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Suggestions on Evaluating
Science Textbooks

This was written while serving on a parent-teacher committee at the local public school looking into the science curriculum. After a few presentations from textbook companies, it was clear we were seeing a number of glaring errors, silly time-wasting activities, and utter disinterest in substantive content standards. This quick paper was intended to suggest some considerations in looking at science curricula and textbooks.

--Kevin Killion, March 17, 1999

Evaluating the Text

  • Are scientific errors evident?

  • Does the text cover material required in the school's chosen Standard?

  • Completely or partially? Prepare a correlation (that's the term used by educators to describe a point-by-point comparison of what the standard requires versus what a textbook actually includes)

  • Does it use correct and appropriate scientific terminology ("species") instead of loose, simplified terms ("kinds")?

  • Are "integrated" sidebars (ties to math, literature, etc.) genuinely relevant and meaningful?

  • Is the layout free of distracting, gratuitous "Tokyo By Night" elements (color splashes, MTV-style graphics, irrelevant cartoons)?

  • Is political correctness responsible and balanced, or is it heavy-handed? Does political correctness get in the way of scientific accuracy (e.g., Globe Fearon's example of New York being flooded by meltwater of the ice caps as a result of global warming)? (For a great perspective on this, see the Fordham Foundation report, "Politicizing Science Education", which explores four case studies of threats to the integrity of science education, available as a web site or as a PDF file).

    Assessment

  • Do assessment materials (quizzes, tests) cover the learning requirements of the chosen Standard?
  • Fully or partially?

  • Do quizzes and tests measure real knowledge of specific scientific content, as well as conceptual insights?

  • Are the answers suggested in the teacher's edition scientifically sound?
      Globe Fearon says, "When the sun, earth, and moon are in a line, the pull of gravity upon the earth becomes [stronger]" ... which is not technically correct


  • Are questions actually answerable from material in the text or from insights learned during activities?
      DiscoveryWorks asks, "Explain why different constellations appear at different times of the year" .. even though nothing in the text provides even a clue on this.

    Evaluating Experiments and Activities

    Many parents (and many teachers) deeply admire the Core Knowledge Sequence as an antidote to low-content curricula. But note that the Sequence says prominently and repeatedly, "Effective instruction in science requires hands-on experience and observation."

    ALL of us agree with that. But in a rush to add activities to their products, some publishers have lost focus on what these activities are intended to accomplish. An ill-chosen activity consumes precious classroom time without advancing learning goals. Thus, the activities and experiments recommended by a publisher must be carefully reviewed.

    To illustrate these points, I will give examples using a "pinhole constellation" activity in the DiscoveryWorks program. In this silly but evergreen activity, kids are to choose a constellation, draw it and punch pinholes, and mount it on a light to shine the pattern on a wall. The child is then to show how it appears in "all rotations", and so on, and it can easily turn into a waste of a full class period or two.



  • Does the activity have a clearly defined objective for what is to be learned?

  • Is that learning objective consistent with the goals in the chosen Standard, or is it something additional?
      Even the chronically weak Illinois state standard requires familiarity with several major constellations, this exercise does not achieve that goal.


  • Is the learning objective clearly and specifically laid out in the teacher's edition?

  • Does the activity or its description imply incorrect conclusions?
      The constellations do not appear in all possible rotations (except for the circumpolar ones)

  • Could the same learning objective be accomplished with a less-time consuming activity?
      Example: Draw constellations on index cards, rotate and discuss the rotated appearance.


  • In the time allotted for this activity, could the same learning objective be accomplished with a meatier activity?
      Here are better project ideas, which are more true to scientific realities, and consume less time:
    • From a printed sheet, cut out a circle showing the northern circumpolar constellations.
    • Find your chosen constellation on this map. Rotate about the center, Polaris, and on a separate sheet draw how your chosen constellation appears at different rotations.


  • In place of a low-learning activity, could a more substantive activity be targeted?
      Here are some improved project ideas:

    • Discussion of related mythological stories, ask kids why the ancients thought various patterns looked like their mythological namesakes

    • Play a game in which kids test each other on what each pattern is

    • String together cards with constellations as a jigsaw to show how they combine in the sky

    • Cut out a sheet of paper with popups for the seven stars of the Big Dipper to show how stars at wildly different distances from Earth appear to look like one grouping.

    • Choose a constellation currently visible (e.g., Orion), and as homework tell kids roughly where to look in the evening sky and to draw what they see. Note the brightness and color of each major star. Back in the classroom, discuss the characteristics of the constellation and its major stars.

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