Textbooks flunk out
When science books are put to the test, it's hard to decipher fact from fiction
By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 05/17/99
When electrical engineer William Beaty was working on the design of an electricity exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science, he decided to check out some elementary school science textbooks in search of good ways to communicate fundamental concepts on the subject.
What he found was a morass of misconceptions, mistakes and misinformation in one text after another. Not one of the books, he found, even contained what he considered to be a valid definition of what electricity is, much less how it works. And he discovered something else: Even his own understanding of the subject, despite his years in the profession, was flawed; he was still the victim of deeply-help misconceptions that he had learned in grade school.
''The majority of my misconceptions had been specifically taught to me,''
he said. ''[They] were in my science textbooks long ago, and they were still in most modern textbooks.''
Unfortunately, what Beaty found is not at all unusual. Scientists and educators say that many of the textbooks used today in US elementary and high schools contain significant errors, fabricated history, erroneous diagrams and misleading explanations. Beaty, in a lengthy Web page he set up to try to dispel scientific misinformation, cites examples of the kind of misleading claims about electricity found in numerous textbooks. For example, many texts describe an electric circuit as consisting of charges that come from a battery, flow through a wire, turn into light inside a bulb, and then flow into the battery's other terminal.
There are several things wrong with that story, Beaty explains. The charges are already inside the wire, not supplied by the battery, and they are not turned into light; if they were, they couldn't keep flowing. And this version leaves out the connection through the battery, where charges flow through and back out again.
Beaty suggests that a better approach is to use analogies that help clarify the fundamental concepts, such as this: ''A battery or generator is like your heart: it moves blood, but it does not create blood.''
Ambiguous or incorrect explanations of scientific phenomena may help explain why one new study, which has been submitted to the journal Science Education, found that students who had taken high school physics classes that used textbooks did substantially worse in college physics than those whose high school classes used no textbooks at all.
An earlier study by the same researcher, Philip Sadler of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, found that in some high-school science classes, students at the end of the year scored worse on their understanding of basic science concepts than they had before the class began. In typical high school classes, he said, ''The learning is minimal, and in some cases negative. Some kids have more misconceptions at the end of a course than at the beginning. ''
For example, Sadler said, at the end of the year in one class, more students than at the year's beginning thought that the sun was sometimes directly overhead in their town - despite the fact that there is no place in the continental United States where this is true (In fact, it only happens in the tropics.) And more students at the year's end than at the start thought the moon's phases were caused by Earth's shadow. (In fact, they're caused by the angle of the sun's illumination.)
Overall, as Sadler reported in the earlier study published in The Physics Teacher, whether students took high school physics or not had virtually no effect on college physics grades.
Some educators have traced the transmission of errors from one textbook to another and compare the process to the spread of a virus through a population. ''As in epidemics,'' wrote Beaty on his Website, ''a particular piece of information can spread exponentially: The more textbooks it occupies, the more likely other textbooks will be to acquire it.... The bad information can be spread just as easily as the good.''
The paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the same problem a few years ago, referring to it as the ''cloning'' of bad information from one book to another. And it's not just the information itself, right or wrong, that gets copied, but often the sequence and the structure of a lesson, and even the use of specific comparisons. Even when not wrong, such copying can impede learning, he wrote.
For example, he cites the fact that virtually every textbook chapter on evolution begins by describing Lamarck's discredited ideas, even though most students may never have heard of the 19th century biologist, and ends by using giraffes' necks as an instance of natural selection, even though this is a dubious example.
All of this is certainly not a new problem. James Michener complained
about the way school textbooks were written after a brief stint as a
schoolbook editor back in the 1930s, writing that ''the entire
educational process was watered down, level by level.'' And Richard
Feynman wrote memorably of his experience with bad science texts in the
1950s in his bestselling memoir ''Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!''
After working with a California committee evaluating textbooks, he found
''that's the way all the books were: They said things that were useless,
mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don't know, because it's not science.''
But the remarkable thing is that despite decades of efforts at reform in science education, many scientists and educators charge that the situation does not seem to have changed much. In fact, some think the overall quality of textbooks has, if anything, declined.
And preliminary assessments from a study that will be published in the early fall, conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's ''Project 2061'' to develop better textbooks, indicates that at the middle-school level, reviewers were unable to find even a single set of textbooks that satisfied their criteria.
''Based on preliminary data,'' said the study's director, biochemist and
former teacher Jo Ellen Roseman, ''they don't look very good. None of them ... are likely to promote student learning'' of the key concepts that educators have agreed such classes should convey.
Most of the current textbooks, Roseman said, are ''a mile wide and an inch deep. The subjects are treated so superficially that all students can do is memorize the terms and parrot the facts.''
Granted, some very good, carefully-tested new books for some grade levels have arrived on the scene - mostly from smaller, specialty or academic publishers - and are being used in some schools. But most American public schools still use a variety of textbooks from the major publishers that independent reviewers - including scientists, educators and concerned parents - have found to be plagued with errors.
That's what Howard Lyon, a musician in Erie, Pennsylvania who majored in science before switching to music, found when he looked at his daughter's science book, ''Exploring Physical Science,'' a few years ago. He started finding errors in the book; he kept looking until eventually he had compiled a list of errors that grew to 45 single-spaced pages, and included instructions for lab experiments that were physically impossible to carry out as described.
''There are far more'' errors than those on his original list, just in
that one book, Lyon said in a recent interview. ''I found hundreds more since then.'' Eventually, Prentice Hall, publisher of the ''Exploring Physical Science'' book (and now a division of Pearson Education), agreed to pay for the copying of a separate list of corrections that Lyon and others had compiled, to be distributed to all the students in that school district along with the book itself.
But ''Exploring Physical Science'' remains one of the nation's leading high-school science texts, and no other school districts have been given those corrections. A new 10-page list of corrections compiled by the company has, however, been posted on its Web site for teachers and students to download. Pearson spokeswoman Maggie Rohr said that the company and its consultants disagreed with some of the corrections included in Lyon's list, saying that some were simply matters of opinion, such as how much detail to include. (For example, whether to specify exactly when Archimedes lived, instead of simply saying ''thousands of years ago.'')
A new edition has some of the mistakes corrected, but most were left unchanged, according to Lyon. At a meeting with the publishers, he said, representatives of the school district did a spot check of 30 items from their list; two had been corrected, one was changed but a new error was introduced, and 27 were untouched.
However, Rohr claims that all of the clearly erroneous information was corrected. For example, an experiment that was physically impossible to carry out the way it was described in the text has now been eliminated, she said.
But the company has clearly been stung by some of the criticisms of their books, which included a scathing report last month on the ABC-TV program 20/20. Pearson's chief executive officer Peter Jovanovich recently acknowledged the factual mistakes in the book ''Exploring Physical Science,'' and said ''I greatly regret that it took the Prentice Hall School division longer than it should have to fix them.''
In announcing a new goal of ''100 percent factual accuracy'' in Pearson's 45,000 textbooks and materials, Jovanovich said ''we will conduct a thorough review of every one of our school textbooks and, through the Internet, post any changes that need to be made.'' He added that a thorough review of all the company's books will be completed by the end of this year.
The publishers aren't the only ones doing the evaluating. In addition to the massive review of textbooks being carried out by the AAAS as part of its ''Project 2061,'' there are independent groups made up of parents and educators that constantly review and evaluate the books that are available.
One of these, an independent California-based group called The Textbook League, publishes a bimonthly newsletter with reviews that are often vitriolic. Even the headlines tell the story: On ''Exploring Physical Science,'' they wrote that ''educators should avoid this book like the plague''; a review of an Addison-Wesley book called ''Exploring Matter and Energy,'' was titled ''phony `science' and nonsensical numbers in a brainless book''; and a review of Prentice Hall's ''Heat Energy'' was titled simply ''I weep for the students.''
The newsletter is published by William Benetta, an engineer and writer, who says that overall, his impression is that textbooks ''are getting lighter and fluffier,'' jazzed up with fancy graphics designed to appeal to superficial evaluations by school boards and teachers.
''Unless something changes,'' Benetta suggested in an interview, ''ten
years from now, the books will come packaged with baseball cards and bubblegum.''
This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 05/17/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.