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Study finds textbooks lacking in how they teach conceptions of science

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
U. of I. education professor Fouad Abd-El-Khalick led a study of 14 high school chemistry textbooks from five connected series, some dating back to the 1960s.

Released 4/11/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There is no certainty in science, no such thing as “the truth.” Nor is science completely rational, objective or free of cultural influence. There is no step-by-step procedure for doing science, no “scientific method,” says University of Illinois education professor Fouad Abd-El-Khalick.

Those who study the scientific enterprise are aware of all this, he says, but much of the public holds a simpler, more-naïve view about the nature of science – and science textbooks may deserve much of the blame, according to research he presented today at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Chicago.

Abd-El-Khalick (OBD-ell HOLL-ick) led a study of 14 high school chemistry textbooks from five connected series, some dating back to the 1960s. The texts were selected because they commanded a significant share of the U.S. market, estimated at more than 80 percent, and were used widely in some of the most populated states.

Abd-El-Khalick was looking at how the textbooks communicated basic ideas about the nature of science, which he says are key to scientific literacy. Those ideas can influence everything from who decides to study science, to how voters and politicians deal with science-related public policy.

What he found in the textbooks was disturbing. “Across the board, the books did not do well,” he said. “They either did not address (the) nature of science, or when they did, most of what they presented was naïve.” (Abd-El-Khalick avoids using “the” in front of the phrase because the exact nature of science continues to be debated.)

And plenty of statements found in the textbooks were simply wrong: that a scientific law is a proven fact that will never change, that the sun rising each day is an example of a scientific law, that scientists rely only on their data to reach conclusions, and frequent references to what Abd-El-Khalick calls “the diehard myth of the scientific method.”

“The other surprising thing is, over the past 40 years, these textbooks either did not change or became worse in how they presented nature of science, and that’s shocking,” he said.

This despite a major shift over that time in scholarship about the nature of science, and how it is viewed by those in the field. This also despite reform efforts by bodies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council, which see education about the nature of science as a core concern.

Abd-El-Khalick suspects that biology and physics textbooks are similarly weak in their treatment of these issues, and hopes to study those in future research.

To evaluate the chemistry textbooks, Abd-El-Khalick and his graduate student co-authors, Mindy Waters and An-Phong Le, used a scale for judging how effectively each of 10 key aspects of the nature of science were addressed. The scale ranged from –3 to +3, with –3 assigned for an explicit misrepresentation (or naïve representation) of a concept and +3 assigned for an explicit, informed and consistent representation.

With the addition of the 10 scores, the total score for a given textbook could range from –30 to +30.

No textbook scored higher than a 12, and that textbook was from 1968. Eleven of the fourteen scored between –7 and +7, and the four books with negative scores all were published since 1995.

These findings are important, Abd-El-Khalick said, because textbooks so often determine the curriculum in science classrooms, rather than serving just as a teaching resource. “Research shows that an overwhelming majority of teachers use the textbook as the curriculum,” he said.

Gaining a more-informed view of science is essential, Abd-El-Khalick said, in order to put science and scientists in their proper perspective. When we view science too much as “the truth,” it can inspire either too much trust in scientific claims, or complete distrust when those claims change or are questioned, he said.

We can be thrown, for example, by ever-changing health claims or even by the recent decision to drop Pluto from the list of bodies defined as planets.

“We neither want to say ‘The scientist said this, so it must be true,’ nor to say ‘They changed their story one more time, so it’s out,’ ” Abd-El-Khalick said.

Between those two extremes is the “sophisticated middle” where scientific knowledge is seen as “durable, but tentative,” an admittedly difficult concept to embrace, he said. It is not to be dismissed, but also open to revision.

Science is also not about simple observation or rigid methodology, Abd-El-Khalick said, a view that discounts the essential role of creativity and intuition, and that may discourage many talented students from pursuing science as a career.

Rather than any set method, he said, in science “it’s the values, it’s the habits of mind, that are way more important.”

Abd-El-Khalick's study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Additional background on his research and views can be found in a news release from August 2004.