Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The Textbook Choosers' Guide

[Science instruction in K–12 schools frequently depends strongly on textbooks that the school or district has approved for use in its curriculum. In this article we excerpt the main points from one of the brochures on the NCSE web site to help our readers to ask questions and be involved in the process of textbook selection in their own communities.]

Textbooks are frequently chosen or rejected for trivial reasons. Appearance often takes precedence over modernity, accuracy, and explication of the discipline. Textbooks frequently look better than they read. One must be concerned with what a textbook says and how it says it. Illustrations and other materials that accompany the text should be coordinated with the narrative and included to clarify a concept or a process.

Here are 10 points to consider when evaluating a science textbook.

Pedagogical points

  • Beware the encyclopedic text — the one that purports to “cover” every conceivable aspect of the discipline. No textbook can do so, and no student should be asked to memorize such a wealth of detail. Instead, consider whether the text fairly presents the major concepts of the discipline and provides examples to illuminate them. The adequate development of selected major principles is more beneficial to the student than are reams of details.
  • Beware of any text that emphasizes memorization of vocabulary. Students should learn new words as they become involved with a new discipline; selected useful and and meaningful vocabulary can be an inestimable aid in broadening understanding. However, avoid any book that substitutes concentrating on words for their own sake rather than as a support for a narrative of inquiry.
  • Beware of the text that does not read well — one written in short choppy sentences that develop detail but not a cohesive narrative. The text should provide a narrative of inquiry rather than a rhetoric of conclusions. It should build on previous information and serve to develop a basis for intellectual growth as the student proceeds through the book. A text should not be merely a passive reading experience, but should be designed to be interactive — eliciting responses from the student by requiring activity related to the subject under consideration.
  • Beware of the dogmatic textbook. Science is an ever-growing body of data constantly refined on the basis of new evidence. Texts that present the corpus of science as a fixed and unchanging mass of evidence do not prepare students to live in a world where change may be the only constant. However, texts should also present the settled areas of science as just that — they should not give students the impression that science is a body of untested hypotheses, guesses and ever- changing data.
  • Beware of the text as the sole source of scientific information. The textbook must be regarded as an introduction to science that provides a foundation for future learning. Activities should be included that will expand the student’s horizons and send students to other sources of information on the topic. The text should be teaching the student how to learn and should include activities for independent information gathering.

Content points

  • Beware of the text that does not explain the nature of science. One of the major reasons students take science courses is to become acquainted with science as a way of knowing. The processes of science should permeate the textbook and not be confined to an isolated section on what is erroneously referred to as the “scientific method”. Also avoid textbooks that present science as a process of uncertainty or include phrases such as “some scientists believe” or “many scientists agree”. Texts should make it clear that scientists reach their conclusions on the basis of currently available data, not based on personal belief or by vote.
  • Beware the text that does not clearly explain the role of controlled experiment, hypothesis formulation, and theory in science. These are basic research tools of the scientist, and their proper use has led science to its great contributions.
  • Beware of the bland textbook — the one written in such a way as to eliminate controversial or contentious issues and the one that presents the sciences simply as a fixed body of facts unrelated to contemporary issues. The nature of scientific controversy should be presented. Scientific problems currently unresolved should be discussed. Students should be encouraged to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate data collected in support of various hypotheses.
  • Beware the textbook that emphasizes only one aspect of the discipline — for example, a biology text that presents biology only in terms of morphology and systematics — and ignores other aspects of the discipline. No text can present all aspects of the subject, but acceptable texts should present some of the different approaches within the discipline — for example, in biology, topics such as ecology, genetics, growth and development, evolution, and behavior. Further, the interrelationships of science with social and technological issues should permeate the text.
  • Beware the classical textbook — the one that gives the student an impression that science is a historical study, not a vital, ongoing exercise. A textbook must deal in some measure with current areas of research and contemporary problems to prepare students for the issues they will face in the future as individuals or as voting citizens. It should emphasize how scientists are currently approaching and trying to solve contemporary problems in health, the environment, and so on.
By James P Barufaldi and William V Mayer
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.