Joy Hakim writes what I think are the most readable and lively history textbooks. Yet she fights losing battles with big publishers to sell her work in big school districts. Even when she gains a foothold, she said, her books “have often been quickly trashed and replaced by freebie books from one of the Big Four who have tentacles everywhere.”
Her 10-volume “A History of US” still has many admirers. Now, she is exploring science. She has published books on Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. She has written three more on evolutionary biology, “but so far I can’t find a publisher, my agent retired and no one wants to take on break-the-mold books,” she said.
The new big thing in science teaching is the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by 19 states and the District. The website for the science standards says goals include “developing performance expectations that state what students should be able to do,” incorporating in each expectation “a science or engineering practice, a core disciplinary idea and a crosscutting concept” and listing connections “to disciplines of science and engineering, and with Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts.”
That is not promising. Common Core has so far done little to raise achievement in math or English. Hakim thinks the well-intentioned educators behind this effort should also tell stories about people, as she does in her history and science books.
“Science education focuses on doing, which is the way we’ve been teaching science for decades,” she told me. “We will continue to do so under the NGSS. Science students will spend much of their time doing experiments, studying their results, and coming to conclusions, but in a highly organized way, and now they will be asked to explain what they’ve been doing.”
“They will be missing out on science’s stories, its challenges, its heroes, its villains, and its aspirations. Knowing the narrative behind an achievement — breaking the genetic code for example — helps nail its underlying meaning and importance,” she said.
I was a good high school science student. I wanted to be an astronomer. I got A’s in biology and chemistry. But I lost interest. I dropped physics in favor of student government. As a college political science major, I fulfilled the science requirement in a dumbed-down course that did not have homework.
Now, having more time for reading, I love science writers who reveal how discoveries were made. My favorite recent books have been David Quammen’s “The Tangled Tree” (molecular biology), Ben Goldfarb’s “Eager” (beavers) and Steve Brusatte’s “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.” Hakim mentioned the riveting story of evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, unknown to me until I read Quammen’s book, although I knew of Margulis’s first husband, Carl Sagan.
I think students should still do experiments. Hakim thinks there is room in high school for both Bunsen burners and the voyage of the Beagle, maybe by teaching science history in the social studies department. Here’s a daring idea: Have high school students read an entire book — not a textbook — on important scientific discoveries, something that is rarely done in any public school.
We know what big publishers will do to the Next Generation Science Standards. Beverlee Jobrack spent 25 years in publishing and revealed in her 2012 book, “Tyranny of the Textbook,” the $4 billion-a-year industry’s resistance to hopeful reforms. “For the most part,” she said, “a paragraph here, an activity there, a few practice exercises, and some assessment items are all that are required to be rewritten or reworked.”
Journalists spend a lot of time reporting on what is going wrong in the world and why. Our focus is almost always on areas that many readers are involved in, such as politics, government and business — but rarely science. Like us, teachers have little time to explore the disappointments and intellectual battles important to scientific progress.
Why not change that? For most of my life, everyone knew that spicy foods caused ulcers. Then, suddenly, we learned the real culprits were bacteria and anti-inflammatory drugs. How did all those scientists and doctors get it wrong? That’s a good topic for some deep student reading.