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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Out-of-Date Textbooks

Linzel of No More Walls is a Canadian high school science teacher. The latest posting is Provincial Curricula - Always behind the Times?. It begins with,
I've always found textbooks to be behind the times. Because of the amount of time it takes to write, edit, publish and distribute textbooks, by the time teachers and students have them they are years out of date. Not to mention the number of years they remain in circulation. I'm not suggesting we move entirely towards the most current thoughts on subject material. Quite often the most recent science research is plain wrong. Fact is students could not comprehend the level of writing and knowledge required.

The fact is though that the material is on the net and is available to be updated immediately. Old webpages can be identified and steered away from. Old textbooks tend to be handed off to other districts and hang around like a bad disease. [Thats overly harsh but it sounded good]
This criticism is directed at high school textbooks and not university textbooks. On another occasion we can discuss whether it applies to my book but for now let's look at the high school textbooks. I think Linzel has misidentified the problem. It's not the fact that textbooks are four or five years old by the time many students are reading them. Basic scientific principles and concepts just don't change quickly enough to make this a problem at the high school level. What we're concerned about is material that's ten or twenty years out-of-date.

There are only two Grade 12 biology textbooks that have been approved by the Province of Ontario [Trillium List]. They are McGraw-Hill Ryerson Biology 12 (2002) published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson, and Nelson Biology 12 (Student Book) (2003) published by Nelson Education Ltd.

Let's look at the first one in order to illustrate the problem. If we check the website [Biology 12] we can find the list of authors. Here they are ...
Leesa Blake
Malvern Collegiate Institute
Toronto, Ontario

Nancy Flood
University College of the Cariboo
Kamloops, British Columbia

Adrienne Mason
Science and Education Writer
Tofino, British Columbia

Meaghan Craven
Professional Writer
Calgary, Alberta

Gord Jasper
Dr. E.P. Scarlett Senior High School
Calgary, Alberta

Grace Price
L'Amoreaux Collegiate Institute
Agincourt, Ontario

Darcy Dobell
Professional Writer
Tofino, British Columbia

Catherine Little
Toronto District School Board
Toronto, Ontario
I think we've identified the problem. How can you have an up-to-date biology textbook if it's not written by biologists? Now, don't get me wrong. I agree that you need to have high school teachers involved in order to make sure the curriculum is being followed, but surely there's more to writing a good biology textbook that just hiring a bunch of high school teachers and professional writers?

Judging by the Table of Contents there's nothing wrong with the material that's covered. There are three chapters on evolution, for example. However, from my experience with university textbooks I can appreciate the complaint voiced by Linzel. It often takes years for modern concepts to reach the second tier of textbooks and the second tier unfortunately includes typical high school textbooks.

There are two obvious solutions.
  1. Get more university professors on the textbook writing team, especially those who are teaching introductory university courses.

  2. Offer upgrade courses for high school teachers so they can stay on top of the latest principles and concepts. Some people in my department are thinking about this. We'd like to run summer courses for high school teachers.


  1. Weird, I used Campbell 6/e in high school. Then again, I didn't exactly go to public school...

  2. I think summer courses for highschool teachers is an excellent idea.

  3. Hi Larry

    The book you looked at is the one I use. I prefer it over the Nelson text (the other alternative, and generally the more popular) because it makes fewer egregious errors in the areas I'm able to spot them in.

    There are some things to keep in mind about high school texts: their purpose is to help teachers follow the prescribed curriculum documents (available on the Min of Ed's website), so their content must follow those documents. The assignments, experiments, questions, organization of the book, things that are emphasized all must follow those documents: in other words, the first and last word in what students learn is not the textbook, but the curriculum documents. And *everything* taught must be evaluated and assessed according to the achievement charts in those curriculum documents. Those are our constraints.

    So the authors are the people who do the teaching in the schools. Their personal areas of scientific expertise will vary wildly, but their experience with both teaching and ministry requirements is supposedly high. You will note that the list of pedagogical reviewers is longer than the list of accuracy (university profs) reviewers.

    (Interestingly, the lead author on the Nelson text, which makes some bad mistakes in the evolution section, is a really serious advocate for teaching evolution in biology and for making it the connecting theme for the course).

    I agree with Linzel's comments for the most part, but in my experience decent teachers do not need to be told to supplement their texts with up-to-date material. They do it anyway. I do--your blog is a major source (as is your text, now...*grin*).

    And yes, we are in fact interested in professional development. I assume your department will be talking to the school boards about whether they think it is feasible and how best to organize them.

  4. Interesting, one of the teachers is at Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School, where I spent three years (Grades 10, 11, 12), and took AP Biology.

    My experiences here might be (very tangentially) relevant in two ways:
    1. My biology teacher was not Mr. Jasper, but she was an excellent teacher who (if memory serves) covered the evolution section quite thoroughly.
    2. This thorough coverage of evolution was directly in the face of objections from perhaps 1/3 of the Advanced Placement biology class. Parts of Calgary have high proportions of evangelical christians of various denominations, which led directly to several students interrupting class occassionally with inane statements like "what about the second law of thermodynamics?" and "people are too perfect to have come from pond scum or whatever" and so on.

    So, I salute Mr. Jasper on his contribution to this textbook, and I wish him the best of luck in a surely-difficult job.

    As for the point of the post...
    Summer classes for up-to-date information for high school teachers sounds like a great idea. What kind of agreements have to go into such a program? Would teachers get paid for attendance?

  5. Holy Crap! People actually read my 'blog'? I'm going to have to be more accurate about how I produce my entries!
    Figures, I post a little rant and Larry not only picks up on it but does a better job of identifying the problem! :)
    I currently wok at an eschool and although texts are available I tend to make my students find the information on their own, organize it and spit it back to me in some creative manner. If anyone is interested I can blog about the web2.0 tools we attempt to use to facilitate the information flow and presentation.
    I will say I always likes the Campbell text. Its a GIGANTIC hog of a book but did most things well.

    Thanks for reading my blog Larry. I must admit I admire your opinion and was really anxious about a bad review. I'll accept your post as a neutral/generally accept rating. Is that accurate?
    Blah, now I'm going to have to THINK before I start writing.


  6. Please ignore those spelling errors. I'm in a hurry! Dang.

  7. I teach HS biology in the US. While we certainly have many problems of our own with creationism, our textbooks are written by scientists. The one I use is Prentice Hall: Biology by Ken Miller and Joe Levine. It's pretty good, particularly in the area of evolution.