In praise of the pure approach;Reviews;Science;Books

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Geoff Hayward welcomes clarity of design in single science books for key stage 3.

BIOLOGY FIRST CHEMISTRY FIRST PHYSICS FIRST. By George Bethell andDavid Coppock. Oxford University Press pound;8.50 each.

BIOLOGY NOW. CHEMISTRY NOW. By Peter D Riley. John Murray. pound;9.99. Teacher's Resource Book pound;35.

I haven't seen anything like these books for a long time. There are none of the gimmicks commonly found in textbooks for key stage 3; unadorned text, diagrams, tables and questions give them a much more traditional feel. This is not a criticism; recent research suggests that pupils may prefer such structural simplicity. Furthermore, some of the questions are excellent, testing understanding and application of knowledge.

The sheer amount of text in both series and its complexity mean that these are books for fluent readers, pupils who will reach the higher levels in the key stage 3 tests and for those taking the common entrance exam.

Peter D Riley's books for John Murray use more building blocks than the Oxford books. Questions occur within the text and at the end of each chapter. There are summaries, suggestions for discussion topics and case studies of the development of scientific ideas or of interesting natural phenomena, such as carnivorous plants. I particularly like these as they go beyond a simple picture of a famous scientist or an interesting organism, and engage with how science develops and changes over time.

The Chemistry Now Teacher's Resource Book provides tests, ideas for practical work and worksheets, most of which will be familiar to practising science teachers.

The quality of illustration in all these books, both full colour and black and white is also very high, though at times marred by a failure to integrate text and diagrams. Textbook writers need to think more about the challenge of interpreting diagrams when the reader may not know what the diagram is about.

These relatively slim volumes pack in a lot of information. In places, important connections, for example, between static and current electricity, are not developed fully (Physics First).

This does not help with developing the webs of meaning and understanding that learning science involves. Furthermore, some of the extra information, for example, the detailed structural formula of glucose molecules, does seem a little excessive (Biology First).

The development of key scientific ideas is generally accurate. However, both chemistry books, in common with practically all others, fail to deal adequately with kinetic theory, reproducing misleading diagrams to show the arrangement of particles in the different states of matter. It is time this key scientific idea was dealt with accurately in school science textbooks.

The Oxford series, in attempting to go beyond the key stage 3 curriculum, introduces more advanced scientific ideas. Sometimes this results in misleading statements. For example, adenosine triphosphate does not have a high-energy bond, nor is the human life cycle typical of many other organisms.

Such lapses, plus the complexity of the text, mean that the teacher has a crucial role in mediating these books. However, this does not mean that they should simply be thought of as reference material. Both series would be excellent for providing interesting additional work for more able pupils in mixed ability classes or higher sets.

I would use them in class as reading books and to set up topics for discussions as well as a source of stimulating reference materials and demanding questions. And I would use them with key stage 4 as well as key stage 3 pupils.

Geoff Hayward is a lecturer in science education at the University of Oxford. The Teacher's Resource Pack for 'Biology Now' has just been published and 'Physics Now' will be available in July.

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