Textbooks. Boring, unengaging, dry – right? At my old school, I rarely used the textbooks we had. People would therefore espouse this view expecting me to agree wholeheartedly. I did not, and do not. I didn’t avoid the textbooks because I thought they were boring. It’s just their quality was atrocious. Confusing, not enough practice, poorly structured. Impossible to teach from. But I kept the faith that it was possible to do better.
I believe my faith in the inherent non-evilness of textbooks was vindicated by the arrival of a parcel over Christmas containing some from Singapore.
This is New Syllabus Mathematics (Normal Academic) book 1, published by Shinglee. It is designed for the first year of secondary school. In the UK, you can buy them from mathsnoproblem.co.uk
I also bought the accompanying workbooks. The main textbook contains practice, but not as extensively as the workbook.
After having a read, I dug out the New Maths Frameworking textbook we used at my old school to compare. This is a common textbook that I’ve seen used in many schools.
So, onto the nitty gritty.
Let’s take a look at a common year 7 topic that pupils struggle with: negative numbers.
The English textbook has less than a double page spread to cover the topic:
The Singaporean textbook, on the other hand, dedicates 24 pages to the same:
Not to mention the 19 pages of practice in the workbook:
And what to the explanations?
The English textbook gives almost no detail. Here is their explanation for “two signs touching” questions:
The Singaporean textbook takes a different approach. It starts by introducing this tricky concept with a concrete manipulative (algebra tiles). A link to a digital version is provided.
It then goes through numerous examples of how to calculate with the discs.
Pupils are then encouraged to use the manipulatives themselves. They gradually reduce their reliance on them until they can answer problems without them.
The progression is sequenced from addition, then subtraction, then multiplication. The increase in complexity is gradual and easy to follow.
The Singapore textbook goes into greater depth than the English one. It looks at squaring, cubing and rooting negatives, as well as combined operations.
So, the Singaporean textbook gives more detail, practice and depth than the English textbook. But isn’t it too prescriptive and constraining?
I would argue precisely the opposite. The detail is liberating, not constraining. Having this resource gives teachers a choice.
There is nothing liberating about desperately grappling for a half decent worksheet. It is liberating to have more practice questions than you’d ever need so you can adapt the work you give to your pupils.
There is nothing liberating about being ignorant of a teaching technique like algebra tiles.
There is nothing liberating about being unable to assume common knowledge from previous years. This textbook is able to assume pupils have already encountered specific knowledge. The phrase “you will have seen this in primary school” comes up time and time again. That’s a direct result of the careful sequence and use of textbooks throughout primary. That’s freeing.
There is nothing liberating about creating reams of resources from scratch. Doing so leaves no time to think carefully about the delivery of the lesson. With a high quality starting point, you have the time to think deeply about the best questions, explanations and adaptations.
I am not saying we should carbon copy Singapore. That’s impossible and would not work. But there are things we can learn from them. I believe the quality of their textbooks is one.
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