Few Science Textbooks Show How New Discoveries Are Really Made

By Sarah Schwartz — December 12, 2019 3 min read
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Think about a famous scientific breakthrough, like the discovery of the existence of gravity. What do you picture?

Probably, you’re thinking of Sir Isaac Newton, the 18th century scientist, hit on the head by a falling apple while sitting under a tree. Newton sits up, rubs his forehead, and the concept of gravity dawns on him in an instant—a fully formed scientific theory.

Historical records suggest Newton did have a revelation while watching an apple fall. But that one event doesn’t tell the whole story. Newton didn’t just come up with the laws of gravity in an afternoon, and the scene doesn’t show his scientific process: the work Newton did before and after that helped him understand gravity, or how his collaborators and contemporaries contributed to that understanding.

According to a new study in the High School Journal, science textbooks often omit this broader context.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee, George Mason University, and the University of Louisiana reviewed 17 middle and high school science textbooks to see how they portrayed the history and the nature of science. They conducted a qualitative analysis of all of the textbook passages that mentioned scientists or scientific discovery.

On the whole, the researchers found that the textbooks generally portrayed scientists as geniuses, working alone, who make discoveries because they can spot things that other people can’t.

Passages didn’t convey that scientists work together and build off of each other’s findings—or that science is “an ongoing enterprise,” the researchers wrote.

“There’s sort of a lack of understanding of the process of what experimenting means,” said Anthony Pellegrino, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of education at the University of Tennessee.

The steps that scientists have taken to arrive at their conclusions—the processes of hypothesis testing, gradually building a scientific consensus, and revising prior knowledge in light of new evidence—"That’s the stuff that we don’t see in textbooks,” he said.

Not How Science Works

This kind of framing can give students the wrong ideas about how science works, said Pellegrino. It can also influence whether students find the subject relevant to their lives, or whether they could consider a career in the field.

“It strips away the agency of the students in seeing themselves as part of science,” he said.

Science education has recently begun incorporating more discussion of process. The Next Generation Science Standards note understandings that students should have about the nature of science—for example, that knowledge can be revised in light of new evidence, and that investigations can use a variety of methods. These understandings are woven through the standards’ three dimensions (scientific and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts).

But Pellegrino and his colleagues’ study shows that many textbooks haven’t caught up.

Some of the books explained the nature or history of science in individual sections, like in a chapter or two at the front of the book, or in sidebars to the core passage.

But the textbook authors didn’t apply that framework to the rest of the text. Generally, scientists’ discoveries were presented without any mention of the preliminary experiments that paved the way for new findings.

Of all of the scientists covered in these books, 93 percent weren’t mentioned in connection with any collaborators. The same was true for 80 percent of the Nobel Prize winners.

And there was almost no geographic or racial diversity. The researchers examined 1,476 total total passages across all 17 textbooks. Only 12 passages mentioned non-Western scientists or discoveries.

“Scientists from the West were exalted, and there was this very limited view of science coming from anywhere else in the world,” said Pellegrino.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.