Thursday, March 01, 2007

Science Texts: The Good, the Bad, and the False

A reader asks:

Need suggestions on physical science texts suitable to a 11-year-old with no science background. Have you ever seen this?
The linked article is well worth reading. A review by the American Association of Physics Teachers of the twelve most popular middle-school physics textbooks found not one to be acceptable.

The committee was particularly concerned with scientific accuracy, and with good reason. Mass and weight were often confused. The speed of light was first timed in 1926, according to one text. Isaac Newton's first law was often incorrectly stated, and although the third law was correctly stated, the examples illustrating it were wrong. Yellow, magenta, and cyan are not the primary pigment colors, as one book had it. The Van de Graaff generator does not store charge in its base. Lamps don't supply voltage and those things in the wall are sockets, not plugs. Absolute zero was defined as the temperature at which molecules are so cold they don't move. One text explained that fusion, unlike fission, does not happen spontaneously. We found that the acceleration due to gravitation on the Moon is one-sixth that on Earth because the Moon's mass is one-sixth that of Earth's.
The textbooks also suffered from the graphics-heavy layout and subsequently fractured text that has been one of my pet peeves since we decided to homeschool.
When I pick up something that claims to be a "textbook," I expect a book of text. Yet, in our study, we found mostly pictures, sidebars, and capsules that interrupted what little text there was. Apparently, text is seen as much too slow a medium for disseminating information. Capsules and sidebars present the story in small units, but at the cost of ruining the natural flow of the narrative. How can middle-school students, ages 11-14, concentrate with such a barrage of information? Borrow a middle-school science text and randomly open it up. It'll be obvious what I am getting at.
For that matter, you might as well open up a history or French or math textbook and see the same thing. Read the rest of the article. I've seen similarly depressing studies of biology and chemistry textbooks, at both middle and high school levels; it's not just physics. I actually tried teaching with a standard high school chemistry text for a while, and found it so impossible that we switched to an intro college chemistry-for-liberal-arts-majors textbook and found it much easier to understand and use.

Then, when you're thinking that surely by now private schools and homeschoolers have spent the last few precious decades of independence coming up with a better alternative, you may view the homeschooling science text wars. The University of California, having apparently had someone finally take a look at the Bob Jones and A Beka science curricula--which between the two of them pretty much make up the entirety of the homeschooling science textbooks available--are refusing to certify science courses based on these curricula for entrance to UC schools. It doesn't take a long, hard look at the texts to figure out why:
The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second....The position expressed by Dr. Bob Jones Sr. when he said, “Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,” is the only one a Christian can take. Some of the conclusions a Christian must reach differ from those expressed by secular sources. (Biology, Grade 10, p. xi)
The upshot is that biology, astronomy, and geology are all corrupted by the need to fit science into a six-day creationist ideology. To manage this, the "scientific method" is consistently presented as boiling down to "if it can't be observed, your ideas are just guesses, and better a guess based on the Word of God than on anything else." Mainstream scientists are described as "evolutionists" at all points, whatever their field; generally accepted science that differs from fundamentalist creationism is described in misleading terms, the evidence for it misrepresented, and then the straw man knocked down by "creationary scientists." An example:
According to the evolutionary theory of star formation, stars develop from immense clouds of molecular hydrogen that collapse under the influence of gravity to form what astronomers call a proto-star, a huge, dark ball of gas similar to the planet Jupiter. Eventually, enough mass is accumulated by the proto-star that the crushing gravitational force at its center is able to ignite the fusion process within it and a star is born.... There are several problems with this evolutionary model of star origins. First, gases tend naturally to disperse, not concentrate into a dense mass. Unless a shockwave, such as from a nearby supernova, compresses the gas cloud so that gravitational force overcomes the tendency for gas to disperse, the proto-star will never begin to form. The likelihood of such a convenient supernova occurring is extremely low. That it occurred unnumbered times to form the stars throughout the universe has a probability very close to zero. Also, the evolutionists have the problem of explaining where the first stars came from, since thee were no preexisting stars to form supernovas to start the proto-star evolution.... Creationary scientists agree, based on the book of Genesis, that the sun and other stars were supernaturally created--fully formed--on or before the fourth day of the Creation week. This explanation is simple and accounts for all the observable features of the stars and the sun. (Space and Earth Science, Grade 8, p. 94)
The shame of it all is that, unlike the horribly inadequate public school science texts, BJU science texts are readable, thorough, free from distracting visual clutter, and easy to understand. Unfortunately instead of teaching science, their chief goal is to innoculate the student against actual science.
A Beka science texts that I've looked at aren't quite so careful about preparing the student from believing scientific theory should he encounter it in college, but suffer badly from a tendency to present lots and lots of memorizable information--great for objective tests given by teachers or parents without much science background, but not so good for educating in science. As a bonus, the A Beka texts I've looked at feature extensive introductions explaining how real science couldn't get underway until the Reformation because of the Roman Church's oppressive extirpation of all scientific discovery and determination to keep mankind in the dark ages of ignorance and illiteracy.

So what else is there? Not much, as far as I can tell. The author of the first article, a professor of physics, in a footnote recommends these texts for middle school: U. Haber-Schaim et al., Introductory Physical Science, 7th ed., Science Curriculum, Belmont, Mass. (1999); and Force, Motion, and Energy, Science Curriculum, Belmont, Mass. (2002). For the middle school years, we've had good success with the hands-on science of TOPS, which does a good job of going past the ooh-ah factor of kitchen-table experiments and actually teaching principls and theory. And it's cheap; always a plus. Introductory college-level textbooks can work well for high school age, and these days come with nifty interactive CD-ROMs that show experiments that can't be done in the home, but aren't so useful for middle-school science.
Suggestions, readers?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, when I mentioned the topic to my spouse, he said, "Don't worry about it; the kids wouldn't read supplementary books if you got them for them."

The passing 11-year-old son said, "You got that right." This is just after he asked his dad if a cat could pick a lock.

There's a reason I'm anonymous.

8:58 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Isaac Asimov had a great series for middle-schoolers; each title started with "How Did We Find Out About..." and covered such diverse topics as genetics, microwaves, and earthquakes. They're quite readable and, though out of print, are very easy to find used. It's still not a textbook, though.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous amy said...

This year I have used the Prentice Hall Science Explorer Series both at home and with my middle school science class at Lewis Hall. I have been quite pleased with the science content, and these books beat the socks of any Christian texts for visual appeal.

I was a bit discouraged when trying to order the books for home use because Prentice Hall refuses to deal with individual home schoolers. However, this obstacle turned out to be a blessing. I found the textbooks and teacher's editions online, saving me loads of money.

The series is modular. Texts are short and cover specific topics such as "Cells and Heredity" or "Weather and Climate" rather than offering an entire year's worth of material in one book. I like this feature as it makes the text easier for young people to navigate and offers teachers more flexibility. The books are classified by levels - A,B, and C -A being the easiest.

I also like the TOPS series, but I have found that many students need the attractive diagrams and illustrations of a textbook.

10:30 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Thanks for the first-hand recommendation. TOPS is definitely great for at-home lab work, and does a much better job of making experiments lead toward understanding concepts than do most of the "science experiments in your kitchen" books sold to homeschoolers; but you're right, it's not a textbook, and it can't give the kind of comprehensive teaching a good textbook can.

11:16 AM  

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