Out Of Control

You people. That’s what you are.

Maybe this series has stronger legs than I originally though, particularly with ELA guys like Tom, Christian, and Todd dropping by to push what I figured to be a math-only prompt through their own content-area strainer.

There are too many awesome bits to summarize, frankly, but from just two pictures you people posted lesson plans for combinatorics, population growth models, graphic design, racial profiling, optical character recognition, regression, the Freedom of Information Act, and that’s just what’s fit to print. Some of the other suggestions were downright hope-your-administrator-doesn’t-stop-by-that-day crazy.

So we’ll try this again. Two things I’m kicking around in the interim:

What Kind Of Model Is This?


This conversation is on the verge of a Lesson Study. With some focused organization and implementation, this could turn into a model for the future of teaching and learning about student learning.


How Do Textbooks Manage To Blow This?


  1. Using clip-art (if that) where photography is the prescription.
  2. Establishing a too-narrow framework for how students (and teachers) experience media. The hypothetical is this: if I had put those photos up with an explicit question (ie. “how long until Costa Rica runs out of license plate numbers?”) would any of that other zany fun have occurred to you? Would it have occurred to your students? Far better to project a full-color, unmodified, uninflected image on the board with a) a clear idea where you want it to go and b) the courage and humility to let it go somewhere elseI swear I don’t even sound like myself sometimes..

Textbooks suck at this. They’re perfect for below-average teachers with limited imagination and limited love for their own content areas, the sort that need a pick axe, a shovel, and a map to the goldmine handed to them before it’ll occur to them to start digging.

It’s kind of an indictment that this has been such a profitable business model for so long.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. You’re right about textbooks. I firmly believe that the reason we often teach math so poorly at the elementary level is that we have a textbook as a crutch. We typically don’t have textbooks in any other subject area. So, in math, we just blindly follow the series of lessons as they are presented. We don’t have a deep enough knowledge or any reason to push farther.

  2. the sort that need a pick axe, a shovel, and a map to the goldmine handed to them before it’ll occur to them to start digging.

    I hate trying to coplan lessons with those people.

    I explicitly turn down the teacher’s edition of whatever text I’m using every year too.

  3. One of my annoyances with math textbooks: the order of topics often makes little to no sense (e.g. solving linear systems before studying lines or not connecting factoring quadratics with zeros of quadratics, … ). I’m even more annoyed by those who then teach from page 1 to page 300 because “that’s the order of the book”.

    Another complaint is that there is usually no connection from chapter to chapter. Chapter n: Quadratic Functions, Chapter (n +1): Cubic Functions, Chapter (n+2) Polynomial Functions, Chapter (n+3) Transformations of Functions, … , come on already, they’re all functions!

    Yet another complaint: the number of problems per lesson. Do we really need 60 symbolic manipulation problems over and over? How about some, gasp, authentic application problems?

  4. Yes, you need a “clear idea where you want it to go”, but ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy ‘.

    And teachers do need ‘courage and humility to let it go somewhere else’ – but the tougher skill needed is rooted in something quite hard to qualify – style.

    No one around my parts likes that word much.

  5. I have to admit that when I suggested we take the math units out of order from the textbook, because frankly my students who struggle with math don’t really flourish with the spiraling of EDM, a teacher shot me down with the comment that “that would invalidate their researched base to prove it works”. Yeah, because having the textbook company tell me it works is way better than changing to order of units to help show that it works for a kid.

  6. Oh, snap!

    What to do about textbooks? The administration, school board, and parents love ’em. Yet, just as any decent miner can tell the difference between pyrite and gold, any decent educator can tell there are better ways to teach than with the textbook. I gave up presenting my case to other teachers why we shouldn’t use the textbooks- I just quietly stopped passing them out.

    Now I’m in a new district teaching a new class and I felt obligated to pass them out. Kids are already complaining about lugging them around and never using them…

    That being said, simply removing the textbook does not a good teacher make. There must be a superior replacement, which in most cases, ain’t that difficult.

  7. In defense of textbooks, inadequate as they often are, they are handy at times. First year. Three preps. No books. (Or more honestly, less than a class set of the books that we did have.) I learned how to adapt materials from every sample copy I could get my hands on. This year, I’m continuing to collect from a variety of sources.

    While I might not all need the pick axe, shovel, and map, if I know there’s a goldmine somewhere I want to have something more than my bare hands and the memory of what I’ve used to dig in the past.

  8. Most schools in my state are legally obligated to pass out textbooks. Those of you saying you don’t do so, I hope you don’t get audited soon if you’re in Cali. Now, just because you have each student check out a textbook doesn’t mean you use it (though the way NCLB has been implemented, good luck with that if you become a PI school/district). My students leave the book at home. Sadly, the push is coming to make use of the textbook daily (again, my district’s — and most districts’ — implementation of NCLB).

    I also need to point out that I teach two classes that operate without textbooks and that’s tough going. Textbooks are not without their good points, y’all. Copying everything from scratch makes you weary. Using the textbook as a base, at least, relieves a lot of that stress. It’s the ancillary materials that are often horribly lacking. All the TE stuff needs to be online, constantly being modified, updated, moderated, and evaluated.

    THAT needs to be the warehouse where we all kick in our good ideas, kept alive on the textbook companies’ servers as a breathing, virtual ATE.

    THAT is how the textbook companies have managed to blow this all these years: not allowing teachers to expand upon the sometimes mediocre, regularly low-level ideas presented in the textbook box set you received when your district adopted that book you’re glaring at.

    And greed.

  9. Anytime the fundamental content of a given classroom is that conveniently packaged as a mass-produced text, the most profound learning possible will never reach its potential (at least in that space).

    I’ll let the others kick the textbook scarecrow around a bit more while I’m just going to enjoy basking in the glow of Dan’s ironic footnote:

    “# I swear I don’t even sound like myself sometimes.”

    Beyond the BoSox taking the Series tonight, it is this semantic moment that will cap my day.

  10. I feel I should chime in in defense of textbooks – they’re good tools, they’re just used too much (and sadly their vendors encourage that).

    Having another person’s explanation of the topic, having (often) convenient banks of exam questions, having extension sheets to cut down your workload if one pesky foreign child has done it all before…

    As a teaching bible, textbooks are sorely lacking: I think of mine as a resource folder. As that, it’s handy.

  11. Textbooks are too varied for me to make any blanket statements.

    Some have nonsensical ordering. Some are ordered quite well.

    Some are chock full of good application problems. Some think “application problem” means rewriting the calculation practice in the form of a word problem.

    Some are written in a fashion that students can actually read. Some are written in a fashion that even the teacher can’t read.

    This still means that teachers must be ready to compensate for any one of the three issues when necessary. (And yes, unfortunately some can’t.)

  12. Todd – Wow, California doesn’t respect you as competent professionals. I wonder what your union is doing about that.

    I think a *good* textbook is a valuable tool in a mathematics class. “Good” meaning explains stuff well. And to a lesser extent, provides adequately varied practice problems. Unfortunately, many of them are not good, and many teachers have to make due.

    Arlington school district in downstate NY wrote their own Algebra 1 textbook, and put it online. I’m a fan.

    We picked a certain national company a couple years ago basically because of the ancillaries. We did not find any commercially available books with which we were happy with the text itself. Kids have online access to the book and they have a jillion worksheets you can print out, which can be convenient, especially for remediation. I used to be excited about their test generator, but their question bank sucks. Also on their website they have selected gizmos (from explorelearning) available, which is nice because gizmos are useful if deployed appropriately, and a school subscription to explorelearning is crazy expensive. I pretty much tell the kids to take them home and leave them there for the times I assign practice problems out of them.

  13. Textbooks are both a useful resource to help teachers teach and a useful tool to collect dust, hold paper down, or prop a door open.

    I think all Mathematicians would agree that math is more than just manipulating symbols and finding out what “x” is or just a set of discrete symbolic ideas that have no relation to anything else in life.

    Math is a way to model our universe to help us answer questions about observable or hypothetical phenomena. It is sad that some “curricula” traditionally strays away from the truer essence of Mathematics in an effort to “objectify” the standardized tests and student knowlege. This, as we currently see, causes more problems than the “curriculum” solves.

  14. Last year I did not pass out text books to half of my students… all taking Algebra. I have to say there were absolutely no differences between grades. You have to be pretty naive to think that even 1-2% of your students use books other than cracking it for dreaded homework problem(s).

    I know I can/do teach better than what the book has to offer. In most ways I don’t like the order in which the book presents material. Also, since we do benchmark testing at our school, I do have to follow what every other teacher is teaching and in that same order.

    Though this doesn’t force me to use the text’s approach, I often wonder, are we doing our students an injustice by not using the book? I can’t remember too many college classes were I didn’t teach myself most of the material needed to pass with an above average grade. On top of that, a lot of my learning after college comes from books, articles, or the internet.

    Unfortunately, we can’t rely on our students to use the book other than for the aforementioned. I do like using the book in class on a regular basis. We use it for a lot of different things, but just being able to read and understand math from a text is a very good skill to have.

    Though I agree with a lot of statements here, I won’t part from using the text in class. Though my class is in no way centered around the text. It’s more of an approach of getting my students ready for moments that are beyond my class.

    I have to remind myself, I am more influential to my students than my lessons. I can’t remember too many lessons from high school, but I do remember the way I was treated. I can remember individual acts of kindness or unfairnesses my teachers acted upon me. I don’t want to seem lazy, as I am no where near that. I use every means possible to me, this website is usually the first stop, to get my students to pass my class for the year.