Tiers of joy
SCIENCE FOUNDATIONS. Biology, Chemistry, Physics Pupils' books. Pounds 9.95 each. Supplementary materials Pounds 39.95. Cambridge University Press.
COLLINS GCSE SCIENCES. Biology, Chemistry, Physics Pounds 11.25 each. (Pounds 9.50 for orders of more than 10). Collins.
Justin Dillon examines three sets of GCSE materials and warns that differentiated tasks should be as important an ingredient as slick presentation
The prescribed curriculum and the reduced number of GCSE Science syllabuses has forced publishers to find new ways to make their products stand out from the crowd. In choosing books, teachers need to consider which features are most important: cost, design, clarity and appropriateness to their students' needs. These three state-of-the-art sets of materials vary considerably within a similar price range.
Collins offers a single book for each subject. Chapters begin with learning objectives and each section finishes with a short summary of key points. Sub-headings are invariably questions - 'Why do plants look green?' -designed to lead readers into the text. Attractive colour photos, diagrams and charts add to the pleasure of engaging with the text and clarify concepts. Activities are kept to the margins, removed from the flow of information and relegated to a more austere typeface. Investigations come at the end of the chapters in the form of a short introductory paragraph followed by a plan and exercise. A useful glossaryindex rounds off each book The publishers say that the book is suitable for students of a wide ability range. This is hard to substantiate. Little attempt is made to differentiate the activities; no concessions are made to less able readers. The jacket cover is more accurate when it says the material provides a good base for progression to A-level studies. Indeed teachers who argue that GCSE does not provide an adequate base for further study should have a close look at these texts.
However, the strategy of separating the activities from the text is inappropriate for most children. We learn through processing information - turning someone else's words into our own rather than blindly copying. The position of the investigations is also unsatisfactory. Relegating them to the end of the chapter denies practical science its status as integral to the development of scientific understanding.
Heinemann has adopted a two-tier, separate reader and activities approach. Teachers ordering the materials need to decide how many of their students are owls (Higher) or tree frogs (Foundation). Unlike Collins, Heinemann uses the "Science by double-page spread" approach which, as the pages are small, gives a compressed, albeit colourful appearance to each unit. The nine chapters are organised into five sections with questions at the end of each one as well as at the end of each unit.
The higher tier material has not been designed to stretch the most able as well as it might. There are too few 'why?' questions and there is too much describing and explaining. The foundation material looks very different to the higher tier books: it is less cluttered, has fewer words per spread and presents key ideas at the end of each page.
The Heinemann material scores in its assessment and resource packs which as well as being separated into higher and foundation material is also differentiated within both tiers. So, for example, skill sheets for planning, analysing and evaluating are available which offer different amounts of help within each of six investigations. The assessment and resource packs also contain exam-style questions and answers, 30 photocopiable assignments, revision tests and checklists and the answers to the questions in the student books. The downside is that there is no such thing as free photocopying - with tight financial control on science department budgets the norm, schools need to cost new courses carefully.
Cambridge's Science Foundation course adopts the separate subject, separate student book and resource pack approach. The students book is almost A4 and contains attractive, sectioned, double-page spreads each illustrated with colour photographs, charts and diagrams. Each unit ends with a copy-and-complete section which acts as a summary. The completed summaries are at the back of the book, as are sections on data handling, revision technique and a glossaryindex.
The Cambridge material does not contain large passages of text. After each paragraph there are short, often thought-provoking, activities including both "what?" and "why?" questions. This is a commendable and challenging approach which mirrors the way in which teachers work. I am less happy with the copy-and-complete summaries. They are trivial and do little to develop scientific thinking.
Cambridge's supplementary materials include commentaries on each unit which, as well as giving answers to the questions in the text, also make suggestions about practical activities. Information about the particular requirements of examination boards is also included. A series of worksheets usually involving charts or diagrams is included. A multiple choice test with answers for each section completes the pack. The commentaries and their associated discussion and suggestions for practical activities are to be commended but the assessment material is not so rigorous. Multiple choice testing may be quick but, given the importance of assessment, a broader range of types of questions is needed.
Justin Dillon is a lecturer in science education, King's College London