One too many questions of science

13th October 1995 at 01:00
LET'S INVESTIGATE SCIENCE SERIES Age range:10-14 By Robin Kerrod NATURAL RESOURCES 0 431 07842 4 ELECTRICITY AND MAGNETISM 0 431 07844 0 FORCE AND MOTION 0 431 07846 7 THE SOLAR SYSTEM 0 431 07847 5 COMMUNICATIONS 0 431 07845 9 PLANT LIFE 0 431 07842 4 Heinemann Pounds 8.99 each. Pack of six Pounds 51. 0 431 07848 3

SCIENCE DISCOVERY SERIES Age range: 11-14 GENETICS by Robert Snedden 0 7502 1236 5 COMMUNICATIONS by Michael Jay 0 7502 1238 1 ELECTRICITY by Robert Snedden 0 7502 1234 9 OPTICS by Gill Lloyd and David Jeffries 0 7502 1239 X Wayland Pounds 9.99 each

These two series of reference books are beautifully produced, but very different in character and intention. The Let's Investigate Science books use a mixture of photographs and coloured drawings, some of them stunning - particularly those in The Solar System. There are the now familiar devices: double-page spreads; amazing facts, here called "It's Amazing"; questions and answers; longer problems to be worked out - for example, on speed, velocity and pulleys; and suggestions for investigations. At the end of each book are milestones which provide a timeline of major discoveries, a glossary which defines technical terms, further reading and an index.

The factually-based text is demanding and dense - in Force and Motion it can be overwhelming as definitions are often given as explanations. For example: "A measure of a body's resistance to a change in motion is given by its momentum. " Notoriously difficult concepts, such as inertia, are presented as though they were obvious.

Such an approach is fine if the books are not intended to help develop a qualitative feel for the phenomenon and its explanation. However, I suspect these are exactly the sort of books that children would delight in copying large chunks from for project work, then assume they have understood something because they had copied it out. They would need, therefore, to be used with some degree of caution, even as reference books. None the less, the books make an interesting read for students who have sufficiently well-developed literacy skills.

There seems to be a mismatch of questions and investigations. Many of the questions emphasise factual recall of ideas or information presented in the text, further promoting the message of science as facts. While such a Trivial Pursuits approach certainly quizzes readers, I suspect it is not that satisfying in the long run and does little to develop understanding of science concepts. Other questions are more quantitative and require students to have quite well-developed mathematical skills and confidence in the use of equations. Even here, though, the intention seems to be practice in the use of an algorithm rather than the development of understanding. I feel the books would be better without the questions as, on the whole, they don't help the reader's understanding.

The effect of all of this is to produce something of a hybrid feel to the books; neither strictly reference nor textbooks. I suspect that parents might buy them, and they could be useful in the library of both primary and secondary schools.

The covers alone of the Science Discovery series make you want to open the books. Inside, their historical approach gives the feeling of a story, rather than a science book, and I think it works. The text is well written and illustrated, again with a mixture of superb colour photographs and drawings. The wealth of historical information has the effect of making science come alive as a human activity, though the unrelenting use of dates sometimes gives a feeling of the "kings and queens" approach to history. Unfortunately the people mentioned are all too often white males; some attempt to include non-European and female scientists would have been useful.

At the end of these books, timelines list important events in the history of each area, with good glossaries, suggestions for further reading and an index. While I enjoyed the historical approach, I am left wondering how I would use the books. They are the sort of resource it would be all too easy to buy and then neglect. That would be a shame.

Again parents might find them appealing, and libraries in both primary and secondary schools would benefit from having them, but including them as part of a teaching programme, given the current burden of the national curriculum, might be problematic.

The intended age group presents another problem. The Let's Investigate Science series seems to be designed to cover some of thenational curriculum in a factual rather than a conceptual way. But the demands of the text, and the nature of the questions, would make it hard-going for many, ifnot most, pupils at the end of key stage 2 and the beginning of key stage 3. However, the structure and format of the books makes them inappropriate for key stage 4. I think there is a lack of clarity in the thinking here.

The Science Discovery books require good reading skills but they could be used with pupils interested in science at the end of key stage 2 and the beginning of key stage 3. They would certainly make fascinating background reading and I hope science teachers will encourage their pupils to use them for that purpose. Putting some of the history of science back into science would be no bad thing.

Geoffrey Hayward is a lecturer in science education at the Oxford University department of educational studies

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