Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Math Texts, Then and Now

This next year at my school we'll be piloting textbooks for several math courses, including Algebra 1.

All the choices are disappointing. For one thing, they're all huge. The one I've (fair use) borrowed from below is slightly larger than 8-1/2" x 11" and is well over an inch thick.

When you look at the pages here on the blog, they don't look too bad. But they're so big that they accost the eyes. Why are they so big? Well, so much of the pages are intentionally left blank! Look at the first page, which instructs how to do mixture problems. The top third and left third of the page have no content knowledge at all for the students!

I kid you not, looking at the pictures here on the blog doesn't do justice to how brash they are. The colors and the large type just jump out and attack your eyes.

Contrast those two pages on mixture problems with the same topic from another algebra book I have. The book measures 5-1/2" x 7-1/2" and is less than an inch thick. It was originally copyrighted in 1913, and again in 1941.

A couple things become immediately obvious. In the new, huge textbook, the student is considered to be an idiot. It's assumed that the student is ADD and hence must be assaulted with color and pictures or he/she will be incapable of understanding. My opinion: the book contributes to the very ADD that is assumed!

The old textbook, however, was made for utility, not beauty. It has only absolutely necessary pictures in it, and most of those are graphs, and uses color (black, brown, blue) very sparingly. It's also assumed in the older book that the student can read and understand not only the explanation in the text, but the math behind it.

The older book is about a third of the size and weight of the new book, and hence is about three times as convenient to carry. It would fit nicely and easily into a backpack, and wouldn't have to be shoved into a locker. About the only think it lacks is the stuff that students don't need or want anyway--useless, unrelated pictures, and lists of state standards.

So we're going to buy one of the behemoths, since no publisher would dare submit anything so small and utilitarian. How could they--kids raised on MTV don't have attention spans to be able to use such a book effectively, or so we're repeatedly told. I'm more inclined to believe that publishers make more money on the huge, overblown books, and states are willing to spend more money on something that looks so exciting--and that's why textbooks these days are so big.

But wait, there's more. In addition to the textbooks comes a teacher's box that's probably 10 cubic feet in volume. It contains the teacher's edition, booklets of practice worksheets, review worksheets, reteaching worksheets, and several different types and versions of tests for each chapter. Each student can be given his/her own "consumable" workbook, and the teacher chest has booklets with all the answers to the problems in the student workbooks. It also has answers to the "note-taking guide" workbooks that the students are given. The chest has enrichment exercises, lesson plans, activities, and booklets on differentiated instruction. It also has all of these booklets and plans in Spanish, for those teaching English Language Learners.

Then there are the cd-roms and dvd-roms. These might contain lesson tutorials, ideas for extending lessons, and PDF copies of all the booklets and such mentioned above. There might even be a quiz or test generator, so you can have as many versions of a test or quiz as you want--all at the tap of a keyboard.

I'd be more impressed if I wasn't so disappointed at the hoops the publishers are jumping through to get us to buy their stuff--and the price they're going to charge us for all that stuff.

And by the weight of it all.

Update 6/12/07: It gets worse. Shortly before school got out last week, all math teachers received an email stating that those who are going to pilot textbooks this coming year must attend a "training session" in early August. Are you kidding me? First, you want me to do extra work to evaluate a textbook, and in addition you want me to go to a meeting--during my vacation time!--to teach me how to use all the supplemental materials and how to fill out evaluation papers?

Let's try this. Since I'm a college graduate, why not assume I'm at least moderately bright. Write down how you want me to evaluate the book and materials--give me a checklist or something--and trust that I'm capable of completing it correctly. As for the publisher's supplemental materials, I have a few comments. First, if I need training on how to use them, they're obviously not user friendly and should be improved. Second, if you just want to "wade through" all the materials and let me know what's there, email me a short list of cool materials and perhaps some instructions on how to use them. Again, I'm at least moderately bright; I can take it from there.

I told the district math guy regarding the meeting in August, and further meetings throughout the school year, "Single dad don't play that game."

Good lord, if anyone in education knows how to conduct a meeting that isn't a waste of time, I've yet to meet him/her. We learned how to do so in the army--not everyone practiced what they preached, though!--and it amazes me that so few people know how to conduct effective meetings. I'm be darned if I'm going to waste my time attending meetings regarding books that we may or may not buy. Either trust me to evaluate the book, or don't, but don't treat me like an idiot.


Robert said...

This is why I'm working on the long-term goal of not using any textbooks for my classes. I'm starting with my Abstract Algebra and Problem-Solving courses this fall.

It used to be that textbooks actually conveyed information. Now they seem to be a means of showing off how supposedly hip and with-it a publishing house could be. And the bloat... good lord, the bloat. All those CD's and DVD's of nothing but multimedia drivel.

That reminds me: you forgot the fact that books with lower production costs -- e.g. texts that contain nothing but text and mathematical notation and no pictures, graphs, etc. -- are a lot cheaper to produce and therefore a lot cheaper to buy. Check out some of those old Dover reprints sometime.

Anonymous said...

In some asian countries-- you know, the ones that routinely kick our ass in international comparisons of student's mathematical knowledge-- texts are purchased by the students from local bookstores. They are paperback, cheap, and printed in one color, or maybe two. What a concept, eh?

When I taught high school, the number of expensive texts lost every year was staggering.

The ones not lost were seldom read, it seemed to me.

At the college level, especially the community college level, there is endless whining over textbook prices. Legislation has even been considered to try and address the problem. Students who supposedly learned elementary & intermediate algebra (algebra I and algebra II) in high school from expensive texts bought by taxpayers get to take remedial classes, again paid for by taxpayers, but at least the students are paying for the books the second (and third, and fourth...) time around.

jg said...

Having just gone through this process myself I couldn't agree more with how annoying all of these texts are to read. Just wait till the other teachers claim "This is great! This is exactly what the students are used to" Which always makes me respond that just because they normally are bombarded with color and graphics doesn't mean it is the best thing for them.

Lee said...

Is there any reason to use a Math textbook in today's world?

Reducing textbook costs is high on my list of ways to increase teacher salaries.

Darren said...

Of course there is, Lee. They're still the most technologically efficient way of presenting information--especially when they're portable.

Technology has changed, but the human brain and the way we learn hasn't changed near as quickly.

I wouldn't shortchange students in this way in order to get a higher salary.

carol said...

When I was a kid I hated the dumbed-down social studies and reading books the LA schools were using in the early 60s. Yeah, that long ago. I senses that the subject was not real or grown-up enough to take seriously.

Strange is it may sound, I think the average kid respects serious subject matter. I was excited about learning algebra, and if they'd called it Everyday Math or something it would have taken the mystique away.

Polski3 said...

And then, if you teach in a district like mine, you are DIRECTED to only use the "materials" from the publisher of whatever textbook you are using for your classes, never mind the materials you have gathered and used successfully (and which are usually much more interesting to students).......

Bottom line seems to be, with the purchase of curriculum packages (not just buying some textbooks), comes a loss in academic freedom for teachers to select the materials they believe will best help THEIR students learn the subject matter.

Anonymous said...

It is because of this that I always loved the Saxon Math program. Of course, our math department head despises it and won't have it anywhere near our math department...leaving us stuck with the behemoths. I agree with you about the weight and worthlessness of the material.

NYC Educator said...

Good lord, if anyone in education knows how to conduct a meeting that isn't a waste of time, I've yet to meet him/her.

Boy, I could not agree more. The gall of these people to charge an arm and a leg for textbooks and then demand you be trained in how to use them. If they're so cutesy and user-friendly, you'd think both you and the students would be able to understand them completely without even cracking the covers.

No such luck, because in three years they'll be discredited trash, and the same folks will be selling you the next new thing.

Dan said...

Oh, textbooks are a big pet peeve of mine. There are two problems.

First, the research that says things like prettiness, basic language, pictures, etc., help learning. Really, they only help learning because the material has been dumbed down to the point that is difficult for students not to get it. But in the process, it's holding back students generally in order to serve the lowest-ability students.

Second, Texas and California control the textbook market. Their textbook standards are meant to be a floor, i.e. that textbooks must include at least such and such material. For the publishers, though, it means that textbooks need include only such and such material and they don't venture beyond it.

I recently looked through five world history textbooks approved by Texas and was saddened to realize that they were all the same. They covered all the same info in the same way, that info was divided up the same and the books were all written in the same frustratingly simple style of English. The only differences among them were the covers, the pictures used, and the colors. It was the same textbook in different packaging.

So blame dumbing down for low-ability kids and really blame TX and CA for the standards that actually destroy full market competitiveness so that textbooks all come out the same.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Oh, no kidding about the meetings, and about the textbooks. You should see the pablum we've adopted for our regular history courses. Good Gad! But aren't they PRETTY! They weigh six pounds each, but they've got color out the wazoo.

But these kids nowadays aren't raised on MTV-- that was us, guy, not them.