The Textbook Challenge: Environmental Science (7th grade)

First up in my analysis of my children’s textbooks for The Textbook Challenge: my 7th-grade daughter’s Environmental Science text. The purpose of the challenge is to compare textbook content to what can be found online.

Environmental Science? Sounds like a timely topic indeed…

Profile and interview

The book starts with a profile of - and interview with - a Wildlife Management Biologist. There are 4 pages of text and pictures. I find similar resources on the Web with a quick Google search. Check.

Learning activity - Camouflage

Flipping forward randomly, I find the following activity (click on image for larger size):


Hmmm… I’m NOT impressed with this activity. This book lists 3 program authors, 3 more book authors, 2 contributing writers, a reading consultant, an interdisciplinary consultant, 2 safety consultants, 13 program reviewers, 27 content reviewers, 26 teacher reviewers, and 25 activity field testers (whew!). Despite all the expertise and Ph.D.s. on the list, this was the best they could come up with for an activity related to camouflage?

I show this to my daughter. She already knows at least as much about camouflage as she would learn from this activity. She responds quickly to the ‘Think It Over’ part. She does NOT learn anything new from this activity. I’m not sure any other 7th-grader will either.

There are a wealth of camouflage activities and lesson plans available via a quick Google search. Check.

Real-world lab - Is paper a renewable resource?

Flipping forward randomly again, I come to a ‘real world lab’ that purports to address whether or not paper is a renewable resource. In this activity, students examine newspapers under microscopes, tear them up into small pieces, and then essentially make them back into paper again by making a rudimentary paper press. Students then extend their learning by answering some questions and designing ‘experiments’ on how to recycle other materials such as glossy magazine paper or cardboard.

Quick Google searches turn up a number of similar resources. Check.

Exploring soil conservation

Flipping forward randomly again brings me to a sidebar on farming practices that help reduce soil erosion. A quick Google search is productive. Check.

Try this - How acid is your rain?

Flipping forward randomly brings me to a little side experiment on rain acidity. A quick Google search is productive. Check.

Chapter review and air pollution concept map

One last random flip forward. I’m at a chapter review. There are lots of multiple choice and true-false questions. There also is a fill-in-the-blank concept map for air pollution that requires students to put in EXACTLY the term expected by the textbook. A quick Google search turns up similar activities. Check.

The chapter review also contains 3 ‘Thinking Critically’ questions:

  • Comparing and Contrasting. How are radon and carbon monoxide alike? How are they different?
  • Predicting. What effect might a sudden increase in the amount of ozone in the ozone layer have?
  • Making generalizations. Would you expect the levels of photochemical smog to be worse in cities or in rural areas? Explain your answer.

I’ll let you decide if these truly measure critical thinking or if they merely require student to parrot back what a teacher, textbook, or web site tells them.


Although I didn’t do an exhaustive examination of the textbook, random searching didn’t turn up much that wasn’t easily findable online. Some of the Web activities appeared more cognitively complex than what was in the text; others were similar.

10 Responses to “The Textbook Challenge: Environmental Science (7th grade)”

  1. Interersting random review of this textbook Scott. I have to agree the Discover Activity on Butterflies had me scratching my head and asking myself was this really from a seventh grade textbook?

    Your online links are very informative.

    Will be looking for more of these.

  2. I love that you are doing this Scott!

  3. But textbooks aren’t FOR students… Aren’t they FOR teachers?

    A good teachers edition with some tests to photocopy…

  4. Okay, I’m going to go against the grain and disagree here. Before you decide I’m a horrible teacher, let me try to explain. Granted, it’s my unique situation, but I can’t believe that there aren’t a few more like me.

    1. I’m teaching a Gr 7 science class where this actually WOULD elicit some learning. They could be considered “at risk” kids, ESL, etc. I’m amazed at the language in my textbook I have to explain or change to make it their level. Therefore, what may seem easy, really actually hits various objectives at a level my kids could use.

    Now, take a look at the content that you’ve linked.

    Arizona – young, at the least, for the first game. Possible, but it does’t get at the curriculuar expectation that students are able to reproduce camoflage, understanding how it works. Part 2 requires me to get crickets – there’s a budget to get cages, crickets, etc. Furthermore, the content isn’t, again, asking the students to show they know what camo is. They can talk about it, but I need an activity that has them showing they know it.

    Activities for Camo – activity 1 is similar to Arizona, so I have the same concerns. Activity 2 is the same as the textbook 🙂

    Hide in plain sight – Gr 2-3.

    BrainPop (which, btw, is fantastic usually) requires a) more time than a lesson, and b) seems slightly lower. Granted, I could modify, but again, I could modify butterfly.

    British – not bad, but requires a bunch of photocopying (more later)

    Puddler – more insects than I can bring into a classroom 🙂

    Hotchalk – Gr K-2

    I’m not trying to destroy your research, I’m just wondering – how long did those searches take? Longer than it would have taken me to use the activity (or modify it?) to the age level, and the complete understanding that I’m hitting the curricular content without having to guess. Time saved is about equal, I suppose.

    2. I have no doubt that I could find resources for each and every lesson. The difference is, a lot of time consuming work has actually been done for me – curriculum correlations take FOREVER, and my textbook happily breaks those down for me. Instead of having to go through the 95 outcomes for Gr 7. Science for each lesson to decide if I hit them (there are some super general ones sitting around #68 that apply to a ton of stuff, so it’s not in order), someone has done this for me – call it 10 minutes per lesson, or 900 minutes over the course of a year. Do all teachers have to do curriculum correlations? No, but I do, so I’m thankful for my textbook 🙂 I’m also thankful that if I follow along in the book, I don’t have to go searching for any outcomes that I may miss.

    3. I get a certain number of clicks on my photocopy – 12 kids in my class (I know, it’s small…) x 1 double sided sheet of content (because we can’t copy that many notes and get anything done) x 1 activity sheet = 24 pages per class x 3 classes per week = 72 per week x 35 weeks = a ton more photocopies than I feel like using for one class 🙂 Textbook means I don’t have to.

    4. I have to plan Math 7, Math 8, Science 7, Science 8 and Health 8. Since I have textbooks for each of these, with lovely teacher guides, my planning is mostly done. People can claim I’m lazy, or unimaginative, etc. Really, I’m using resources just like the internet, but someone has found them for me. Do I modify? Of course, where appropriate, but many of the activities are great – they’ve been extensively tested in classrooms, written by experts (my mother writes textbooks, so I know the work that goes into them), and ready to use.

    We’ve all tried a new activity with a class – I do it often, but when I do, I know to take a notepad and write all over my lesson plan because it never works right the first time. At least with a textbook, I know it’s been tried a dozen times.

    In short, COULD I find all the resources my textbook has? Of course I could, but the time factor, the convenience factor, and the reliability factor outweigh the cost. $50 for a textbook, class size of 30, = $1500 for the investment. Assuming a textbook lasts 4 years (short, I know, but lets see…) that’s $375 for each year of students. In a year, I’ll teach ~90 lessons (3 per week, 30 real weeks). Doing the division, I get $4 per lesson 🙂 I make ~$40 an hour, so unless I can get the content I need off the internet in less than 6 minutes, AND lesson plan it, it’s not worth it financially.

    Some will claim that better lessons are made – I agree, but since I’m only a third year teacher, I’m still in the process of modifying what’s in the book.

    I deliver good, interesting lessons to my students, and I do it using a group of textbooks that provide a good, engaging classroom environment – and all for less than $4 a lesson!

    • Graeme, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Having once taught 8th grade, I know your time is at a premium.

      I think this COULD be burdensome for an individual teacher. Curating sets of resources for each lesson takes time. That’s why I think this is better done collectively. A group of teachers at a school or in a district; a subject-matter association (such as NCTM or NCTE); a nationwide team paid for by a grant from a foundation; and so on. The collective likely will come up with a better set of resources than an individual, anyway, as everyone brings his/her expertise/experience/perspective to bear.

      This also is something that wouldn’t need to be done all at once. Do this for 3-4 units per year. In 2-3 years you’d have a complete set.

      My search times were negligible. A few minutes on each one at most. The results were functionally-equivalent learning resources. In other words, it only took me 30-60 seconds in nearly every single case to find the textbook equivalent online. Often the online materials was better/deeper/richer. The point is that the same stuff the textbook contains is available for free on the Internet, pushed out by someone who’s voluntarily sharing…

  5. I think an important point is also hinted at by Graeme above – it’s all very well doing “a quick Google search” but allowing the time to check the quality and authority of the sites you are recommending adds a big overhead. How about looking at shared teaching materials (e.g. in Merlot) too?

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam. I’m not even checking sites like Curriki, Merlot, OER, and so on. The goal of the Challenge (at least for me) is not to determine the quality/authority of the learning materials. It’s simply to see if I can find online the functional equivalent of what’s in the textbook. For this textbook, I was able to do that in every single case with 30-60 seconds of time spent in Google…

  6. I understand the time constraints, and the issue with assessing the credibility and validity of online resources. However, isn’t that one of the most important skills we need to teach students, to not just trust what they read as being the truth? And yet, when we hand them a textbook, we do just that. We assume everything in it is correct because it has been adopted and placed in the classroom. But ask any content-matter specialist to read a textbook, and he/she will quickly start pointing out fallacies, inconsistencies, etc in any book.
    I think we have to move towards online resources, and not just online textbooks. Collaboration is key to the success of the venture, and a true dedication of educators to be lifelong, engaged learners. Sadly, textbooks provide a way around that for many teachers.
    Your post definitely gave me food for thought – hope you don’t mind, but I piggy-backed off it for my own blog post today.

  7. Looking at your links, I have to disagree. The information in them is undoubtedly better and the ideas for activities are more creative – for the teacher. However, most (not all, but by far the majority) seem to be written with teachers or adults in mind. Many 7th graders aren’t going to be engaged by something written in lesson plan form and some of the writings in the Google searches may be overly technical or just geared toward adults. Even if you accept that most 7th graders should be able to sort through it, I think the problem becomes amplified the younger the audience. What about a 3rd grade environmental science textbook?

  8. Good point, Farrar. At this point I’m just trying to find functional equivalents to what’s in the paper textbook. For this particular text, I felt like I found that (for the most part). Now, whether the online resources or the textbook are engaging to students is a whole ‘nuther matter…

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