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!