A Singapore-UK standoff: textbook round

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.

Found yourself nodding along to this? You’d probably be a great fit at Michaela. We’re doubling in size next year, and therefore recruiting in lots of subjects! Take a look at our ads or pop me an email at bisaksen@mcsbrent.co.uk

20 thoughts on “A Singapore-UK standoff: textbook round

  1. Nikki

    Agree with the point you’re making about textbooks; I sometimes use a page in a textbook if it has the right sort of practice, but these can be hard to find.

    The other liberating factor that struck me from your comparison is that I’d have 1-2 hours to cover this in my scheme of learning, whereas from the amount of progression available from the Singapore textbook, there would be many more hours available to secure understanding of the topic.

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  3. srcav

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I have similar views on textbooks shared here: http://wp.me/p2z9Lp-lu

    I want to buy the ones you mentioned! I found some old ones in the department recently called “Essential Maths”, by David Rayner, which are pretty good, but not as good as these look.

  4. ChrisN

    Finnish teachers- another highly successful country in PISA – also make extensive use of maths textbooks and workbooks. And indeed, of textbooks for all lessons (95%). A teacher is quoted on the blog cited below as saying that they “use the time and mental space created by this to engage with children and support their individual needs.”


  5. Caroline Wilson (@carriemw7)

    I wonder if part of the issue with current text books is the cost? Departments have very limited resources and so publishers in order to get a share of a dwindling market produce cheaper and therefore shorter books. The other issue as raised by Nikki is the limited time available in any one cycle of our spiral curricula.

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  7. Yuvraj Singh

    I completely get your point about lack of practise in UK textbooks. When I’ve used them there often seems to be very huge jumps made very quickly. The best thing for lots of practise I’ve seen in 10 ticks, but not everyone looks too fondly on the use of that either

  8. l4l1

    Of course there is always the opportunity to do something like this > http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30832938

    re: “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.” – I think that argument is pretty reductive and once there is a comparable set of POD resources on the web in a format people find useful and that can be added to, the resource itself becomes free, adaptable and time saving for all.

    However – I am sure there would be copyright issues with the content if copied slavishly, as might the images/ videos above be if not that they are illustrating an educational resource. But dissemination and mediation of content, can, sometimes, be a moot point.

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  10. Kevin Higginson

    The UK textbook is aimed at supporting teacher input, rather than the development of mathematical thinkers. We are stuck in the ‘sage on the stage’ syndrome where we ‘present’ methods for students to follow, rather than engaging them in a discussion and guiding them towards greater understanding, allowing the student to develop themselves. This is personalised learning, as it allows the students to reflect and challenge themselves, rather than have teacher expectation foisted upon them. Love the idea of keeping a reflective journal, thinking of using this from September but using our VLE for students to add comments from class work and independent study.

    1. Charlotte (@Monkeyneco)

      “The UK textbook is aimed at supporting teacher input, rather than the development of mathematical thinkers. We are stuck in the ‘sage on the stage’ syndrome where we ‘present’ methods for students to follow, rather than engaging them in a discussion and guiding them towards greater understanding, allowing the student to develop themselves.”

      Are you seriously under the impression that Singaporean maths teaching is about inquiry learning? Maths teaching in Singapore involves far more direct and explicit teaching of concepts (and a lot more practice).

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