A Plea To Reform Our Science Textbooks

Written by: George Greenstein

A Plea To Reform Our Science Textbooks

Inquiry Textbooks for the Sciences

George Greenstein, author of the textbook Understanding the Universe, argues that we need to change the way we teach science—and that means rethinking traditional textbooks.


Not long ago I encountered an undergraduate who was finding his study of science to be deeply unsatisfying. He was continually oppressed by the feeling that his only role was to “shut up and learn.” He felt there was nothing he could say to his instructors that they would find interesting. Nor did he feel that there was anything he could tell his fellow-students that they would find interesting. As he sat in the science lecture hall, he was utterly silent. That’s not a good state to be in when you’re 19 years old.

Doubly galling was the fact that at the same time his roommate was taking a far more student-active history course. One day the roommate had come back to their dorm room filled with excitement over a class discussion on whether we were right to have dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima. Another friend at the time was taking a literature course, and had recently made a point the instructor herself had found striking.

Meanwhile, my student was busy with Ampere’s Law. He never had any fascinating class discussions about this law. No one, teacher or student, ever asked him what he thought about it. More than that: he never asked himself what he thought about it.

Will this student keep on in science?

We are all familiar with the sort of assignments we give our students in introductory science courses. As an alternative, consider the following assignment from an introductory textbook of philosophy:

“These are strange times, what with The National Enquirer regularly featuring stories about people who say they have been kidnapped by aliens, and actress Shirley MacLaine reporting that in a previous life she was stomped to death by a white elephant. On the other hand, in recent decades we have also seen live television transmissions from the moon and electron microscope photographs of individual atoms. How can people tell the difference between truth and fiction? Are the people crazy who refused to believe their own eyes and said that the pictures of men on the moon were faked?” [R. P. Wolff, About Philosophy (8th edition) Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ 2000.]

This is not the sort of assignment we habitually offer! But why not?

I am concerned that, in focusing exclusively on our traditional view of science education, we are doing our students a disservice. I am not arguing that we should abandon our traditional textbooks and their assignments. Discursive information combined with regular problem sets are how we most efficiently present material and force our students to pay attention to it. But in concentrating exclusively on such a pedagogical strategy, we are constricting our students’ educational experiences. I would argue that both our science majors and our non-science majors would benefit greatly from textbooks explicitly designed with an inquiry approach in mind. Isn’t it possible to find material which they will find challenging and interesting, and worthy of mature attention?

We need to present our students with nuanced treatments of the process of science – not just occasionally, but as part and parcel of our textbooks. They should regularly exhibit instances in which a hypothesis is suggested by incomplete data, analyzed and modified; how better data is obtained and wrong hypotheses are rejected; how blind alleys are abandoned and how ultimately a final understanding is reached.

I can think of no finer education for a future scientist. With regard to textbooks aimed at non-science majors, such a strategy can serve as a useful corrective to the public misunderstanding of the field. Far too many people regard science as being nothing more than The Ultimate Big List of Facts. We need our textbooks to exhibit a more generous view. The above examples make clear that the inquiry method of instruction significantly widens the range of topics addressed —

  • Science involves skepticism. Hypotheses must be tested.
  • A theory must make testable predictions. If it doesn’t it isn’t a theory, it is a “theory.”
  • In science, data are paramount. If a hypothesis disagrees with observation, we must reject the hypothesis no matter how much we may like it.
  • Science involves creativity, and there are no rules for creativity. There is no algorithm for coming up with a good theory.
  • We never know whether our hypothesis is correct. We only know that we have found no evidence that it is wrong.

And perhaps most important of all:

  • Science involves habits of mind which you, the student, can master, and which will serve you well in whatever career you choose. And as debates on global warming and evolution roil, it will serve society well that its citizens have a truer grasp of the nature of scientific evidence.

To my mind it is vital that the public has such a broad, nuanced view of the nature of science. Furthermore, we need our “future citizens” to think as true future citizens – to have a capacity for critical thinking, and to not take things on authority.

All our students, future scientists and non-scientists alike, would benefit immeasurably from a broader view of science. Efficient though they may be at conveying information, our textbooks present a far too limited view. They should explicitly model the process of discovery that is so important a part of our field. Soren Kierkegaard once said “It is not at all true that the scientist goes after truth. It goes after him.” The urge to solve problems appears to be universal: witness the pleasure so many of us take in solving puzzles, or in following along in a mystery as the detective cracks the case. Enlisting this love can be a marvelous instructional technique, and one which should inform the way we write our textbooks.

George Greenstein’s recent textbook Understanding the Universe: An Inquiry Approach to Astronomy and the Nature of Scientific Research has recently been published. Read his full article “Inquiry Textbooks for the Sciences” here.

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