Friday, January 10, 2014

The Science Textbook - Yea, Nay, or Somewhere In-between?

Here is an issue I struggle with as science teacher:  How much should students use their textbooks?

Throughout high school and college, I read a lot of science textbooks.  It was expected of students, and I have always loved reading, so I never questioned the need for this practice.  By the time I started teaching, however, I had begun a gradual shift toward seeing texts less as a primary source of information for students and more as a reference for questions they might have.  The science courses that I teach are currently lab-intensive and inquiry-based, relying on physical models for processes as needed.  I am convinced that it's more important that students learn to think like scientists rather than memorize all the information scientists have already discovered.  I used my state science standards to guide what students will learn, but how they learn is intentionally rooted in core science skills such as creativity and curiosity, observation, questioning, and analysis.  Confession time:  My Biology students used their textbooks no more than three times last semester (maybe).  I don't even assign students their own copies anymore.  Textbooks stay in the classroom and can be checked out if needed.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking more about textbook usage, however.  It started with our staff book-read for this year - Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker.  The author proposes that two "templates" for lessons, "...could be the basis for effectively teaching 80% or more of the curriculum."  The two templates revolve around (1) "interactive lecture and direct teaching," and (2) "literacy-based lessons with a focus on any text."  This type of language immediately starts to turn me off, but as I did agree with some other ideas he presented about the importance of reading, I was hopeful that I was misinterpreting his intentions.  Then I reached the chapter focusing on science.  To warm up the reader for the chapter, Schmoker shares this quote: "Hands-on...activities may have overshadowed the importance of developing science content ideas" (Roth and Garnier).  This sets the tone for much of the chapter, during which he attempts to convince the reader that investigations in science classes aren't helping students learn science content, so teachers need to reduce labs and increase the amount of direct lecture and reading of texts.  One of the sections is entitled, "The Problem with Hands-On Science."  In this section, Schmoker quotes sources that state "cookbook" labs are not the most effective way to learn science.  I agree with this 100%, but unlike Schmoker, I don't agree that this is grounds for changing the investigative nature of science classes.  He quotes a scientist who believes that science is not best learned through labs, but by reading textbooks.

I was prepared to express some of my concerns about Schmoker's ideas at our next staff meeting, until a former student stopped by my classroom last week.  I love it when students do this, not only because it's always great to see them, but also because I can grill them about what they're learning in their college science classes.  I typically ask something along the lines of, "Based on your college Biology classes, what should I spend more time teaching in high school?"  So I asked my most recent visitor this question, and he said it wasn't a specific topic, he just wishes that he was better prepared to read college textbooks.  He said that most of his college professors expect their students to learn a lot of their content by reading the textbook because there isn't enough time to cover everything in lecture or lab.  But he admitted that he wouldn't have done assigned reading as homework in high school.  He thought it would be better if students read the text in class with the help of teachers.

So, here's my dilemma:  I agree literacy is important, and I want my students to be prepared for college so that they will be successful.  However, allowing students to learn science through inquiry is still my top priority.  There are so many examples of studies that support this methodology, as well as anecdotal accounts from scientists.  I don't know if I'm ready for students to "do" less science in class so that they can read "about" more science.  In the bigger picture, is it more important for students to learn how to analyze and think critically about data or learn how to read an upper-level science textbook?  What will serve them better in the long-run?

My final question is this:  Should we (as high school science instructors) start having more conversations with college faculty about what skills high school graduates should be bringing with them to their post-secondary institution?  If national science organizations are saying we need to encourage more independent, creative thinking in our science-minded students, why aren't college science courses supporting this by making their teaching methods more inquiry-based?

How often do your students read from their textbooks?  Do you have your students read primary sources in your classroom in lieu of textbooks?  How do you support high school students in their reading of challenging texts and articles?  I would appreciate any input on these topics as I continue to grow in my understanding of what it means to teach science.


  1. Amanda-I love the blog post! My favorite line " I am convinced that it's more important that students learn to think like scientists rather than memorize all the information scientists have already discovered". I totally agree. However, your student story led me to much reflection (Thank you for that-love the reflection/learning time). Could we teach students specific skills to navigate challenging texts (textbook, scientific/journal article) to use thinking around these as evidence to strengthen the scientific practices of argumentation and constructing an explanation? Could we use texts to enhance but not take away from the teaching and student experience of those core science skills? Maybe our PLN can figure that one out : )

  2. Just anecdotal information about my resident scientist: Fritz went to the equivalent of a magnet science high school in Germany in the 80s. He learned through labs and lectures. He says they never touched text books in high school. He was tested on lecture content.

    At the university in Germany, he was expected to learn mostly from text books. He was tested on his comprehension of the literature by equal amounts by oral exams (!) and one big, end of the semester written tests with his professors.

    From his time as a TA during his PhD work in Austin (in the 90s), he complained repeatedly that the (American) undergraduate students couldn't learn from text books and couldn't write at the required level. He had the same writing complaints about his German undergraduate students in Munich (in the 00s). These days most of his students are graduate students and postdocs whom he hand picks, so he barely complains anymore. ;-)