Some textbooks fail to make important biology ideas comprehensible and meaningful to students. Photo: Microsoft Images.
Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.
In today’s society, one cannot read a newspaper without recognizing the central importance of the discipline of biology to the life of every American. Sadly, it appears that our textbooks continue to be distorted by a commercial textbook market that requires that they cover the entire range of facts about biology, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to treat the central concepts in enough depth to give our students a chance to truly understand them.
Dr. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences
Surprisingly, although the textbooks are filled with pages of vocabulary and unnecessary detail, they provide only fragmentary treatment of some fundamentally important concepts.
Dr. George Nelson, Director of AAAS Project 2061
Biology textbooks: evaluation results
According to the latest study of Project 2061, the long-term science and math education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):
- today’s high-school biology textbooks fail to make important biology ideas comprehensible and meaningful to students
- while the high-school textbooks scored slightly higher than the middle-grades science texts evaluated by the project last year, evidence from the current study points to serious shortcomings both in content coverage and instructional design
In this evaluation of ten widely used and newly developed biology textbooks, none was given high ratings [Editor’s note: See end of article for list of books evaluated in this study]. This is the latest in a series of Project 2061 evaluations of science and mathematics textbooks funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Educators comment on the results
“The AAAS reviews highlight some significant flaws in the math and science textbooks available to our students,” said Andrea Bowden, chief of the Office for Science and Math Programs for Baltimore City Public Schools. “The evaluations produce a profile of each textbook’s strengths and weaknesses across two dozen criteria. Sometimes we have been able to select textbooks with mostly high ratings, and in other cases, we have used the evaluation profiles to make more informed decisions about how to supplement the available texts.”
“At their best, the textbooks are a collection of missed opportunities,” according to Dr. Jo Ellen Roseman, director of the study. “While most contain the relevant content on heredity and natural selection, for example, they don’t help students to learn it or help teachers to teach it. On topics such as cells and matter and energy transformations, information is presented piecemeal. In addition, the textbooks fail to convey the coherence among key ideas in biology or their connections to ideas in physical science, mathematics, and technology.”
“There are some excellent teachers who compensate for the poor textbooks,” Dr. Roseman said. “But this takes time and resources, often more than they have.” She cited some examples of problems:
- Research shows that essentially all students — even the best and the brightest — have predictable difficulties grasping many ideas that are covered in the textbooks. Yet the textbooks fail to take these obstacles into account in designing activities and questions.
- For many biology concepts, the textbooks ignore or obscure the most important ideas by focusing instead on technical terms and trivial details (which are easy to test).
- While most of the books are lavishly illustrated, these representations are rarely helpful, because they are too abstract, needlessly complicated, or inadequately explained.
- Even though several activities are included in every chapter, students are given little guidance in interpreting the results in terms of the scientific concepts to be learned.
“Nevertheless, the evaluation did identify several materials with promising activities that could serve as starting points for future textbook development,” Dr. Roseman stated. “At least half of the textbooks have some elements that are worth looking at.”
What teachers can do
“The Project 2061 evaluation produces a great deal of detailed information that can help teachers to address the weaknesses of their textbooks,” Dr. Nelson emphasized. “This information can also help materials developers and publishers who are interested in thoughtfully revising their textbooks or developing new ones.” He urged educators to:
Use some of the excellent trade books that have been published on science topics to enhance their own understanding and help them to compensate for the textbooks’ lack of content coherence. Project 2061’s evaluation reports, available on the project’s web site later this year, will include some recommended titles. [Editor’ note: This information is now available at http://www.project2061.org/]
Study the research on student learning cited in the evaluation reports to revise classroom activities and develop new ones.
Take advantage of professional development experiences that focus not only on increasing teachers’ knowledge of key biology ideas, but also on strategies for teaching those ideas more effectively.
Encourage the National Science Foundation to support a new round of curriculum development focused on creating a coherent picture of key ideas for specific biology topics, using a research-based development and testing process to ensure that the instructional strategies promote learning the key ideas.
Editor’s Note: The evaluation included the following biology textbooks (in alphabetical order):
Biology (Miller · Levine). Prentice Hall, 1998
Biology: A Community Context. South-Western Educational Publishing, 1998
Biology: Principles & Explorations. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998
Biology: The Dynamics of Life. Glencoe, McGraw-Hill, 2000
Biology: Visualizing Life. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998
BSCS Biology: A Human Approach. Kendall Hunt, 1997
BSCS Biology: An Ecological Approach. Kendall Hunt, 1998
Heath Biology. D.C. Heath and Company, 1991
Insights in Biology. Kendall Hunt, 1998
Modern Biology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1999
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