Teacher Consideration of Printed and Digital Textbook use in Mathematics and Science Classrooms

Watching high school mathematics and science classes can sometimes look like an episode of Bondi Rescue. For some students, life’s a beach, 50 minutes of math is gnarly dude, they’re hanging ten over the edge of their math text and feeling like iron men and women. Others look like they’re about to go under and its their textbook that hits them as they get dumped by yet another wave of maths or science. After a while, it is these struggling swimmers who take a seat way back on the dunes and use their maths texts to block the sun while they take a nap. They’ve been dumped so many times they’re no longer willing to get in the water. The sea of maths of science has been transformed from a thing of beauty and wonder to a feared dangerous hazard. Why? Because teachers, the true lifesavers of science and maths, put a textbook in the control tower.

There can be no debating the fact that textbooks are part of most classrooms. In a study of 87 randomly selected Australian schools, 90% were using textbooks and worksheets in their lessons (Hiebert, et al. 2003). This statistic is not uniquely Australian, Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and the United States were also found to have similar textbook prevalence. What’s the issue?

Its not the fact that teacher’s use textbooks that draws criticism but rather that they use them as life rafts that makes their student’s groan at the thought of their lesson. Research has shown that some mathematics teachers use textbooks as lesson plans (Lubinsky & Jaberg, 1997). With content derived solely from text suggestions, these teachers have at best relinquished control of student engagement to the textbook authors. When teachers do this, they put the educational authors in a control tower so far away from the beach, that despite the author’s best intentions they’re unable to see struggling students and can do nothing to save them.

What’s worse is that the Australian educational authors are themselves in need of saving. A recent report from the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) found that the tide has been going out for Australia’s educational authors since the year 2000. Y2K brought a pull towards digital information that threatens the traditional printed textbook model. Declining sales coupled with publishers’ inability to gain significant revenue from digital products has meant consolidation of the market. A few, largely foreign owned companies now have almost complete market dominance. ASA says that Australia’s publishing industry is “dire not only for the authors, but also for the education of Australia’s youth” (Fisher, 2008).

Authors and teachers are forced to accept that the digital text tide is rising. If they rely solely on printed textbooks they may soon find themselves out of date. The Queensland College of Teachers recognises the growing importance of Information Communication Technology in their first Professional Standard, where teachers are encouraged to “make ICT integral to learning”. So important is ICT that it is mentioned in all bar one of the standards. The Australian and New Zealand federal, state and territory governments are also supporting digital learning, the [email protected] federation being just one example initiatives that is now in its sixth year of operation.

In response to this demand, schools have increased spending in ICT over the past decade (Freebody, 2007). But digital texts and resources bring with them many of the same old problems as printed texts. Teacher’s say, “the [electronic] do not somehow of themselves constitute meaningful learning activities… [they only] have value when they are embedded in teacher constructed teaching and learning sequences” (Freebody, 2007). While some resources (whether digital or printed) are “better” than others very few students are going to respond well to math lessons that typically involve going to page X, completing a, b and c, and then checking their answers. This style of lesson must be based on the belief that getting answers correct will be motivation enough. This belief is very unlikely to hold true as, along with the new generation of textbooks comes the next generation of students, generations Y and Z.

Today’s students are surfing an electronic wave. They’ve grown up in an era of entertainment. Their world has always had VCRs, laptops and video grames. Every home has at least one, if not several colour TVs. They’re “stimulus junkies” (Sheahan, 2005). In fact they’ve had to wade through so much junk that they’re only interested in knowing what is relevant to them at any given moment. This trait is unsurprising given the depth and breadth of the ocean of information that is available at their fingertips. Generations Y and Z want electronic resources, and not only that, they expect more from them then they ever did from printed texts. They want digital resources that are interactive, challenging and game-like. They want to be allowed to make their own decisions, have different starting points, with multiple pathways and options. They don’t want long winded resources. They want clear concise information that doesn’t require them to read or write long passages to understand (Freebody, 2007). All these factors together make the teacher’s task of engaging students daunting.

Government policy seems to assume that simply supplying a school with hardware and software should be sufficient help for teachers to use technology innovatively in their classrooms and improve outcomes for their students. However, growing research indicates this is not the case (Cuban, Kirkpatric & Peck, 2001 ; Ruthven & Hennessy, 2002 and Goos & Bennison, 2007). A recent survey of Queensland teachers identified three major factors: access, time and technology integration (Goos & Bennison, 2004). Access was indicated by 12% of respondents, however almost double that number identified time as the limiting factor. These teachers said they needed time to “develop resources, plan lessons and curriculum units, and explore and evaluate the technology, preferably in collaboration with colleagues”. But the number one factor that teacher’s highlighted, with 33% of respondents commenting, was the need for help in how to “plan activities that combine technology with mathematical concepts in order to meaningfully incorporate technology into lessons”.

While a lot of literature focuses on obvious uses of ICT in maths and science classrooms, like computers, interactive whiteboards and graphic calculators, there are some novel ideas now making their way into the literature. These innovative ideas arise from change the focus from learning from ICT to learning with ICT (McGrath, 2004). One such paper suggests getting students to revise their mathematical knowledge through digital filmmaking. This approach when compared to traditional revision strategies using worksheets or textbooks was found to be “as effective, if not better” (Hilton, 2007). However, as with textbooks, it is not the resource itself but how the teacher effectively incorporates the technology that will lead to improved student outcome and motivation.

Getting students to make maths and science films can also offer another avenue for students to develop life long learning skills as described by the Queensland Studies Authority. Specifically, skills are developed in the areas of Responsive Creator where students “use a range of representations to communicate understanding”. Also the characterists of an Effective Communicator are promoted, where they are required “to use concise language, both verbal and symbolic to convey logically and clearly their knowlege and understanding”. And finally in the Participant in an Independent World category, “learners cooperate, collaborate and negotiate in groups to plan, thick and reason to resolve problems (Hilton, 2007). It is in this regard that the recent changes to enducational standards and future directions hold so much potential.

While tradition textbooks aren’t likely to disappear from maths and science classrooms, they are likely to take on less important roles in the future as the maths and science waves turn digital. The QCT, QSA and government policy makers all support the increased use of ICT in classrooms, however the resources they are providing do not give teachers all they need to bring ICT into their classrooms. Schools have responded by increasing expenditure in ICT, but teachers need to be allowed time and given strategies to incorporate the technology into meaningful learning. Students are expecting great things from their teachers. They need lifesavers to help them with their iron men and women training. Textbooks and electronic resources should be merely the aids their lifesavers use.


Cuban, L., Kirkpatrick, H., & Peck, C. (2001). High access and low use of technologies in high school classrooms: Explaing the apparent paradox. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (4), 831-834.

Fisher, J. (2008). Educational Publishing in Australia: What’s in it for the Authors? Australian Society of Authors, Sydney 2008.

Freebody, P. (2007). AARE Annual Conference, Research Impacts: Proving and Improving? Students perceptions of characterists of
“good” and “poor” digital learning objects.

Goos, M. & Cretchley, P. (2004). Teaching and learning mathematics with computers, the internet, and multimedia. In B. Perry, G. Anthony & C. Diezmann (Eds.), Research in mathematics education in Australasia 2000-2003 (pp.151-174). Flaxton, QLD: Post pressed.

Goos, M. & Bennison, A. (2007). Teaching learning in professional communities: The case of technology -nriched pedagogy in secondary mathematics education. Annual conference of the Australian Assocation of Research Education, Fremantle, Novermber 2007.

Hiebert, J. (2003). Teaching mathematics in seven countries: Results from the TIMSS1999 video study. Washington, DC: National Centre for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Hilton, G. (2007). Students representing mathematical knowledge through digital filmaking. Mathematics: Essential Research, Essential Practice, 1, 382-391.

Lubinski, C. & Jaberg, P. (1997). Teacher change and mathematics K-4: Developing a theorectical perspective. In E. Fennema & B. Nelson Scott (Eds), Mathematics Teachers in Transition (pp.223-254). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.

McGrath, D. (2004). Strengthening collaborative work: Go beyond the obvious with tools for technology enhaced collaboration. Learning & leading with technology, 31 (5), 30-34.

Ruthven, K. & Hennessy, S. (2002). A practitioner model of the use of computer-based tools and resources to support mathematics teaching and learning. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 49, 47-88.

Sheahan, P. (2005). Generation Y: Thriving and surviving with generation Y at work (pp.2-15). Victoria, Australia: Griffin Press.