AAAS Conference on Developing Textbooks That Promote Science Literacy
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Meeting of Mind, Matter, and Market: The Challenge of Improving Science Textbooks
Many education stakeholders agree that the formula for teaching science to U.S. children must be rewritten to improve student performance. According to conservative estimates, students spend about 1,800 hours studying science throughout their K-12 experience. That’s an hour a day in middle and high school and 2.5 hours a week in elementary school.
Despite the devotion to the
subject, many students are leaving
high school without grasping
fundamental concepts that are
important foundations to building
According to Project 2061, the
long-term science, mathematics,
and technology education reform
initiative of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS), poorly focused science
textbooks are a significant
contributor to poor student
performance, especially in the
absence of good alternative
materials. Therefore, teachers
who must depend solely upon
textbooks are unable to provide
their students with a quality
At a recent conference sponsored by Project 2061, curriculum materials developers, education researchers, and commercial publishers convened to consider how to create a new generation of more effective science textbooks. The conference came on the heels of rigorous evaluations by Project 2061 that found no middle-school science or high-school biology textbooks that adequately helped students meet national science education standards. The standards—Project 2061's Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) and the National Research Council’s (NRC) National Science Education Standards (1996)—identify specific concepts that students should achieve at certain grade levels during their K-12 schooling.
The conference familiarized publishers and curriculum materials developers with the criteria and rationale used by Project 2061 in its textbook evaluation. The publishers of each book examined by Project 2061 will receive a detailed report on why their publication received low marks. A follow-up conference is planned by Project 2061 in the fall that will continue the discussion of how to develop quality science textbooks.
“We have a serious problem—kids aren’t learning science,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, Project 2061 associate director. Roseman further clarified her point to the audience by showing a video of interviews with several graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—still clad in their caps and gowns—each of whom failed to identify carbon dioxide as the primary source of the weight in the mass of a maple tree.
“These students—now graduating from an elite college—don’t comprehend a fundamental scientific concept,” Roseman said. One of the students in the video, when told that carbon dioxide in the air contributes to the majority of the mass, disagreed and stated emphatically, “Carbon is not much of a building block.”
“With answers such as this, we can’t help but ask, ‘What are students learning in school?’” Roseman wondered. “It seems they are trying to make sense of whatever tools they have available for learning, and their tools may be limited,” said Roseman. “If we know what some of those limitations are, we can help to work through them. Our efforts can make a difference to student learning.”
The conference, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, brought together a diverse group with unique perspectives. The curriculum materials developers focus on creating innovative materials that take years to develop and just as long to learn to implement in the classroom. Commercial publishers, who must cater to their markets, maintain that school districts won’t purchase books that are too difficult to use or that don’t meet state adoption criteria, which may or may not align with national standards. And researchers are trying to uncover what they still don’t know about how children learn.
The Challenge of Standards versus Adoption
Roger Bybee, executive director of Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, developers of secondary-school and college-level programs in the life sciences, outlined one of the challenges facing publishers and curriculum materials developers.
“All of us are concerned about the paradox of standards versus adoption,” said Bybee, a key player in the development of the NRC’s National Science Education Standards. He pointed out many state and local school districts have adoption committees that dilute the standards by adding and subtracting content without considering the consequences. These become the basis for textbook adoption criteria, and publishers must meet these criteria if their books are to be included on the list of materials that schools can purchase. These challenges, Bybee believes, should be considered in any textbook evaluation. “The measure of our success should be within the context of some of the rules of the game we have to play,” Bybee said.
Andrea Bowden, supervisor of the Office of Science, Mathematics, and Health Education for Baltimore City Public Schools, expressed her desperation as a textbook purchaser. “Publishers of textbooks claim they match the national standards, but some of our teachers who have been trained to use the AAAS benchmarks are finding areas where textbooks don’t align. Whom should we listen to?” Bowden asked the audience. “We desperately need some guidance.”
The participants delved into Project 2061's textbook evaluation, which revealed fundamental problems such as disconnected facts, lavish illustrations that were needlessly complicated or inadequately explained, too much focus on technical terms that were easy to test but failed to communicate more important ideas, and failure to include or design activities that take account of commonly held student ideas. The conferees used CD-ROMS containing evaluations of curriculum materials on selected topics: matter and energy transformations and the kinetic molecular theory at the middle-school level and natural selection at the high-school level. They compared and contrasted sections of unsatisfactory textbook information with three satisfactory stand-alone science units developed by Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Education. These three units were research-based and did not have the drawbacks of the textbooks.
Ellen Standafer, vice president of science product development at the commercial publisher Holt, Rinehart & Winston, explained the need for publishers to understand Project 2061's criteria. “Publishers don’t speak the same language as AAAS,” said Standafer. “We are here to learn, and we recognize that we probably can’t do everything that Project 2061 wants, because it won’t work in our market.”
One of the challenges faced by publishers is the conflict between meeting national standards and state adoption criteria while creating student textbooks and teacher guides with broad appeal that are practical and easy to use. Publishers, while striving to develop materials that best serve the educational needs of the students, say they are restricted by what teachers and schools will buy. Robert Todd, a colleague of Standafer’s at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, stressed that teachers need to buy into the national standards criteria in order to drive the market for these changes.
After exploring the CD-ROMS, Standafer pointed out that the conference helped her to better understand students’ common misconceptions about science and noted one suggested criteria that could be implemented immediately to enhance the quality of their textbooks. “We can certainly be more accurate about how we use illustrations now that we can see how much the use of art can add to a student’s learning,” said Standafer. She added that knowing that students can understand and use the concept of representation at a younger age—as early as the 6th grade—will also help them enhance their materials.
Student Ideas Key to Learning
Project 2061's evaluation pointed to the importance of understanding and utilizing student ideas and misconceptions about science as learning opportunities. Roseman reported that Project 2061 has received NSF funding to provide teachers, curriculum materials developers, and publishers with specific misconceptions held by students, though the vehicle for disseminating this information has not been determined.
Jim Minstrell, currently a researcher at Talaria, Inc., who taught high-school mathematics and science for more than thirty years, told the audience that student misconceptions, which he prefers to call “commonly held ideas” or “facets,” are “the reefs and outer islets of understanding on the way to the benchmark islands of understanding.”
Minstrell describes these facets as “individual pieces or constructions of a few pieces of knowledge and/or strategies of reasoning” and warned the audience not to ignore them because they are part of the larger understanding of benchmark concepts. “Don’t steer around them,” said Minstrell. “They have value. Address them head on.” Minstrell has developed a program called Diagnoser that helps teachers identify and qualify some of these facets about topics in physical science.
Roseman agreed that incorporating student ideas is vital to successful learning. “One can ignore student ideas at their peril,” Roseman warned. “Students have an amazing ability to retrofit and compartmentalize what goes on in school and leave relatively unaffected by the process. Our challenge is to find out what those ideas are and use them as learning tools.”
What are some common misconceptions of students? Norm Lederman, a science education researcher and teacher at Oregon State University and former high-school teacher, said one of the most common beliefs about the nature of science (or how science works) held by many elementary- through high-school students—and by some of his own colleagues who teach science education—is that all science can be characterized by a single set and sequence of steps known as the scientific method. “Students believe that if you don’t follow this precise method, you are not doing science,” said Lederman.
Another common misconception is that the same research procedures followed by two or more individuals produce the same results. Lederman pointed out when students in the class get a variety of answers, they think they performed the experiment incorrectly. If teachers buy into this mind set, Lederman believes “they lose an opportunity to talk about the interpretation of data and what scientists do with that data.”
Lederman pointed out that students also believe that scientific knowledge is discovered, not invented. He equated that belief with the example that some students “believe the periodic table was discovered under a rock somewhere.”
In order to better understand how students learn, Lederman is working on research in a variety of areas including assessing students’ ideas. He pointed to a discussion that took place earlier in the day with some of the conference participants that focused on the need to identify the laundry list of things students don’t know. “Where we really need to get to is—how do you move kids toward where you would like them to be rather than where they are?” said Lederman.
Eliciting and guiding student thinking about scientific concepts was key to Kathleen Roth’s Food for Plants middle-school curriculum material. Roth, a curriculum materials developer and researcher at Michigan State University, said her experiences as a teacher and researcher convinced her that traditional science textbooks are not useful learning tools for most students.
As a graduate student, Roth researched 5th graders and found that students had naive conceptions about plants and their food. Realizing that students do not easily give up their ideas, she recognized that using research on how children learn could create a powerful tool for teaching.
Roth incorporated cognitive research that found that in order for learning to occur, three conditions must be met. First, students must understand what the new idea is proposing; second, they must find the new idea plausible; and third, they must be able to see the usefulness of the new idea in a variety of real-world contexts. By incorporating this research with the students’ ideas, she developed a curriculum material that demonstrated students not only learned the concept of photosynthesis, but also retained the concept throughout the school year. However, Roth reported, “Taking student ideas into account in curriculum development is not easy.”
According to Project 2061's Roseman, one way to gage students’ knowledge is to provide them with questions to be answered before they begin to study a chapter or concept. Minstrell agrees, and said that the pre-instruction questions he incorporated into his high-school physics curriculum were disliked by students, but also appreciated by them. Minstrell said one of his students reported, “I hate these pre-instruction questions, but they help me know what I am going to need to learn and know by the end of the unit.”
Robin Heyden, who is currently co-authoring a high-school biology program to be published by Prentice Hall, said the conference helped her to understand how to incorporate student misconceptions into the teacher guides. “We had fully intended to treat that in our program, but what I understand now is that it’s not enough to just point out the commonly held idea that the student may have,” said Heyden. “I know now that we have to go much further and explain the reason why they think these things, understand the trouble that this thinking will lead to later, and provide strategies for overcoming these misconceptions.” Heyden pointed out that because her program will be a hybrid of print and online materials, the challenge of managing this information in teacher resource materials won’t be an issue.
Many of the curriculum materials developers expressed their appreciation for the dilemma of publishers who they learned must grapple with the mission to create exceptional textbooks based on the national standards, while meeting state adoption criteria and satisfying the wants and needs of the teachers. “I certainly have developed a lot of respect for publishers and representatives who were at this meeting,” said Ed Smith, a researcher and curriculum materials developer from Michigan State University. “The conversations with them have been very helpful and informative.” Smith suggested that the conference planned by Project 2061 in the fall to continue the discussion include some of the key decision makers who develop and uphold the adoption criteria.
According to the Association of American Publishers, 21 states have adoption policies that require all school districts to make their purchases from an approved list of textbooks that meet statewide frameworks. Three states in this category—California, Texas, and Florida—have a substantial influence over the content in textbooks because they represent a large portion of the market for publishers.
Phil Sadler, director of education at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the adoption criteria must be penetrated to create a demand for more effective teaching materials. “Make no mistake,” said Sadler. “Adoption is a barrier because it closes the market to smaller publishers.” Smaller publishers, Sadler pointed out, often develop the most innovative curriculum materials. “Adoption is one of the enemies.”
Lou-Ellen Finn, professional development coordinator for Northwestern University’s Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools said future conferences need to create more opportunity for a dialogue among publishers, researchers, and curriculum materials developers. “We’ve got publishers over here with their concerns, researchers over there with their concerns, and unless we can leverage everybody’s expertise and get us all on the same page working toward the same thing—student learning—it’s never going to happen,” said Finn. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Some of the conferees agreed that collaborations between researchers, curriculum materials developers, and publishers could help create a market among teachers and policymakers for standards-based curriculum and textbooks. George Nelson, director of Project 2061, pointed out that the education community is steeped in traditions, and some of these need to be revisited in order to improve student learning. “One of our long-term goals at Project 2061 is to change the market and start new traditions.”
At the close of the conference Nelson said he hoped the demand for quality science textbooks would become a reality. “If I had a fantasy, it would be that the consumers—the school districts, the parents, the teachers, and the state education agencies and school boards who buy the textbooks—would come out vocally and say we want materials that do well on an analysis like Project 2061's,” said Nelson. “The publishers at that point will say ‘OK, we can do that. Just tell us what the requirements are and we’ll respond.’”