Forced to face up to the biological facts of life

8th March 1996 at 00:00

GCSE Biology. By DG Mackean. John Murray.

If you can't judge a book by its cover, just how do you judge a schoolbook? A fine balance had to be set between a book wholly dependent on teacher intervention and something a student can use independently. There is also that "something extra", the innovative way that a difficult concept is put over with eye-catching design and high-quality diagrams.

There was a variety of entries, from classic textbooks to integrated schemes of work. The range of material was weighted at key stage 4 towards biology, very little chemistry and no physics!

Science Now! 1 (Heinemann Pounds 6.99) contained examples of what the judges were looking for - to explain the concept of electric current they used the analogy of an obstacle race to show a "current" of children squeezing through a pipe, the timekeeper being the ammeter.

Most entries used questioning at the end of a topic or page spread. The Science at Work books for Years 7 and 8 (Longman Pounds 2.99 each) used progressively difficult questions in each spread, a useful way of diffentiating. New Horizons key stage 3 resource book (Cambridge Pounds 8.95) simply put all the questions at the end of the pupil book, not helpful at all.

The design and layout of schoolbooks have improved considerably. Unfortunately, in some of the entries the designers seem to have had a field day. New Horizons stood out because of its excessive use of different typefaces and poor use of space.

One double-page spread in particular grabbed the attention, a full 3D representation of a cross-section through the Earth's crust, very pretty but little information was given with only a small amount of usable text. Longman's Science at Work was a confusing mix of freehand black and white drawings, full colour diagrams, drawings and photographs. Locating the text was difficult.

In contrast, the GCSE textbooks resisted the temptation to assault the eyes with a deluge of colour and style, and were much better presented. Mackean's GCSE Biology (John Murray Pounds 11.99) presented well thought-out clear, helpful diagrams - such as the cross-section of the gut showing the villi in situ, followed by a cross-section of a villus, putting this structure in context. The photographs were also well chosen.

Michael Roberts' Biology (Nelson, Pounds 9.99) overdid the pictures, including one of two athletes leaving the starting blocks in a sprint race with the caption "This picture shows how the hormone adrenaline prepares the body for action" - an extravagant claim.

Jones and Jones's Biology (Cambridge Pounds 10.95) made use of excellent colour drawings but was let down on one or two, such as the fossil record where it was unclear if the drawing was about the first appearance of the species or the length of time it has survived.

One of the features of a good schoolbook must be the text; it must present key ideas to pupils. Some books adopted the idea of key facts, such as Science Now! 1. A good thing. A specific pointer allowing pupils to know what it is they are supposed to be learning or finding out, a feature that with good clear layout pushed this book up the shortlist. The Spotlight Science (Stanley Thornes (7.50) Year 9 book was a little light on readable text for pupils and seemed to adopt the "keep them busy " attitude to science, something the judges were not so keen on.

Double-page spreads were prevalent throughout the key stage 3 books. Should science be summed up in double-page spreads and will students ever be able to read a book where a thought has to be carried beyond two pages? Pople and Williams's Summary Book: Science to GCSE (Oxford University Press Pounds 9) however, used spreads well. It was billed as a summary book and did just that. The bullet points and practice exam questions were an added feature that made it more than a run of the mill fact book.

Three books made the final shortlist; Science Now! 1's clear, well-designed layout and key facts make it a welcome addition to the throng of key stage 3 books; Summary Book: Science to GCSE is a compact well-written summary book that would be as useful in the home as in the classroom.

But the winner was Mackean's GCSE Biology. As a second and completely-revised edition suitable for the new syllabuses, its effective text leads pupils through a well-defined path to a full understanding of the concept. It stands out among the entries as a "Rolls-Royce" of science books.

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