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The Hegemony of Science Textbooks

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A recent HuffPost article reports that Bill Nye slammed the Texas Board of Education for wanting to include alternative "theories" about evolution in a statewide adoption of a biology textbook. Let me say at the outset that I agree whole heartedly with the Science Guy. Evolution is now settled science behind all medical research, genetics, and our molecular understanding of life. Indeed, it is the grounding principle of the science of biology. So I want to expand the conversation. Frankly, in the interest of creating a science-literate society, I would like to eliminate science textbooks entirely. These committee-generated books, designed to be a one-size-fits-all panaceas for "covering" science, in this case biology -- a HUGE subject -- probably does more to discourage interest in science than it does to create it, particularly at the elementary school level.

The Common Core State Standards bring new emphasis to the skill of "close reading" -- that is reading to learn. This skill is different from reading fiction for entertainment. It means reading something, stopping, and thinking about what you've read and rereading to confirm your own take on the concepts. When the writing is dry, abstract, and assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge that the reader doesn't have, guess what happens? The reader is not engaged in the reading and disinterested in learning. Hopefully, the teacher can bring some passion to the classroom to bridge the gap between the student and the content. Some teachers will write their own material to liven up what students have to read. But today's teachers don't have the time, if indeed they have the talent, to write content that will capture their students' interest. The hegemony of the textbook comes from the pedagogical time-saving package it represents. It contains text, pictures, study questions, homework assignments, quizzes and tests. It is the easy way out for the busy teacher who now spends an inordinate amount of time on paperwork and test prep. But the easy way is not always the best way.

Here's a brief overview of how science textbooks are produced. Curriculum folk, scientists and science educators, decide what concepts should be covered. When they publish their recommendations they usually state that they are not about any particular pedagogy. Just what must be taught. Textbook people take these concepts (pretty much as written) and turn them into an outline to give to writers to fill in the blanks. How do I know this? Because I was once asked to write a science textbook. I did not agree with the sequence of topics and all the other rules they imposed on me so I passed on the opportunity, although I paid quite well. (Yes, I am and have always been an outlier.) Needless to say, textbooks do not speak with a singular passionate voice, like the best science teachers.

Where is it written that all students should read ONE book on a subject? What does it mean to "cover" material? What is behind the group-think that requires that all students in a state (or nation) read the same book on a subject? Why can't different students in a class read different books on, say, butterflies, and then discuss, compare and contrast what they've read? Did it occur to the powers-that-be in Texas that a biology textbook is NOT the Bible? It doesn't have to be the Book that everyone reads.

Of course, the reason that we're having this discussion is that textbooks in Texas are big business. Texas does a state-wide adoption that allows publishers to modify the product for smaller printings for other customers. So Texas sets the table for reading in other states. What would happen if we asked students to read up on each topic in the curriculum by going to the library and finding an interesting nonfiction, age-appropriate book on the subject? Teachers and librarians could compile a dynamite reading list. A student could look at several books and pick the one that s/he thinks is the most interesting. Students would learn to think critically about the reading, while they're learning about, say, DNA. If this happened, the money that would be saved on textbooks could be spent on field trips or bringing experts into the school to speak to the students. Perhaps it could be used to support students that want to do some science themselves.

I have just attended two very different conferences for teachers. One was for school librarians and one was for technology teachers. The keynote speakers in both said that the future of the economy and our democracy depends on creating innovators, original thinkers, self-starters, life-long learners. The hegemony of textbooks in Texas will not do the job.