A lot has been said recently on textbooks, the benefits they have and the bad press they get. This has had me thinking a lot about them, and their use in lessons. I rarely use them, certainly not the way they were used in my own schooling, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t think they have their uses. 

Why do they have such a bad press?

I think they bad press comes from bad use of textbooks. I remember when I was at school lugging a ridiculously heavy bag around all day every day because there was a huge textbook for each lessons. I remember many lessons which began “Turn to page 6, Stephen (or whoever) can you begin reading.” then after the page was read the class would attempt the exercise. I remember a biology teacher who read the book to us, she’d fire questions off if she thought you weren’t listening. I sat next to Liam, and we’d sussed that you could answer the questions if you had the textbook on the correct page. One time the lesson was on organs, and the question was thrown at Anthony, who sat on the next table along. Liam and I often gave him answers. This time the question was “what’s the largest organ in the body”, I whispered “pipe organ”, which he then shouted out. It was hilarious.

I could go on, but I’m sure you all had your share of uninspiring textbook lessons. I’ve seen them as a professional. I witnessed an A Level lesson where the teacher sat at the front and read the textbook to the class verbatim. It struck me as rather pointless, as they all could have read it themselves. I’ve seen a KS4 teacher, when I was an Nqt, hand out textbooks with the instruction “look at the example on page ten, then attempt the questions”.

All these examples are uninspiring, and not conducive to good learning. But I think it’s unfair to lay the blame on the textbooks themselves.

How can textbooks be used then?

During lessons, there will be a point when you want the students to do some work. Practicing a skill or solving a problem. Using textbook exercises isn’t necessarily worse than a worksheet or questions on the board. In fact, it could be argued it’s better. It’s a greener and cheaper long term alternative to a ton of printed worksheets. The right textbooks have extension work built in, or offer a selection of exercises of differing difficulties. They also usually have plenty of examples, so learners can use them if they’re struggling, then can request help if they still need it.

I’ve seen a large variety of maths textbooks, I own a fair few. Here are some of them:



My favourites of the ones I have are probably these for KS3/4:


And these for KS5:


Within all these books there are some great things, but none of them are what I would call ideal. Each has plenty of flaws. I find that having access to all these, and many more, textbooks allows me to use ideas, examples and exercises from them as and when required. I sometimes think I should write one, it would be great!

So you think the right textbook would be fine?

Not on their own, no. The recent Sutton Trust report showed that a teacher with strong pedagogical subject knowledge is extremely important to the learning of a class. The right textbooks could aid these teachers, not become a band aid to cover for poor teaching or teachers with shallow subject knowledge. I also wouldn’t like to see them used in isolation. There are many other activities that can aid learning. Things that are quick and easy to check pupils have correct without the need to check each bit, resources such as Mathsloops and Tarzia or activities on mini-whiteboards. All these have a place in lessons, and all would be complimentary to the perfect textbook, which would aid, not replace, good teaching. Examples would be additional to the lesson and offer help learners who are still struggling.

Further reading

Here is the BBC report into the comments by Education Minister Nick Gibb on textbooks.

Here is a nice article from the inside classroom project entitled “Why textbooks matter”.

And here is my post on the aforementioned Sutton Trust report (which can be accessed here).

  1. November 22, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    I taught using those Oxford framework books and loathed them.
    I studied GCSE using a book that looked very much like the dark blue one you’ve got pictured and it strikes me that it was ideal. Plenty of scope for practice, some support examples, and left the rest for the teacher to do.

    • November 23, 2014 at 12:18 am

      Aye, the framework ones are generally pretty terrible. There’s the odd good example or exercise in each, but I can’t imagine using them as a course. The dark blue one, I think you mean the Rayner one I mention as a favourite? I think is the best one, but it isn’t perfect. There’s an intermediate one that matches which is also good. They are pretty old, so the content isn’t up to date, but still better than most modern ones.

  2. November 23, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I’ve been going back and forward on this textbook thing for the past few days. On one hand, it is the very antithesis of what I would like my practice to be about. On the other, in higher level students we want to promote a sense of independent learning. Plus, when planning my own lessons, I always have a couple sitting around me for ideas for questions or even as backup that I am teaching the subject in line with the curriculum.

    I think much of the negativity is, as you say, wrapped up the catalogue of poor teaching we all received over the years. I remember a Geography teacher whose classes consisted of him winding forward the acetate on an overhead projector for 45 minutes each week for instance. He may as well have given us the textbook he copied it out of.

    Great article as usual

    • November 23, 2014 at 1:27 am

      Thanks! I also had lessons which consisted of a Teacher rolling acetate over a OHP! They were science though, physics I think!

  3. Craig Pitman
    November 23, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Textbooks definitely have their uses. Our school uses MEP for KS3 and Edexcel’s new “1MAO” spec books for KS4. I tend to use them about 20% of the time, again depnding on group and topic. The KS4 books from Edexcel have a few errors in them and also for lower ability students on the higher tier, care has to be taken because the level of progression can be on the fast side eg, when factorising expressions you might have only 2 or 3 expressions with a number term outside the bracket before we go to “4x” as the common factor. Likewise the MEP books have good supporting websites but really only provide some support examples during a lesson – their lesson plans on the website are dull in the extreme, although the three tiers of work are a good guide for what work in the text book is applicable.

    I completely agree that using books can save time and money and producing a worksheet for every lesson doesnt encourage a spirit of indepdences (although I have some scans of an old textboook that I project!)

    From another perspective, worksheet = good teaching doesnt necessarily follow either….if you have simply “googled” “Equivalent Fractions Worksheet” and print them off TES or some other resource store you might find the progression and difficulty is again inappropriate for the group.

    • November 23, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Aye, worksheets certainly don’t equal good teaching, and the same benefits and limitations apply, it’s all about how they’re used. I know I can’t write a good fit for purpose worksheet that’s well tailored to a class, but I shouldn’t just use it for all classes. I too have scans/photos/photocopies of a lot of stuff from old textbooks too.

  4. November 23, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I am training to teach maths at the moment (School Direct) and have been wrestling with this for a while. So far, since I started in September, I have not used a textbook in a lesson once. For some reason, in my mind is a nagging feeling that I would be cheating if I used a textbook – that the students deserve something hand crafted “just for them”. Perhaps those comments about bad teaching that involve the example “turn to page 16, read the explanation and answer the questions” have lodged themselves in my mind.

    Clearly I am kidding myself though if I think that with 10 weeks teaching experience and never having taught any of the subjects before I can do better than a textbook every time.

    Sure, I have found some great things online that I have used to create an atmosphere of learning in my classroom that I have been really proud of, but I’ve also done an entirely average job (I’m being generous to myself) of some other topics, a job that if I am honest would have been done better by a text book.

    I think that in addition to my “I would be letting them down” phobia, my problem is that there are so many different textbooks in the department that I don’t know which one is good for what and also that they don’t look great (but what textbooks do after prolonged contact with teenagers?). I need to accept that spending time looking through the books to find one with the concept well explained with properly differentiated questions would not be cheating. It is a perfectly legitimate way to go.

    The other thing is that much of my time when the class are practising is spent dealing with the small number of students who, the moment they encounter something in any way different to what has just been explained simply raise their hands and say “Sir, I’m stuck”. I have tried the “Good, try and unstick yourself”, I have tried “Look in your book”, I steer clear of “Ask the person next to you” as they are a very chatty bunch anyway and that’s an invitation I don’t need to make…..and I have tried putting a slide on the board with a text book reference they can go to. But that involves getting up and walking 5m and not a single person did that so I spent another hour running round like a nutter. When I looked in their books, it wasn’t those who had their hands up that needed the most support, but I didn’t spot the ones who did as the others were dominating my time. Textbooks on desks, with the questions next to an explanation on the open page might well help address this.

    So, I’ll carry on using MathsLoops (now they’ve figured out what to do it would be a shame to stop!), Tarsia, even top trumps and “Millionaire” on occasion, but I am going to ensure that, provided it is appropriate and will promote their learning, I get the textbooks out at least once a week. It’s not cheating them, in fact it is the very opposite. It is making the best use of the tools and time I have to promote and support their learning.

    • November 23, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Textbooks aren’t cheating, as long as their use is considered and appropriate. I would be wary of setting a target such as “at least once a week.” There may be time/topic where the textbooks available to you are not appropriate for that use. There may also be times when it is more pertinent to use them more than that.

      They are also good for a fledgling teacher, such as yourself, to look through to gain ideas on how to construct examples, exercises and possibly even pick up additional teaching and calculation methods.

      The fact that you are reading and commenting on blogs so early in your career shows you are reflective and keen to improve, in sure you will become a fantastic teacher.

      • November 23, 2014 at 2:16 pm

        Yes – you are right. I will change “at least once a week” to “when appropriate” but will definitely add textbooks to my toolkit.

        Thanks for your words of encouragement. Fingers crossed you are right 🙂

  5. Craig Pitman
    November 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    With regards to students that are stuck, it depends on the topic but this might be down to the pace at which the work gets trickier, as well as the motivation of the students to push themselves beyond the easiest stages of a task.

    I mentor student teachers and common sticking points in lessons are where the level of difficulty in tasks starts to increase too rapidly before the students have developed a sense of confidence. I tend to stage my sheets / tasks using “Mild–Hot–Spicy–Inferno” to help me set the levels of progression and I try to only change one variable at a time or drop in a change as the last question on a section to make it an obvious discussion point eg solving equations then make the last question negative or fractional (but not both!!)

    My advice tto all students and trainess is that textbooks can be used creatively (eg why do every question, do odd numbers only or boys do odd, girls do even and then they swap) but the lesson should be “bookended” with an effective starter and engaging, purposeful plenary. Likewise, always always read ahead and consider how a 13 year old, level 6 student will approach the task, as experienced mathematicians and confident problem solvers we often overlook how the work has subtly become harder or might require further discussion.

  6. November 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. November 24, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    The problem I find is a general case of “Hey my screwdriver isn’t working like a wrench! This screwdriver sucks!” … It’s a textbook! It’s not there to replace the teacher. It’s not there to replace a well-thought out lesson. It’s a static repository of knowledge and it has to be used as such. There are correct ways to use textbooks and incorrect ways to use textbooks. There are also poor textbooks, but that’s a different matter.

    • November 24, 2014 at 10:35 pm

      Aye, I entirely agree with you there Manan!

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