08 May 2005

Science in (Con)Text

I received a link to this article earlier in the week. It points out some of the very unscientific things that can be found in current science textbooks. Some of the information is rather frightening:
  • A chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.
  • Al Roker, the affable black NBC weatherman, is hailed as a great scientist in one book in the Discovery Works series. It is common to find Marie Curie given a picture and half a page of text, but her husband, Pierre, who shared a Nobel Prize with her, relegated to the role of supportive spouse.
  • Jews have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes in science, but readers of Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade textbooks won't get wind of that. Navajo physicist Fred Begay, however, merits half a page for his study of Navajo medicine. Albert Einstein isn't mentioned. Biologist Clifton Poodry has made no noteworthy scientific discoveries, but he was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian reservation, so his picture is shown in Glenco/McGraw-Hill's Life Science (2002), a middle-school biology textbook. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, and Nobel Laureates James Watson, Maurice H.F. Wilkins, and Francis Crick aren't named.

Now, I'm not frightened by the idea of diversity in textbooks. I believe that it's way past time that we included more than just dead white guys in the pantheon of science. I want my students of colour, students from various religious backgrounds, and students with disabilities to know that those attributes do not limit their choices in life. The role of being a scientist is not relegated to those with pale skin, tonsorial challenges, and a penis. However, those who might fit that description and who made significant contributions shouldn't be ignored in the name of multiculturalism. How does that help a student become scientifically literate? It seems to me that there are plenty of women/minorities who might be better suited for fabulous examples in textbooks instead of Al Roker.

As if the previous information weren't depressing enough, consider the following:

A study commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 2001 found 500 pages of scientific error in 12 middle-school textbooks used by 85 percent of the students in the country. One misstates Newton's first law of motion. Another says humans can't hear elephants. Another confuses "gravity" with "gravitational acceleration." Another shows the equator running through the United States.

In my district, we have several issues like this with textbooks. The current Earth Science tome shows the Earth orbiting the sun in the opposite direction. (I know, just tell the kids to turn their books upside down.) Our biology book is pathetic---we've been keeping a running list of all its failings. We will be looking at adopting new materials for Life Science, Earth Science, and Physical Science next year. I'm not too hopeful that we will find much better than we have now, especially if this report by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science is correct.

What's a Science Goddess to do? Well, I'm not quite ready to write a textbook. And, more and more teachers are moving away from a text based science course, which will also help. I suppose that as teachers in my district look at materials next year, we will just have to be as judicious as possible in choosing materials that are factual. We can't count on the publishers to have done their homework on that front. We will also need to be on the lookout for a program that represents diversity not for the sake of trying to include people of colour and faith---but people of colour and faith who should be recognized for their scientific work (not their work on a morning show). And, finally, we will need to find a program that is more inquiry based, so that students can learn on their own what constitutes "good science." If anyone has some good suggestions, please send them my way.


Dan S. said...

I have no problem believing in bad textbooks, but I wonder what I would see if I compared the Weekly Standard article with the actual textbooks. Nothing good, I'm sure, but possibly not good in different ways ...

"Humans can't hear elephants"?
Well, humans can't hear some (rather low frequency) sounds that elephants make . ..
Perhaps there was some poorly worded reference to this?

The description of the Discovery Works 5th grade textbook only has it talking about the names of months, not (based on what the article says) claiming that crows affect climate,which the article implies ...

Rob said...

I have a friend who writes textbooks (english lit, however, not science). Well, she writes for a company that submits content for textbooks, or something like that. When I told her about this, she wasn't the least bit surprised. The process is very weak. As I understand it, it goes like this:

* publisher hires content company
* content company hires freelancers
* freelancer is assigned a section to write (and given state standards for what needs to be covered)
* freelancer researches and writes their section, without interaction of any kind with any others involved in the process
* freelancer submits work
* work is fact-checked by editor (there may be a couple iterations here, where changes are requested and made)
* work is compiled by editors into textbook
* finished book is returned to publisher

Since the writers have little contact with each other and there aren't any real experts at the content company, mistakes get made. Once made, they're harder than they should be to catch. It's even worse than the above seems, too. For example, she is often hired to write a section of the teacher's guide to a textbook she didn't have anything to do with writing. She then has to guess at the real intent of the original author.

Even worse are the negotiations that go on between publisher and state textbook committees. The textbook committees are often ideologically driven, rather than factual, and this leads to all sorts of problems.

You're probably right to try to move "away from a text based science course".

Anonymous said...

Might be time for teachers to start assembling a wiki for their curricula.

Anonymous said...

I didnt read any of this thng but any way. I think this discoveryworks crap is dumb its not helpig me at all!!!!!! Its just putting a lot of stress on me to find all the right answers and the text book doesnt help even little bit so ummm yeah it sux u should really stop the whole Houghton Mifflin thing thankz!!!!!