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To Err is Common

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As if state boards and religious fundamentalists weren't enough to worry about, now textbook publishers have to contend with the students in Rico DiPrete's 9th-grade general-science class in Warwick, R.I.

Mr. DiPrete found an error in General Science, the textbook he uses to teach the class at Pilgrim High School, and pointed it out to his students. Then he asked them to see if they could spot any other errors. They found more than a dozen.

"We caught errors that the five distinguished science academics who wrote the book must have4missed," Mr. DiPrete said.

In the hunt for errors, one student outpaced both his teacher and his classmates.

Fourteen-year-old Jonathan George found so many mistakes, running the gamut from grammatical errors to incorrect theories, that he decided to write the publisher, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

For example, explained Jonathan: "The book says that atoms are basic particles--'basic' meaning that they cannot be broken down--and then later the book says atoms are broken down into protons, neutrons, and electrons."

In a prompt reply, Daniel Franck, a senior editor with the publishing company, wrote that some, but not all, of the mistakes the students cited were valid.

"All publishers get this kind of letter," said Mr. Franck. "It is part of the evolution of a textbook." The next edition of the text, he said, will clarify the breakdown of the atom.

But then there is the matter of matter. "The nature of matter has never been proven and it is presented as fact in the book," said Mr. DiPrete. "Our real complaint is that throughout the book, the authors treat theory as fact."

Despite his complaints, Mr. DiPrete still uses General Science. The search for errors, in fact, has provided the teacher with a classroom lesson of another sort. Most science texts, he says, are written like cookbooks: They encourage students to follow directions, but not to think.

"I'm trying to teach students to be creative," he says, and to question experts--"even teachers"--because they are not always right. "The mistakes are almost a godsend."

Lest publishers think they can rest easy, the science students are drafting another letter with the mistakes they have found since the first letter was written.

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