Reflections, Part I: Textbooks

I had a really thought-provoking conversation close to a month ago with friend and colleague Justin Lanier. It was meaty and far-ranging. Much of it has evaporated since I wrote down just the barest of notes immediately afterward, but I wanted to consolidate whatever insight remains from it, so here goes. (Justin if you’re reading I invite you to set me straight if I am misremembering anything you said.) (I’m at a conference this week. I have a healing but broken ankle, and everything that goes on after hours seems to be a walk away, so I expect to have time to write at least two installments digesting this conversation for myself. This is the first.)

By the way, if you ever have the opportunity to teach a math class to a small group of serious, reflective educators who are also friends, do it. All spring, this group theory class I’ve been teaching has been the most professionally exciting thing I’ve been up to, just in terms of the pedagogical task. (Challenge: take a subject you know well but learned in definition-lemma-theorem-proof-problems-repeat order, and try to re-envision it completely so that not only the theorems but the definitions are natural answers to natural, interesting questions.) But every so often I realize that in addition, I now have this collection of people, whose experience I have some access to since they’re friends, and who also happen to be deep, thoughtful math teachers, and they’ve been in my class. Have you ever wanted to know exactly what a class you taught felt like to be in?

(I’ve previously experimented with test-driving workshops on friends, and this has been massively illuminating in terms of being able to hear in forthright and intimate detail about what the experience was like. Actually, I learned an incredible amout from that; thank you to all who participated. But this is the first time I’ve done it in an extended way i.e. beyond a one-shot deal, and the first time the participants have some reason for being there other than to help me out, and the first time they’ve been math teachers. I’ve been a little shy to pick their brains about what the experience is like, except forJesse Johnson’s. It doesn’t feel appropriate with the whole group, and in any case is kind of scary for me. But now that I’ve also spoken to Justin, I just have to take a minute and appreciate the gift it is that these serious educators have taken the time and the trust to tell me something of what the experience I’m trying to craft is actually like. So thank you, Justin and Jesse; it’s really awesome.)


The conversation started when Justin asked me about a stack of about 9 notebooks sitting on a shelf. These notebooks are the product of the intense personal project that taught me algebra: working page by page and problem by problem through Michael Artin’s Algebra, over the course of two years. (2007-9. The project is temporarily on hold.) This connected to something Justin had been thinking about:

He and I have both been disinclined to use textbooks in our classroom teaching. First of all, we have both been very concerned with making sure students understand the authority of their own reasoning; therefore, we’ve been inclined to remove from them the opportunity to rely on external authority (in all kinds of ways; avoiding a textbook being just one of them). Secondly, we’ve wanted our content to unfold, like a story, and therefore we’ve wanted to keep tight control over the flow from the information spout. (Forgive the mixed metaphor.) Textbooks are in the habit of giving you everything up front, creating the very real danger that you’ll watch the climactic scene before the rest of the show. (You know I hate that. Thanks, Kate, for the big ups, btw.)

Lest you get the wrong idea, let me hasten to add that I did usually make a textbook available. I always gave out textbooks, and in my Algebra II and Calc classes I assigned problems from them as well. I virtually never used the exposition in the book as a teaching tool in these classes, but in any case it’s really my Algebra I class I had in mind. In that class I spent four years developing the curriculum from scratch with the help of my amazing colleagues Jess Jacob (now Jess Flick, still teaching math in NYC) and Mike Jenkins (now in France – miss you Mike! BMJ 4eva!). I didn’t refer to the book while teaching the class. Finally, in my fourth year, I got it together to create a syllabus that gave book references for each day of class, but since my teaching never referred to the book and the work never referred to the book, the kids – 9th graders – uniformly ignored these references.

Now, both Justin and I stand behind the pedagogical values that led us to ignore our textbooks; but a certain irony is at play. Our own mathematical lives are infused with textbooks! I mean, I feel like in a way, I became who I am as a mathematical person substantially as a product of books. These are the books:
What Is the Name of This Book?, by Raymond Smullyan
Calculus, by William K. Morrill
Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension, by Rudolf Rucker
Chaos, by James Gleick
The Calculus Gallery, by William Dunham
and, as I mentioned above,
Algebra, by Michael Artin
To be fair, there were definitely also some teachers involved (a shout out to my dad, Judy Lazrus, Mary DiSchino, Dan Klemmer and Toby Kaplan, Steve Barkin, Bob Kelley, Peter Mili, Igor Pak, and Alex Martsinkovsky), along with at least one movie (Stand and Deliver). But books, and these six in particular, are definitely a big piece of the story. Two of them (Morrill and Artin) are actually textbooks, and two more (Smullyan and Rucker) share some features with good textbooks (in particular, rich and deliberately organized problems).

Justin has a similar tale to tell. He’s the one who got me into the excellent books Visual Complex Analysis, by Tristan Needham, and A Radical Approach to Real Analysis, by David Bressoud. He also owns, and seems personally identified with owning, multiple copies of Euclid’s Elements. All three of these are textbooks.

So who are we that we aren’t sharing this part of mathematical experience with students?

Justin’s evocative phrase: “I’m worried that for my students, I’m becoming the only font in which math is written.”

To add a wrinkle: this year the two of us took a topology class together. In that class, the professor didn’t use a textbook, and it kind of drove us (at least me) a little crazy, in at least two ways. One is that it meant that if for any reason you had to miss class, the best you could do was to copy someone else’s hurriedly scribbled notes and try to understand them, or arrange to meet with the professor, which was hard to do. Another, perhaps more fundamental issue is that if I left class unsatisfied in my understanding, and couldn’t figure out how to satisfy myself, there was really nowhere to turn. I could (and did) arrange meetings with the professor, but I couldn’t always get satisfaction that way because the arguments he gave in class satisfied him, after all. I couldn’t always get him to see what was bothering me. In my experience learning math from textbooks with no teacher at all, you might think I would run into the same problem all the time, but oddly enough I haven’t so much. First of all you can get the book to repeat itself as many times as you want it to without requiring multiple email exchanges to arrange meetings, or the feeling that you are imposing. Secondly, my experience with (good) textbooks is that they tend to have an extremely useful ploddingness, deliberateness, slow-and-steady feel. Even the hard ones. They cover all the bases. The proofs are airtight. The details are dealt with. Nothing gets skipped. And, they have lots of problems, usually way more than you need to get a good feel for the content. (Artin’s Algebra, for instance, has just the right number if you want to get an awesome feel for it. I attempted every problem in every chapter I worked, and this made me a beast of elementary abstract algebra, thank you very much.) If a step in a proof is omitted, it’s in the problem set, don’t worry.

How to reconcile all this wonderfulness of textbooks, with the reasons (to which I continue to be sympathetic, to the point of nearly beholden) why both Justin and I abandoned them in the classroom? I have a few thoughts, but I’m interested in yours too.

My thought experiment: after all the above thoughts, suppose I’m about to teach an Algebra I class again, starting tomorrow. How do I think about the book question?

If I use a book, it’s paramount to avoid letting it become a source of authoritative information to be absorbed unquestioningly. The students must understand the methods and results of the class as logically justified. The fundamental dilemma is this: the most powerful and most intellectually satisfying way I know to get students to understand this is to get them, by posing provocative and compelling questions, to generate the results and methods of the class, by actively behaving like mathematical researchers. They have to be cutting a path through the jungle, not walking a pre-cut path. The textbook, precisely because it’s already been written when the class begins, has already cut a path. This is the problem. (You might be thinking that the solution is a “constructivist textbook,” by which you really mean a constructivist curriculum, like IMP or CMP, that just puts up a few signposts but leaves the vines for the kids. This is not the solution because except for well-thought-out sequences of problems, these books lack all the advantages of an actual textbook, such as that deliberateness and thoroughness I was talking about above.)

So, answer #1 to the thought experiment: This thought involves my Algebra I class meeting every day for 5 years but is otherwise excellent. For starters, we use a textbook; a good textbook.

Digression – what is a good textbook?

By “good” I mean a book with (a) motivation for everything, (b) clear explanation of everything, (c) justification for everything, (d) coherence and logical flow, and (e) lots and lots of good exercises (i.e. practice of the key skills) and problems (i.e. questions that make you think hard about the content in order to answer). Do I even know of an Algebra I textbook like that? My Algebra I books are in storage so I can’t check, but my memory is that UCSMP is decent on (a) and (b), middling on (c), and poor on (d) and (e), Dolciani is strong on (e) and maybe (d) but weak on (c) and very weak on (a), and Prentice Hall is weak on all 5 counts. These are the ones I know. Do you know of an Algebra I book that does what I want?

On the topic: why have I found it so much harder to find high school textbooks meeting these criteria than more advanced books? The books I mentioned Justin getting me into – David Bressoud’s and Tristan Needham’s books on real and complex analysis – do a solid job on all 5 counts. Artin’s Algebra makes an inconsistent but respectable effort with (a) and is reasonably strong on everything else, including excellent on (e). I think George McCarty’s Topology also pretty much hits it on all 5 counts. Why can’t secondary-level publishers get it together? Overwhelming and varied state standards are part of the explanation but not the whole explanation.

/End digression

Anyway, my idea is basically, take a good textbook, and then take every idea in an Algebra I class, and
1) Ask provocative questions leading students to recognize the need for the idea.
2) Inflect the questions carefully to create as fertile a ground as possible for students to generate the new idea. Keep at it till they do.
3) Pose problems that can be solved with the new idea, giving students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with it through practice.
4) Once all this is done, and only then, have students read the textbook’s presentation of the idea and the questions it answers. Ask them to discuss how the textbook’s development is related to and different from their own.
5) Have students work copious exercises and problems from the textbook.
6) Repeat.

Like I said. 5 years. And some danger of steps (4) and (5) feeling like beating a dead horse. But otherwise excellent, right?

Answer #2 to the thought experiment: (Still requires a good textbook in the sense above. Where they at? Also, may still require 2 years.) Alternate. Start the year making students do active mathematical research to develop the content. (I.e. something like steps (1)-(3) above.) Once they know what it is, develop the next important topic by having students study the textbook’s exposition of it. Have them read the book in class together, make sense of it with each other; have them do lots of exercises and problems from it. Afterward, have them compare the experiences (on-our-own vs. from the book) out loud. Next unit, back to the original-research approach. Next, back to the book. Maybe for the next unit after that, have the class pick which approach they’ll use. This is an awesome segue into the next topic of my conversation with Justin, but that’ll have to wait…


6 thoughts on “Reflections, Part I: Textbooks

  1. Very timely and useful post for me – thank you! Some additional possibilities:

    1. One friend treated his calculus course as a reading course – they took a challenging expository book (Hughes-Hallett et al.) and read and worked through it as a group. Since the students had little experience reading math, the book was the jungle they had to work together to cut through.

    2. At North Carolina School of Science and Math, they used to write a textbook. That could be a cool step 5.5 on your list – after comparing the book’s presentation to your understanding and doing a bunch of problems, how would you rewrite the book and the problems?

  2. I use Dolciani. I don’t think it is weak on justification, but it’s very weak on motivation. And it often misses opportunities to link into other areas of mathematics (or other subjects). And of course the problem solving approach that I like to pop up now and then never comes from the text.

    But I make it my job to add the motivation, the connections, and to add the problem solving approach (both on and off topic).

    The teacher and the text complement each other. I think that’s ok.


    1. You’re way more intimate with Dolciani than I am so I’ll take your word about justification, which is encouraging.

      Definitely – we can do the job the book isn’t doing. This works out.

      It’s just that over the last 3 years I’ve been learning math myself from these books (in abstract algebra, analysis, etc.) that seem to come close to doing it all – motivation, clear exposition, justification, coherence and great problems – and I can’t believe it’s that hard to do the same for Algebra I or Algebra II, yet I can’t think of a book that does.

  3. When I took point set topology, my prof taught from Schaum’s Outlines, with I supplemented with about half a dozen topology texts from the university library–some for the author, some for the diagrams, some for the font. 🙂

    Great prof, great lectures, great course; and I never again made use of an assigned textbook merely because it was assigned.
    . Halmos was nice

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