You are here

Textbooks, Testing, Training: How We Discourage Thinking

Stephen S. Willoughby
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Electronic Book
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Tom Sinclair
, on

This short book recounts many specific true stories from my fifty-nine years of teaching that I believe cast some light on what is wrong with American education and perhaps some clues as to what might improve it. (p. 1)

This is an incisive yet readable critique of the American education system. Willoughby writes from the perspective of six decades of experience. He knows that the best way to persuade someone is to tell them a story. The author illustrates his points with anecdotes from his own experience and those of his colleagues.

Two things surprised me about this book. First, Willoughby's writing captures the teaching experience to perfection. I often found myself nodding with familiarity as I read. The second surprise is the humor. Willoughby writes with a dry, ironic sensibility that remains warm and inviting. Even when describing his frustrations he never descends into cynicism.

Willoughby breaks down the problem with our education system into three broad categories. Doing education right is a complex problem with a complex solution. He presents ways that we teachers can be part of that solution.


As I have become more familiar with textbook selection I have often referred to it as a majority vote of the uninformed (who wish never to change what they are doing). (p. 9)

Writing a textbook is difficult work. Students have different learning styles. Teachers have different pedagogical styles. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Add in the middlemen of publishers and textbook selection committees and the problem gets even worse. Willoughby shares his experiences working with these communities and makes suggestions for improvement.


Perhaps the most glaring proof that American schools are not doing a sufficiently good job of educating students is the number of prominent people who seem unable to distinguish between cause and effect in education. A high score on a particular multiple-choice test does not imply the individual has a good education or is particularly smart. (p. 26)

The author thinks this part is so important that he includes a section titled “The Real Failure of American Education”.


Good teachers are some of the most hardworking, underpaid, and undervalued members of our society. Is it any wonder we have such a hard time attracting and keeping the best and brightest to the teaching profession? (p. 33)

This is probably the most important section of the book. Willoughby tackles teacher competence, tenure, evaluation and looking to international examples to find best practices.


Teaching is a craft. Like any craft, we improve through sharing good practices with our fellow teachers. This book is the equal of an in-service tutorial on student and classroom management. Willoughby tells us what doesn't work and shares his experiences with what does work. There are no easy solutions but this book is a solid reminder of why we became teachers in the first place. While at 55 pages, it is too short for a formal course, it would be an ideal foundation for an in-service training. In any event, every aspiring teacher should get a copy of this before they start their first class.

Tom Sinclair has a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science from Loyola University of Chicago and has over twenty years’ experience in the technology industry and higher education. He is the author of a Linux networking textbook and is currently a freelance writer and I.T. consultant. He also teaches undergraduate math and blogs about math education at

The table of contents is not available.