruction. Teaching is complex enough in itself without expecting teachers to generate classroom materials for one or more curriculum subjects. Indeed, designing and making good materials is not something that teachers are necessarily prepared to do – especially when children today are used to and expect slick, professional materials and designs in websites, videogames, magazines and so on. Teacher-made materials can rarely compete with the attractiveness of commercial publications and materials.

However, I am critical of the quality of mathematics textbooks that are available to teachers in Ireland. Compared to textbooks produced in other countries, Irish textbooks could help offer pupils a more stimulating and interesting educational experience.

When I speak to publishing company representatives about this, they tell me that they just produce what teachers want. I am not so sure about this. How widely consulted are teachers about the textbooks produced to support their teaching? I believe that if teachers were given a real choice, they would not accept some of the mathematics textbooks that are currently available. Wilson, Peterson, Ball and Cohen (1996) describe how, back in the 1980s in response to similar concerns, policy makers in California came up with the idea of “replacement units.” A replacement unit takes a curriculum topic and presents it in a way that is different to how the topic is presented in existing textbooks. Teachers can try it out with their class to see how a different approach works, without having to make the major change that changing a textbook series in a school requires.

Over the last year I was involved with the PDST in creating a replacement unit for the maths topic of area for fifth class. The unit was a collaborative effort involving teachers, teacher educators, mathematicians and designers. The unit consists of a pupils’ book and teacher’s manual (or annotated pupils’ book). The teacher’s manual describes the teaching approach behind the unit. An Irish language pupils’ book and an Irish language teacher’s manual are also available. All are available here. It lends itself to being used in school using an interactive whiteboard. Have a look at it and see what you think of it.

The replacement unit on its own won’t change maths teaching. However, the PDST will be using it in conjunction with professional development for teachers, including video clips of a teacher using this approach to teaching maths. In developing the unit, people from different disciplines contributed to the materials to help teachers provide a productive learning experience for their pupils, making this a collaborative approach to producing schoolbooks, which was piloted in eleven schools: textbook publishers, please copy!

 

 

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2 Responses to Replacement Units and School Textbooks

  1. Marie Synnott

    Seán, just read with great interest the replacement unit, I particularly like the tasks and their similarity to how the children will use Area in real life. As a teacher in a gaelscoil I find myself constantly creating supplementary mtl to make the concepts more applicable to life situations. This year with 1st class the class surveyed 15 shops to find the cheapest sliced pan! They learned more from the exercise than from the book chapter on money. During the coming school year I will be working in Learning support focused on Maths team teaching in Infants and would be interested in hearing about or gaining an opportunity to work on future replacement chapters.

  2. Text books often act as a substitute for knowing the curriculum in detail, and provide guidance for the teacher as to what to cover and in what depth.
    I think in an Irish context we have to be aware that often the goal of teaching has become “Enable college entry through a high L.C. points yield”, rather than subject knowledge per se. This leads to a specific focus on the solution to written template driven classes of maths problems, as opposed to delivering skills in mathematical thinking. A change in the educational method and materials used in delivering content, such as the project maths approach, may work well for transferring mathematical thinking to real world contexts, but may fail to serve the needs of a high achieving student who wished to achieve a large number of A’s.
    I don’t know that your solution of replacement units will be effective in filling this role.
    We now come to quality of textbooks. Here, while I found your paper on the cultural differentiation in textbook delivery interesting, in making an argument for better textbooks I would prefer to see evidence that a specific feature of a textbook resulted in greater or earlier understanding of the topic before I pushed for it to be included. That is, such a decision should be based on a comparison of two different texts being used in the same cultural matrix. Your idea of alterative units would probably work very well as part of such research. Text book change for the sake of it is beloved by publishers, but achieves little.
    From my experience in the adult or second chance education sector enrichment of the content with specific examples can often be a significant barrier to the adoption of a text which may be fine otherwise. Your text “Area 5” while excellent and though provoking, would probably be undeliverable to any of my classes who are studying this maths because of age specific nature of the examples and the friendly aliens.
    This is the “Fluffy Bunny problem”. Creating my own material allows me to get around this.
    As a maths teacher in this area of the Irish educational system (Fetac), I find the flexibility of creating my own material is great. It allows me to adapt material to suit the class involved. As a teacher I should have communications skills, subject knowledge and be aware of the required curriculum. Thus creating class notes is not, and should not be regarded as, rocket science.

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