Monday, April 21, 2014

Burden of Proof: A Textbook Example

My district, like many I imagine, is in the process of making the transition from our existing math curriculum to one aligned with the updated Colorado Math Standards (pdf), which in turn are aligned with the Common Core State Standards - Mathematics. This post is not going to be about the Common Core State Standards themselves (you can thank me now), but about the "Materials Selection Process."

Traditionally in my district (as in many), when new curriculum is adopted a committee is formed to select new materials to support that curriculum. (Although, interestingly, I recently found out that in my district there is no dedicated budget for that, they just "find" the money each time they need to do this.) Once the committee researches, previews, and reviews the various materials available, they make a recommendation to the Board of Education. After a period of time for public comment, the Board then decides whether to adopt the materials.

In many areas, particularly Math, this has traditionally been a textbook-selection process. I was not part of this committee, but the process this year was a little different for a couple of reasons. First, because the Common Core State Standards are still fairly new (at least in terms of textbook publishing cycles), there are not a lot of good choices out there. Second, we are clearly in a transition period between the traditional print-based textbook and online "techbooks".

The committee ended up deciding on Agile Mind. (Well, sort of. Apparently some folks on the committee weren't entirely thrilled with the choice, and others felt like they really didn't have much choice so didn't say anything. But, in any case, that's the recommendation that's going forward.) The math teachers at my school were then asked to review the materials briefly before a webinar from the company and to share our thoughts and concerns. Here are some of my thoughts.

To summarize those thoughts, my feeling is that this isn't a good choice. While I like some of what Agile Mind is doing (I've used some ideas from the Dana Center in my Algebra class), overall I wasn't really impressed with their online techbook (with the caveat that I haven't spent enough time with it to do a fair and thorough review). It just doesn't seem to leverage much of the affordances of digital over print (see the thoughts for more on that).

I found it both interesting and convenient that for the webinar Agile Mind chose "Topic 18: Modeling with Quadratic Functions" to demo their product. I had recently taught an abbreviated version of this topic (abbreviated because we are transitioning to the new curriculum this year, so we have some of the old and some of the new), so I could compare what they clearly felt was their "good stuff" with what I had just come up with on my own.

Conveniently (again), Agile Mind starts their unit with a modeling activity built around shooting a basketball. They have an animation of two players shooting a basketball, one overhand and one underhand. You really have to see the animation to get the, umm, full effect, but I'll share a screen shot here that should give you an idea.

Source: Agile Mind, Algebra 1 CCSS Edition, Topic 18, Student Activity Sheet 1
It turns out that I used a similar activity borrowed from the MTBoS (MathTwitterBlogosphere). Which version do you think makes better use of digital resources? Which version do you think is better pedagogically? I think the MTBoS version is much better, but that's certainly debatable. What's not debatable, however, is that I can modify, alter, adjust, customize, and add to the MTBoS version as I see fit, where it's difficult to do that with the Agile Mind version (their techbook is behind a login, student activity sheet is a PDF, you can't customize their techbook).

I could go on about things I don't particularly like about Agile Mind (as well as things I like - for example, it has a cohesiveness and flow that a "put-together" set of lesson plans like mine may lack), but the point of this post is not really to criticize Agile Mind. The point (I knew I would get to it eventually) is that the "materials selection process" we (and I imagine many districts) have in place is fundamentally flawed. The default assumption is that if we are revising the curriculum, then we need to purchase new materials, and those materials are going to be in the form of a textbook (either print-based or digital, but still essentially a textbook).

I think that is wrong. I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the context of what it's like to be a learner today. It completely misses the advantages and affordances of digital over print (or at least open digital over pre-digested, closed digital resources). I think that for all "materials selections" from here on out, the default should be to not purchase a new textbook. That doesn't mean a new textbook can't be purchased if it's decided that's the best option, but it means the burden of proof should be on those that want to purchase a new textbook to justify why we should. To use the trendy term, what's the "value add" of these materials?

We haven't been told how much this adoption is going to cost, as I don't think they've negotiated that yet, although the figure of $500,000 has been thrown around (not sure if that's an initial cost, or a 7-year cost, or what). I'm going to assume that this will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $5 million. Whatever the final figure, I think that's an egregious waste of money.

Here's what I propose instead. Don’t adopt anything at this point. Perhaps some outstanding materials will come along in the future that will be worth adopting but, at the moment, these are not outstanding materials. Instead, let's use a small part of the money that would’ve gone to this textbook adoption and invest in our teachers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a group of Algebra teachers together for two weeks over the summer and come up with the types of activities we want to do with our students? (Maybe $15,000 or so, depending on the number of teacher and number of days - we currently pay $150/day stipends for teachers doing curricular work.) That would give at least one full day to work on each unit in CCSS-M - wouldn’t that be a better use of our time and money? Wouldn't that end up developing materials that were at least as good as - and perhaps better - than the materials we could purchase for substantially more money? And, more importantly, wouldn't investing that money in teachers developing the activities be much, much, much (did I mention much?) more likely to impact teachers' practice?

Adopting Agile Mind (or anything else I've seen out there) isn't likely to change what happens in the classroom with kids. (Or, if it does, it will change it in a negative fashion by providing a script-like experience for students.) But give teachers time, guidance and resources (including tapping into the MTBoS), and I think you will not only develop an outstanding resource that will get implemented in the classroom, but will also influence teachers' practice, and therefore student learning.

If the burden of proof is indeed on those wishing to adopt/purchase new materials, I would suggest that they haven't fulfilled that burden in this case. And I would suggest that districts and School Boards everywhere reevaluate the processes they have in place for curriculum adoption and materials selection. If you can't justify how and why a new curriculum or set of materials is going to help your students become better learners, then you can't justify the purchase price. Instead, consider investing in your people, and their ideas. That's truly a better way to develop agile minds.


  1. Agree with you wholeheartedly Karl. Hire a facilitator and let staff create this new resource or host s group of great math teachers for a week and pay them to do the work. Imagine how you could spend so much less and get so much more!

    Get the board or whoever decides this to put it off for a year and give you a budget of $50,000 instead of $500,000. What's the worst thing that could happen? It's a no-brainer!

    1. Unfortunately, what seems to be a "no-brainer" to you and me is anything but to other folks . . .

  2. I really enjoyed your post, Karl. Although I rarely comment on blog posts, I couldn't resist here! As a supervisor in my district, I put into action exactly what you are proposing. Rather than adopt a program or a textbook for our 3rd grade social studies curriculum, we adopted...NOTHING! Instead, I used this as an opportunity to introduce problem-based learning to my 3rd grade teachers. We gathered a bunch of resources (digital, print, whatever), wrote the curriculum over the summer, and then spent this past year learning from a facilitator who helped teachers design hands-on lessons tied to a problem-based task. Where did the money come from? It was what would have been spent on a textbook adoption...Teachers were unsure about this decision at first, and the process was a bit shaky in the beginning simply because it was new. At this point, teachers feel empowered and students are loving their personalized curriculum. I hope that you can put this idea into action in your district. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. That sounds very much like the process I would like to put in place here. Kudos to you. I toyed with the idea of using the phrase "instead of adopting materials, we should birth materials", but as an adoptive parent myself, I was worried that some folks might take that the wrong way. As we know from learning theory, humans construct their knowledge and are active meaning-makers, so it boggles my mind that we choose to adopt canned materials instead of actively constructing them ourselves.

  3. Our unit district is in year three of math curriculum writing and the textbook adoption topic has not even been broached at the middle school and high school level. At our most recent meeting we were asked if we needed manipulatives or other resources. Our response was, "No. We need more professional development." It is waay to early to consider textbooks.
    Until the publishers come up with a Wow! factor there's no reason to part with a penny.

    With respect to teacher created materials, a few months ago I stumbled upon a middle school in Charleston, IL whose teachers have created their own pre-algebra textbook. I love how they have taken control of their own destiny.

    1. Thanks for the link Mary. We've actually started down that path ourselves, albeit very tentatively. We used ck12's materials to start this - Still very much in draft.

  4. Hi,
    My name is Alyx Kellam and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to comment on yout blog once again. I agree with your post. The curricula chosen to change to aren't always best for the students. As a future teacher, it seems to me that the people who know what is best for students is former teachers; those who have been around the students and know how they learn best.

    Alyx Kellam