Mastery myths: textbooks constrain creative teaching

Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West contains the famous opening line: Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

I’ve heard this message echoed in a variety of forms over recent years by educators who are wary, and sometimes sceptical, of the value of mathematics teaching methods from the Far East in UK schools. They voice fears that teacher-led, textbook-based pedagogy constrains teacher creativity and autonomy and leads to dull, demotivating teaching.

This couldn’t be further from the truth: high quality textbooks provide a foundation upon which creative and imaginative teaching can be built.

How come? The answer is that high-quality textbooks serve as teacher support tools, which:

  • liberate teachers from the grind of generating lesson plans and searching for and bringing together good lesson resources, giving them more time to think about how to communicate and teach the mathematics; and
  • act as a professional development resource as well as teaching resource, thus deepening teachers’ subject knowledge and understanding of pedagogy, building confidence to teach in engaging and responsive ways.

On lesson planning, it’s no surprise that in March last year the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group reported that: “Teachers spend an undue amount of time planning and resourcing lessons, and there are clear measures that should be taken by Government, Ofsted, schools, and teachers to lessen this burden.”[1]

Unnecessary (sometimes ‘tick box’) lesson planning and resource-searches divert valuable teacher time. This could be put to far better use considering conceptual challenges for pupils, how to tackle them and how to promote progression in the subject. In other words, planning effective teaching.

The review group concluded that high quality resources, including textbooks, “can support teaching, reduce workload by teachers not having to ‘reinvent the wheel’, and ensure high expectations of the content of lessons and conceptual knowledge.”

For primary teachers, who in the UK and Singapore are not subject specialists, well-designed textbooks do more: they help deepen subject knowledge and develop professional understanding of effective teaching methods. High quality mathematics textbook series found in Singapore and other leading jurisdictions include pupil textbooks, teacher guides and practice books. Teacher guides serve as essential manuals for teachers: they distil key concepts, clarify objectives and set out logical teaching sequences drawing on the content of the vital pupil textbook.

The textbook doesn’t teach; the teacher does. But having access to an elegant, coherent and comprehensive resource makes it easier. Teachers are liberated to focus on designing and delivering the engaging, interactive lessons that are characteristic of mastery teaching.

Not only this, pupils have a resource to return to and consult and teachers have access to a well-designed set of ready-made exercises for practice and assessment – lightening the load further and reinforcing what’s taught.

Getting teaching right gives teachers confidence, and that goes a long way. We know that teacher confidence improves from the work of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM). Following its textbook project in Maths Hubs, the NCETM surveyed participating teachers. 93 per cent reported a positive impact on their teaching, with the same percentage stating their subject knowledge had improved. 91 per cent said that their confidence in teaching mathematics had increased as a result and there were knock-on positive effects on pupil attitudes and achievement.

These improvements happened because teachers were able to engage in more careful planning and increase their understanding of the steps that children need to take to develop secure mathematics understanding. The use of textbooks underpinned this growing professionalism.

Therein lies an irony, however. The workload review group commented that there is a (misguided) cultural mistrust of textbooks in the UK relating to notions of professionalism: it is somehow viewed as more professional to construct lessons based on random plans and resources drawn from the internet than to use a well-tested, coherent and logically organised resource. The group was keen to debunk this view and recommended that school leaders play a key role in ensuring the availability of fully-resourced schemes of work.

Non-textbook schemes may face less mistrust, perhaps, and they clearly deliver time savings and other advantages. But I’ll put in a bid for a tried and tested textbook on the basis of coherence and quality. Many schemes provide a detailed curriculum map, lesson resources and the like, but if they are not, as Tim Oates describes, “well-theorised, well-designed and carefully implemented”[2], then pupils may miss the interconnected nature of the mathematics or fail to make essential connections to deepen their understanding, with the result that standards may not improve as promised or anticipated.

Tim Oates knows his textbooks. He is clear that “high quality textbooks are not antithetical to high quality pedagogy – they are supportive of sensitive and effective approaches to high attainment, high equity and high enjoyment of learning”.[3] In other words, there is a case for East meets West.

Less famous than its first line, in the same verse Kipling debunked never the twain (two) shall meet, asserting: there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!


Vanessa Pittard was Assistant Director for Curriculum and Standards at the DfE in 2011–2017, where she held responsibility for mathematics education and worked on STEM and literacy policy. Vanessa was central to the development of the Maths Hub programme and worked closely with the NCETM on the introduction of mastery teaching of mathematics in schools. Prior to that, Vanessa led the evidence and research function at Becta, the UK agency for technology in education, and was a subject leader and head of department at Sheffield Hallam University. She now works as an independent consultant.

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[1] Eliminating unnecessary workload around planning and teaching resources

[2] Oates, T (2014) Why Textbooks Count, Cambridge Assessment

[3] Oates, T (2014) Ibid

One thought on “Mastery myths: textbooks constrain creative teaching

  1. Stephen Schwab says:

    Agree.

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