textbooks, curriculum guidelines, etc.

Maybe I’m grumpy and cynical but every time I engage with mainstream education in some sustained way, I am baffled. I am so glad that I am not required to follow the provincial curriculum because what I have read of it seems nonsensical. That this bothers me is interesting. That I’m writing about it today is sparked by borrowing a Physics textbook from the library in my quest to organize my thoughts into some sort of roughly coherent plan for exploring some concepts in physics while also exploring the math involved.

I am usually reluctant to join in with those who criticise the way that teachers are trained. I think there could be something useful in having some theory as well as practical experience. And I fully support academic research and think that it can often, at appropriate points, give us insight into how things work and how they could work better. In other words, I am inclined to be optimistic about educational research in general and in how it might filter into the training of teachers.

But I must admit that I have very little knowledge of what trainee teachers do get taught. And the evidence of the provincial curriculum guidelines and this physics textbook, not to mention other “educational” resources I come across and the way that museums design activities and exhibits for children, makes me think that whatever worthwhile educational research is being done is not finding its way into any of these things.

I would have thought that a thorough knowledge of different learning styles and some detailed knowledge of developmental psychology (a discipline I am quite suspicious of but seems to have a certain relevance) would find its way into the logic by which scope and sequence plans were laid out. Or the logic by which topics were introduced in different grades. But there is considerable evidence that this has not been the case. The primary logic as far as I can discern is an organizational one — we have this much material and this many years, how can we divide it up into roughly equal chunks across the grades.

The physics textbook seems almost random in its presentation of material, certainly in comparison to the well thought out sequence in the Hewitt book I reviewed in my previous post. There is a mix of explanation, discovery, and problems (involving some math), but the connections are not clear and the presentation is choppy. It is almost as if they have flung in some broadly related things in each category but tried to keep the total number down so that the required number of topics could be covered in a year.

Worse, is that, like museum exhibits designed for children, there seems to be an assumption that we need to “make learning relevant”. In the Physics textbook, aimed at high-school kids, this involves frequent reference to cutting edge science and a listing of careers in which you might use physics. The former are brief and contain little actual detail of how the concepts learned in this chapter relate to them. It’s almost as if they are throwing out “trendy” topics to entice kids into learning what is a pretty standard bunch of physics concepts.

My main problem with this approach, both in this specific case and in general, is that it begins from the assumption that learning is not intrinsically interesting. That we have to entice them into it. Often, the enticement then voids itself of a lot of the actual content so that it becomes a kind of side-show attraction with little depth. The Science and Technology museum in Ottawa strikes me like that. Fine for an intro to various topics but absolutely nothing for those who are interested and would like to learn more. This kind of thing has made me very wary of anything aimed at kids Tigger’s age. I have started to assume they will be dumbed down to the point of uselessness. Which is probalby why I’m reading high school textbooks to begin with. But I can’t see how this particular presentation is good for either those students who actually like science and want to delve into it or for the students who are terrified of it. Too much math (and weird symbols) with too little context for the latter. Too little connection between topics and detail about those exciting trendy topics for the former.

I will struggle on. there are some good ideas for labs in this text (“quick labs” even) that I might be able to incorporate into whatever I pull together. And there are some good problems. But I almost yearn for an old style “dry” text book that doesn’t feel the need for colour pictures and “relevant” examples.

And I’m beginning to think I need a spark timer. Too bad it’s such a pricey item. Actually measuring acceleration could be fun.


5 thoughts on “textbooks, curriculum guidelines, etc.

  1. Welcome to my world! LOL! It all seems so artificial, doesn’t it? I have been struggling with the same in english and history for years. Somehow it has all be written with the student assuming the bucket position, and thus just pour facts into without cohesion or connection. Reagan often says it seems more like textbooks with to drown you than help you learn, and I think she is pretty accurate!



  2. Yes, that is exactly the way textbooks are designed. It was so frustrating when I taught science in public school because there was absolutely no connection from one topic to the next. This week we learn about the atmosphere, next week it is insects, next it will be simple machines, then the circulatory system…Ack!
    Have you looked at books like “Physics for Dummies” to get a basic outline/overview? I would think that would be more logically sequenced and less “frills,” more like the plain old-school textbooks you are thinking about.Then could you get a book of physics experiments and just match them up by topic? And then supplement with a few well-written biographies of physicists–much meatier and more interesting than the many little “meet the scientist” vignettes from the textbooks?
    Just some thoughts. It is probably how I will approach physics when the time comes.


  3. I sat through 2 years of teaching classes and engaged fully in them and couldn’t help thinking-as did the professors-that you don’t really learn how to teach a thing until you are in the classroom, and then you see if you have it in you to adapt to your class and their variables. There is a lot of theory to slog through before then but very little theory can be put neatly in to practice, as we all know form homeschooling experience. It might help us to hang on to our principles in tough times, but that seems to be it.


  4. It doesn’t help that most textbooks are put together by committee, and then have to be approved by state education committees. As soon as you lose the singular author with a unique voice and particular vision — Hewitt for physics, Jacobs for mathematics — you may as well lose the book.

    When our daughter was in grade one and we were starting to look at our options, I took a peek at the curriculum through grade 12 (all online at the ministry’s website), and the general impression was that someone had taken a halfway decent curriculum, thrown the pages up in the air, reassembled the pages randomly, then gave the first twelfth to grade one, the second to grade two, and so on.

    Don’t get me started on relevance in education. Ugh.

    I tend toward socialism in politics, but apparently I’m quite conservative (well, old-fashioned) when it comes to education. I think if you’re going to have an institutionalized system, it’s hard to beat the old Normal School system. Books I’ve found interesting (though in my case are preaching to the converted) are “Left Behind” by Diane Ravitch (she also has a good one on textbooks, called “The Language Police), “Inside American Education” by Thomas Sowell, and “Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add” by Charles J. Sykes, which explains just what teachers aren’t learning at teacher training school. And anything by Marva Collins. Former (and award-winning) public school teacher John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education” is also good,



  5. Pingback: Tribe of Autodidacts » Blog Archive » Update on Planning a High School Biology Course …

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