from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1991

Candid Statements and Unpleasant Truths

Editor's Introduction -- Where do textbooks come from? More specifically, where do biology textbooks come from? And why are they the way they are? Some candid answers to those questions appear in Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation's Schools, a report prepared by the National Research Council and published by the National Academy Press (Washington, DC).

Here are excerpts from the report. They conclude with the most important of the National Research Council's four recommendations: Educators should have access to science-book reviews prepared by scientists -- in other words, by the only people who can reasonably and reliably be expected to know about the subject matter. Moreover, the NRC says, the advice of scientists should be enlisted during the adoption of science textbooks by local school districts.

In preparing this material, we have omitted the literature citations that appear in the original text, and we have supplied (in square brackets) the title, date and publisher of the "widely used high-school biology textbook" that the report quotes anonymously. The textbook in question is the 1989 version of Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Modern Biology.

excerpts from Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation's Schools,
reprinted with permission from the National Academy Press

Biology books mention large numbers of terms in response to specifications that publishers get from the states. The specifications appear as lists or outlines that are formulated with vague goals or with state or national examinations in mind. Conversely, the examinations might be written with the textbook specifications in mind. Either way, the education community must bear a large measure of responsibility for the characteristics of textbooks.

Publishers are often required to produce a new book in only 6 months or so. In part for this reason, they turn to groups of writers (commonly anonymous), who separately draft small sections of a book. For crafting a coherent textbook, this is a formula for almost sure disaster. . . .

The current method of writing textbooks is illustrated in the preface to the teacher's edition of a widely used high-school biology textbook [Holt's Modern Biology 1989]:

The [Modern Biology 1989] program was developed in conjunction with a thorough program of research and testing. The objective of this research and testing was to survey the wishes and concerns of American teachers of high school biology and to reflect those wishes and concerns in the various components of this program.

The publisher designed the text around "focus groups" that each consisted of

a moderator and about a dozen teachers from local high schools. The moderator showed the teachers various prototypes for the design of the table of contents, the writing style, and many other aspects of the book. The teachers responded, and representatives of [Holt] noted the teachers' concerns and then modified the components accordingly.

Note the casual use of teachers, the absence of input from practicing scientists, and the parody of research and testing.

The next step is usually a national market survey. Because study has shown that 76% of classroom teachers are satisfied with the available books (a serious problem in itself), one is reminded of the commercials for beer in which it is revealed that those who drink a particular brand are found to prefer that brand. There is neither time nor incentive before full-scale production to field-test textbooks under conditions that might expose their weaknesses and lead to revision. . . .

The number of illustrations, the use of color, and costs are increasing for both college and high-school texts. But to what purpose? Despite the emphasis on illustrations and their obvious technical quality, the pictures often fail to inform. A striking demonstration is the reproduction in the Holt text (1989) of a 1961 Scientific American portrayal of the cell, which now appears in color and three dimensions, but with no change in substance. But during the intervening quarter-century, our understanding of cell structure changed dramatically in ways that are useful for understanding cell movement and cell differentiation. Illustrations like this therefore perpetuate incorrect or incomplete concepts.

Illustrations often are not integrated with the text and are not easy to follow. Sometimes they are absurd, as when electron micrographs, which have no natural color, are shown in color. Many illustrations seem to come directly from the scientific literature and are too complicated for high-school students to understand. Does the publisher believe that they give a book an authority that would otherwise be absent? The main function of illustrations appears to be to impress prospective buyers, but in many new texts illustrations are often only decorative distractions.

In summary, most biology textbooks are produced by publishers who are responding to educationally bankrupt market forces. They are written by authors who do not control the content of the books and who are not selected for their knowledge of biology. They are then edited to conform to grade-level readability scores and to accommodate local tastes and religious views. Whatever the educational merits of editing for grade-level readability, even the most casual reading of texts suggests that they are edited by people who know so little of the science that they introduce inaccuracy and confusion. Last but not least, the current textbooks are not interesting . . . .

[Recommendation] A process of review of high-school texts that is open to the scrutiny of scientists should be instituted. Whatever their pedagogical merits, textbooks need to be examined for scientific accuracy, interest, currency, and vision by scientists and outstanding teachers in a forum where the reviews will be widely available to teachers, members of school boards, and others at the grass-roots level. That is, the broader scientific community should be engaged nationally in collaboration with teachers in evaluating textbooks and locally in providing advice on textbook adoption. . . .

A fuller examination of present texts for conceptual and factual errors would document further the need for change, enumerate principles that should be stressed in texts, and provide incentives to publishers to alter their mode of production. If conditions can be created in which reviews of books by scientists are truly influential in the process of adoption, it will become not only possible but necessary for publishers to produce educationally worthy textbooks.

copyright 1990 by the National Academy Press


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