The Textbooks We Use: Exposure vs. Mastery

by Deana Swanson


There are many different publishers and textbooks available to schools, but all curricula are not created equal. Some are superior, some are mediocre, and some can cause major problems in the classroom. We should be wise and well-educated on what these different publishers are offering so that we (or whoever is choosing the curricula) can make good decisions for our students. Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic of choosing curricula.

  1. Those who are choosing the curricula for schools should be extremely knowledgeable about it, and if they aren’t, they should check with trusted others who are.
  2. The best curricula have content that is not too simple or too complex for most of the students in any given class to understand.
  3. The best curricula are well-paced and don’t move too fast or too slowly.
  4. The best curricula do not have tedious, repetitive tasks that cause students to tune-out because of the length of the exercises.
  5. The best curricula have good visual presentations–not necessarily colors–but the font is large enough and there is enough space between lines in the homework section (not the text itself) so that there is no visual overload which can lead to confusion.

When I think of curriculum and understanding content, my Algebra I teacher always comes to mind. She was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was very intelligent and easily understood the material, but she was wise enough to know that it wasn’t that easy for us, because we were learning new concepts.

She would slowly present the new material at a rate where our brains could have a few seconds to think of which step would come next, rather than having her show us or tell us all the time. She paused and gave us time to think. She would also present enough examples that by the time she finished the sixth or seventh one, we completely understood the concept and were itching to do some on our own. I loved English–not math–but she presented it in such a way that I began to love algebra. Our books had exercises that focused on the one skill that we had learned that day. It was a perfect combination–a good book and a good teacher for Algebra I and II.

I don’t remember the name of the books we used, but they were extremely well-paced. We only learned one new concept a day, and we had the time to master that concept before we applied it in a different way, such as dividing when we had been multiplying.

I’ve seen some curricula that in one day taught a new concept, gave only one or two examples, and then quickly showed how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide using the same advanced concept. Besides not giving enough examples for students to completely understand and master the concept, throwing in the other ways to apply the concept just confuses students and leads to one of the major problems with some curricula today: exposure vs. mastery.

Many educators or school boards seem to be impressed with curricula that do this very thing. They expose students to many different concepts, usually rather quickly, without giving students the time to master them. Students feel frustrated and confused, but the teachers/school boards/whoever chooses the curricula think that the curricula is superior because it moves quickly, has lots of advanced concepts in it, and exposes the students to many more concepts earlier in their school careers.

The problem is that usually a majority of the students aren’t truly understanding the material and certainly aren’t able to master the concepts. They are usually just confused, struggle through it for a day or two using their short term memories, but cannot accomplish the skills on the test as week or two later.

I have found that it is much better to have students move a bit more slowly but to completely understand and have mastery of basic concepts. This process lays the foundation for students to then effectively learn new advanced concepts and to be able to easily master those, because they have completely understood the preceding concepts and have mastered the skills they will need.

Most curricula end up at the same place by the high school years. I feel it is detrimental to students to have complex concepts presented to them too early, when having a slower-paced, solid foundation will much better prepare them for these same concepts in later years.

I also feel that in a school situation, what is best for the majority of the students is what we should be striving to use. Why should a majority of the students suffer and be confused because we are using an “advanced” curriculum to benefit the top 10-20% of the students? That’s not fair.

I also have seen some curricula that move too slowly and are way too predictable and simple for students to use. Students need materials that are challenging but attainable.

Every teacher has his or her own favorite curricula, but there are a few danger signs in choosing these that I’ve noticed over the years.

  1. Teachers like to use curricula that they used when they were in school because it is familiar to them.
  2. Teachers like to use the curricula that they have already taught because it is much easier to teach it again the second or third year.
  3. Teachers say that it’s hard on the students to change curricula.

I would disagree with all of these reasons, because the most important thing should be that the students can understand the material well. If we are using books that confuse the students (look at their grades to see if they are confused) just because we as teachers have already used them and it’s easier for us to use, then that’s just being selfish on our part. We should do what is best for the students.

I have found that it is not hard for students to change curricula. I’ve done it with them numerous times. There may perhaps be a different term here and there, but I’ve never seen a normal student struggle just because he is using a new curriculum. I think this is often referred to or used as an excuse because certain students struggle with academics in general, and thus it is easy to blame the curriculum, when the real issue is that the student generally struggles in school.

My next blog post will address the issue that good teachers can make any curriculum work.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

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