The Washington Post March 18, 2003

A Radical Formula for Teaching Science

by Valerie Strauss

By just about every standard for K-12 science textbook writing, Joy Hakim is breaking all the rules.

While teams of writers produce nearly all textbooks, she is the sole author of her new middle school series.

Most of the texts boast writers with advanced scientific degrees; Hakim is a former teacher and journalist who admits that she had a lot to learn before starting.

Textbooks often are collections of facts and vocabulary words -- one, for example, has long lists of such esoteric words as "saprophyte" and "commensalism" -- but hers is a narrative about scientists and their effect on the world.

With stories that build on each other to explain the progression of scientific thought, Hakim is offering a new kind of science book, using a model she first employed with an award-winning series of American history texts. Tentatively titled "The Science Story," the first three books focus on key scientists from the early Greeks to today's contemporaries, explaining how scientific thought has changed.

"Science is a process, it's not static, and so many books don't explain that," said Hakim, who expects to sign with a publisher in the next few weeks. "I try to help students understand that through stories, showing the way ideas and knowledge have changed through the ages. I want kids to become detectives, so I try to get them interested enough to want to learn more."

But if Hakim's experience with her history books is any guide, it will be tough to change an industry called "an impenetrable jungle" by Hans Christian von Baeyer, a physics professor at the College of William and Mary.

"Books are written by committees. They have no literary merit, no voice, no style, no charm," he said. "They are focused almost exclusively on facts, and since each highly paid consultant must contribute his or her iota, they are much, much too fat. The result is that children learn sophisticated, though disconnected, factoids for next week's test, fail to relate it to anything else they have learned, spew it out on the test and then utterly forget it."

Textbooks play a key role in teaching science. Polls show that more than 90 percent of science teachers use them, and one national sampling showed that 59 percent say textbooks have a major influence on their teaching.

The process that results in students getting a textbook on the first day of school is byzantine. States periodically adopt a list of approved books from which their school districts can choose. Because every state operates differently and has different content requirements, publishing houses try to address the various needs.

"Textbooks today are hugely accountable to individual state standards defined for that particular course," said Wendy Spiegel, head of communications for Pearson Education, which publishes some of the most popular middle school science textbooks.

But this results in books that are superficial and disconnected, according to Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, the science, mathematics and technology education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2000, the association published a study of 45 of the most popular middle school science and math textbooks, choosing middle school because it is the last time all students must take science. Not a single book was deemed satisfactory.

Hakim, who lives in Denver and Virginia Beach, ventured into textbook writing after learning about a mid-1980s study at the University of Minnesota. Scholars there asked linguistic professors, composition teachers and Time-Life writers to rewrite sections of a popular textbook, which were then given to students. Retention of the material shot up 40 percent with the Time-Life version, which was written in a more accessible style.

Hakim decided to tackle history first. She wrote an 11-volume series, "A History of US," which won the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing and formed the basis of a Public Broadcasting Service miniseries. The books drew praise from historians including Civil War expert James McPherson, as well as from teachers and students. Even amid all the acclaim, one textbook group accused Hakim of writing in errors.

Although Hakim was successful in getting her books into many U.S. classrooms, the process wasn't easy.

Publishing houses demanded certain changes -- for example, using "enslaved person" instead of slave. She refused. After some years, Oxford University Press finally agreed, and the next battle became the state textbook adoptions. Traditional textbook authors don't have the same literary control as Hakim enjoys. In some cases, publishers pay to use the name of an expert. In nearly all cases, writers are heavily edited.

Teachers and students have different opinions of the textbooks they use. Some say the books are fine the way they are; others say they can fall asleep reading them. "I would probably do better if they could make it into more of a story," said Emily Kurkjian, 17, a senior at Westfield High School in Fairfax County, who said she remembers her middle school science textbooks as "a bunch of straight facts" with no story line.

Several organizations are working to improve textbooks.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, has just opened the Center for Curriculum Materials in Science, funded by a nearly $10 million federal grant, to research what makes good teaching materials in science and to create a new level of leadership in the field of curriculum materials.

"We have to think about teaching science in 21st-century ways," Hakim said. "We are in a new millennium, and we have to teach like we are."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

File Date: 03.18.03