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Scientists Pan Middle School Physical Science Texts


Curriculum CenterAre you a middle school physical science teacher? Do you rely on a textbook to provide accurate scientific information, pertinent activities, experiments that work, and the correct answers to student questions? If so, this is a report you can't afford to miss! Included: Tips for middle school teachers on making the most of the textbooks you have!

Science Books You Can Use

The reviewers of today's most popular physical science texts found little to recommend them. They did, however, make the following recommendations for some "classic" resources that can help teachers make sense of what they're teaching -- in spite of the text they're using:

* Ginn Science Program for elementary schools, by Isaac Asimov and Roy A. Gallant (Ginn and Company, 1973)

* Measure and Find Out: A Quantitative Approach to Science, by Clifford E. Swartz (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1969)

* Project Physics (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)

* Essentials of Elementary Science (2nd edition), by Dobey, Beichner, and Raimondi (Allyn and Bacon/Longman, 1999)

* Science Experiences for the Early Childhood Years (2nd edition), by Jean Harlan (Merrill, 1982)

* The Best of WonderScience (Delmar Publishers, 1996) Available through the American Chemical Society, this book contains more than 400 hands-on elementary science activities.

* The Enhanced Science Helper This CD, available from the Learning Team, contains several elementary school science programs developed by the National Science Foundation in the 1960s.

Where might you see the following pictures?
  • the equator passing through Arizona, Texas, and Florida
  • light bending the wrong way as it enters a prism
  • Benjamin Franklin with his buttons on "backwards"
  • children conducting lab experiments without protective equipment

Where might you find the following information?

  • The primary colors are yellow, magenta, and cyan.
  • Current is measured in volts.
  • Volume can be determined using only depth and width.
  • Weight and mass mean the same thing.

Unfortunately, you'd find all those mistakes and many, many more in current middle school physical science textbooks. According to North Carolina State University physicist John L. Hubisz, the textbooks "have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represent impossible situations."

Hubisz's remarks in A Review of Middle School Physical Science Texts (click Curriculum, then click Middle School Physical Science) reflect the conclusions reached by eight physicists and educators during a two-and-a-half-year study of some of the country's most popular middle school physical science texts.

The scientists critiqued the textbooks with regard to "scientific accuracy, adherence to an accurate portrayal of the scientific approach, and the appropriateness and pedagogic effectiveness of the material presented for the particular grade level." They also noted such features as "readability, attractiveness, quality of illustrations, and whether material such as laboratory activities, suggested home activities, exercises to test understanding, and resource suggestions were considered appropriate."

Much of the 101-page report consists of pages and pages of scientific errors found in the texts and accompanying teacher's guides. In fact, Hubisz notes, "listing all the errors would make this report ... over 500 pages." Instead, Hubisz is setting up a Web site to list those errors not included in the report itself.

Click here to learn which textbooks were reviewed and to read some representative comments from the authors of the report about each.


Whether your textbook is included in the list or not, you'll want to read the entire report to learn what you should look for in a physical science textbook and what you can do to compensate for the shortcomings you're likely to encounter in whatever text you're using. How many of the reviewers' comments below are also true of the textbook you use?

  • Scientific Accuracy:
    "Not one of the books we reviewed reached a level that we could call scientifically accurate as far as the physical science contained therein. The sheer number of errors precludes such a designation."
  • Adherence to an Accurate Portrayal of the Scientific Approach:
    "There were many instances where there were hints that there is an approach to solving problems that could be labeled 'scientific,' but no text emphasized and reminded the reader that the scientific approach was something to be learned and applied, perhaps even outside the science classroom."
  • Appropriateness and Pedagogic Effectiveness of the Material:
    "The net result is that students come away memorizing a great deal of material that they regurgitate on tests that emphasize recall and think that they know science."
  • Readability:
    "We scanned several randomly into Microsoft Word and ran the Spelling and Grammar checker to get the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Most of the pages, including those of the books that were designed at the 8th and 9th grade level, came out at less than Grade 6.0."
  • Attractiveness and Quality of Illustrations:
    "The books are beautifully done. Rarely does a page not have something in color and often five or six color photographs or drawings or diagrams appear on a page. The quality of the illustrations is excellent, even though not always appropriate."
  • Laboratory Activities and Suggested Home Activities:
    "Most suggested activities were good ones and appropriate, but lacked the necessary follow-up for testing what had been learned from the experience. The theory or principle being tested was not obvious."
  • Exercises to Test Understanding:
    For the most part these were trivial from a physical science perspective. If one is trying to get answers from nature, one does experiments. One does not read a section of a text and then get quiz questions that only require remembering what was read."


The report offers the following suggestions to help middle school teachers recognize -- and overcome -- the shortcomings in available textbooks:

  • As soon as you know which text has been chosen for you, form a network with several other teachers of the same course in your area and make contact with a nearby expert.
  • Get your network colleagues to put together a bibliography of sources found useful in their teaching.
  • Search the Web for relevant sites, especially the publisher's site. It may not be up-to-date, but it could be helpful.
  • Take advantage of workshops appropriate to your course offered by various discipline-based societies.
  • If you haven't taken discipline-based courses in a subject area, contact the national organization for that subject area and find out how the organization can help you.
  • Subscribe to The Textbook Letter.
  • Contact John L. Hubisz for further information.

Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


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