The Trouble with Textbooks

By Budiansky, Stephen | ASEE Prism, February 2001 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Textbooks


Budiansky, Stephen, ASEE Prism


The science books used in the classroom today provide a lot of facts, but they don't help children grasp the most basic concepts about the world we live in.

After yet another dismal showing by American students on standardized math and science tests-in the most recent cross-national comparison, American eighth graders did worse than students in Russia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Canada, and 17 other countries-- humor columnist Dave Barry shot back that while it was true that American schoolchildren may not have the highest test scores in the world, they do have the biggest backpacks.

Barry was of course intending a bit of humorous incongruity, but he actually appears to be on to something. Those huge textbooks that our children lug back and forth each day are literally the largest and heaviest of any used in the more than 40 countries whose students were tested. Driven by intentions ranging from earnest and honorable to cynical and commercial, American science textbooks have become larger and flashier, chock full of colorful photographs, diagrams, "activities," "minilabs," sidebars about minorities in science, science in history and literature and art, and current issues such as the use of hormones in dairy cattle.

The only thing the books utterly fail to do, according to scientific and educational experts who have examined them closely, is teach science. A recent study of middle-school science textbooks by Project 2061-a science and mathematics curriculum reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science-found that not a single one of the books met even the minimum requirements for effectively teaching science. "Our students are lugging home heavy texts full of disconnected facts that neither educate nor motivate them," says George Nelson, a former astronaut who directs Project 2061.

Textbooks have always been an easy target for those out to lambaste the state of public education, and of course many factors are at work in the poor showing of U.S. students in science and math--not least poor teacher preparation. In a study conducted by the National Science Teachers Association, 23 percent of middle school teachers reported they have taught subjects for which they had no prior course work. But Nelson emphasizes that precisely because so many teachers are shaky in their own math and science skills, they rely disproportionately on the texts. And textbooks ought to be the easiest things to fix: "Textbooks are incredibly important. Textbooks are the de facto curriculum in this country," Nelson says.

Back in the immediate post-Sputnik days the major criticism of science texts was that they were out of date and lacking in rigor. In more recent years science texts have become a battleground for special interests, including minority groups, environmentalists, and creationists. Other critics have received much attention lately by compiling lists of factual errors spotted in texts (e.g., the Statue of Liberty is sheathed in copper, not bronze as one textbook states).

Yet these sorts of fights and criticisms, say many experts, distract from the real and much deeper problems with the books. The problem is not that American schoolchildren can't define a kilowatt hour or give the valence number of oxygen; the problem is that they have not grasped the most basic concepts about the world we live in. Tests and studies have shown that students don't understand what matter is, let alone how atoms and molecules explain the properties of matter. They don't understand that air is a substance, or that light travels from one place to another, or what a force is, or what the difference between heat and temperature is; they do not know that plants manufacture their own food from air and water or how traits are inherited and change; they do not know that the earth's physical features are formed by slow processes acting over very long times, or what causes earthquakes.

This problem is vividly demonstrated in a video produced by researchers at the HarvardSmithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who sought to understand better how children learn scientific concepts. …

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