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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1997

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biology: A Community Context
1998. 576 pages. ISBN: 0-538-65208-X.
South-Western Educational Publishing, 5101 Madison Road,
Cincinnati, Ohio 45227. (South-Western is a division of
International Thomson Publishing Inc.)

Here Is a Good Book to Use
in a Middle-School Setting

William J. Bennetta

Page 525 of Biology: A Community Context -- the last page of text in the book -- is devoted to an article called "The Personal Pledge." Here is how the article starts:

This is the grand finale for your biology course. The more freedoms there are in any society, the more its citizens must accept responsibility for their own lives. The Personal Pledge is an opportunity for you to accept some personal responsibility. It also is an opportunity to identify and make a specific, personal contribution to the biosphere. Individual efforts do make a difference in preserving and restoring the environment. You should begin preparing for your final commitment several days in advance.

That paragraph is followed by a list of "Possible Projects" that a student may pick for his "final commitment," such as starting a recycling program, starting "a worm farm to use home food wastes," or organizing an effort to curb the volume of junk mail.

To me, the idea that a biology course should culminate in a festival of ceremonial pledging, with each student announcing a "final commitment" to make a "personal contribution to the biosphere," seems odd -- but it fits easily into Biology: A Community Context, which is a rather odd book. Though Biology: A Community Context is sold as a high-school biology textbook, it is notably short on biology but long on environmental affairs, "societal problems," and the promotion of environmental activism.

A Slick Production

Biology: A Community Context was created by an ad hoc organization called the BioCom Project, based at Clemson University. The name BioCom, which served as the book's original working title, was coined in imitation of ChemCom, the title of a successful high-school text that Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company had introduced in 1988. According to William H. Leonard, one of the leaders of the BioCom Project, Kendall/Hunt took part in the initial work on BioCom too, and it seemed that Kendall/Hunt might eventually buy the publication rights. That didn't happen, however, and in 1994 the rights were acquired by South-Western Educational Publishing. The title BioCom was discarded (partly because it no longer seemed advantageous, Leonard states, and partly because Kendall/Hunt objected to the use of that title by any other publisher), and the book that had been BioCom became Biology: A Community Context.

From cover to cover, Biology: A Community Context is a slick production that seems to have been shaped chiefly by salesmen. I infer that some marketing guys planned this book, and may even have drafted the claims that would be used in plugging it, before anyone was engaged to write the book's text. I base this inference on several observations.

First, Biology: A Community Context has obvious structural similarities to ChemCom. This suggests to me that Biology: A Community Context arose from a deliberate decision to mimic ChemCom and to attempt to produce a book that would be as salable as ChemCom has been. Biology: A Community Context, like ChemCom, revolves around "issues" and "societal problems" rather than science -- and just as ChemCom isn't a chemistry text, Biology: A Community Context isn't a biology text. The writers have taken a small selection of biological concepts and have tried to fit most of them into a framework of social relevance -- which, as every salesman knows, is fashionable nowadays. The striving for ostensible relevance dominates Biology: A Community Context from the outset, and the introductory message to the student begins with these promotional claims:

Biology: A Community Context focuses on biology, you, and your environment. Each unit begins with an authentic and troublesome issue facing you and your world. Solutions to these societal problems require that you understand biology, technology, and society. In studying these real-world issues, you will make many decisions about what you wish to know and how you can find this knowledge. [page xii]

I find that hype interesting because it seems to imply that all the units in the book deal with "societal problems" and are continually concerned with the interplay between biology and "society." As we shall see, however, that implication is not accurate.

Here are some more reasons why I infer that Biology: A Community Context has been shaped principally by salesmen:

And then there is the matter of authorship. It is common nowadays for the publisher of a schoolbook to claim that the book reflects the efforts of a multitude of writers, reviewers and advisors, for this presumably helps to promote sales -- i.e., it presumably beguiles those educators who imagine that a textbook must be good if lots of people worked on it. In Biology: A Community Context, this device has been carried to a really laughable extreme. According to the book's opening pages, Biology: A Community Context embodies the labors of 2 project directors, 1 project manager, 56 writers (Yes! 56!), 34 reviewers and 49 field test teachers, as well as a 13-member "National Advisory Panel" and a 13-member "project staff."

There is no explanation of what these 168 people may have done or contributed, and there is nothing to suggest why the production of a 576-page book, in which at least one-fourth of the available space is given to pictures, would require the efforts of 56 writers. (Count 'em, folks! 56!)

Finally, there is the matter of audience -- meaning South-Western's refusal to say anything that might identify the audience for whom Biology: A Community Context was developed. Because this is an unusual book, to say the least, alert educators will immediately ask: Who are the students at which this book is aimed, and what must those students know beforehand if they are to use it successfully? But South-Western says nothing about such matters, even in the Teacher's Guide that accompanies the student's text. Indeed, the company evidently wants to foster the notion that Biology: A Community Context is right for all high-school students everywhere -- a notion which is absurd but which might seem useful to a salesman. The Teacher's Guide says only that "Biology: A Community Context is designed for a wide range of student interests and abilities" -- which is the same as saying nothing.

Very well, then. If South-Western will not say anything about the book's audience, I will make my own judgments:

Although South-Western is selling Biology: A Community Context as a high-school book, I find that this narrow, dumbed-down book fails to deliver the formal science that must constitute the core of any high-school biology course. In a high-school setting, Biology: A Community Context is inadequate by any standard, and the notion that it might be used in a college-prep course strikes me as a sad joke.

If I consider this text in a different setting, however, I find that it has some real merit: In my view, Biology: A Community Context is a good book for use in a middle-school life-science course -- provided that the students will get a real biology course, and use a real biology textbook, when they get to high school.

Let me go further and say this: In my estimation, Biology: A Community Context is a better textbook for teaching middle-school life science than any of the conventional life-science books that I have seen. Whenever I have examined a conventional life-science book, I have found it to be junk -- a baffling maze of mentioning, apparently created by people who started with a high-school biology book, removed every fifth paragraph, compressed the remaining material by deleting every fifth word, and then relabeled the pictures in baby-talk. Ugh!

Biology: A Community Context is something different. First, it's readable: The writing is almost always admirable, with few lapses into brainless mentioning. Next, this book's scientific accuracy, when compared with that of conventional middle-school books, is outstanding. In only a few cases have the writers resorted to faking. Third, the book's length and scope are appropriate for a one-year middle-school course. Fourth, Biology: A Community Context contains plenty of good, knowledgeable activities, quite unlike the hands-on, brains-off time-wasters that we see in most middle-school books. Nearly all the activities in Biology: A Community Context are first-rate pedagogic devices for impelling adolescents to become interested in nature, and for helping them begin to look at nature scientifically.

Without doubt, a middle-school teacher who chooses Biology: A Community Context will have to use judgment and will have to reject those parts of the book that descend into fakery or silliness. The teacher who is willing and able to use Biology: A Community Context in that way will find it a superior life-science book, I believe.

A Tour Through the Units

Here is a quick tour through Biology: A Community Context, with some comments that (I hope) will help a life-science teacher to avoid some of the book's bad spots.

Unit One, "Matter and Energy for Life," opens with a section about garbage -- an irresistible section that cannot fail to make students begin to think about some interactions between humans and the rest of the natural world. Garbage dumps and compost heaps provide a context for lessons about the flow of energy and materials through natural systems, and most of the unit is commendable. The four-page section about chemistry must be shunned, however. It is one of the book's rare sprees of mentioning, made worse by guesswork -- such as the notion that "organic" molecules are "biological" molecules. Is it possible that none of South-Western's 56 writers (56!) knows that the chemical term "organic" no longer means what it meant 150 years ago? (For a an account of the origin and evolution of this term, see my review of Addison-Wesley's life-science book in TTL, September-October 1995.)

Unit One ends with a role-playing exercise, similar to the ones in ChemCom. Here, students stage a meeting of the governing council of "River City" to consider some proposed garbage-disposal schemes.

Unit Two, "Ecosystems," is a skillful, middle-school introduction to ecology. It opens with a dramatic examination of the Copper Basin, in southeastern Tennessee, where fumes from copper-smelting operations destroyed all the vegetation on thousands of acres of land. Later sections of the unit deal with plants, food chains and trophic levels, and there is a nice activity ("Revisiting Life in the Compost") that helps students to tie some of the material in this unit to some of the content of Unit One.

Unit Three, "Populations," competently introduces some concepts of population biology, then relates them to human populations and overpopulation. Good! But avoid that "BIOprediction" exercise on page 169: Young students can't be expected to conceptualize, in any realistic way, the task of calculating "the carrying capacity for humans on the earth." They will do better to spend their time in following some of the good "Suggestions for Further Exploration" on the unit's last page.

In Unit Four, "Homeostasis: The Body in Balance," the writers drop their emphasis on "societal problems" and attempt to teach some physiology. They make a poor start: They seem to confuse homeostasis with equilibrium, and they fumble their effort to differentiate among (or fake their way around) diffusion and convection and active transport. At one point they seem to say that a heart pumps blood by causing "actions of diffusion and convection." After that, they settle down and competently present some selected topics in physiology, with emphasis on human systems.

Unit Five, "Inheritance," is ridiculous -- the worst unit in the book. Evidently trying to recapture their emphasis on "real-world issues," the writers lead off with some stuff about genetic counseling -- before they've taught anything about genes. Then they hop to some genetics, then back to genetic counseling, and so forth, in a way that I find confusing, mindless and pointless. They go through mitosis, meiosis and human reproductive physiology, and then they suddenly are "Back at the Genetic Counseling Center" again, worrying about Huntington's disease. This is before they have introduced such concepts as alleles and dominance. I gave up when I reached a "BIOoccupation" box about a geneticist named Frank Dukepoo. This guy, it turns out, is a Hopi Indian who advises students to "believe in themselves, set high goals, work hard, and have an unfaltering faith in the Great Spirit." So much for that.

Unit Six, on "Behavior and the Nervous System," is generally good. I like the material about over-the-counter drugs, although the tiny passage that introduces the term placebo is inadequate and obscure. Students must have good information on the placebo effect if they are to resist the depredations of quacks.

Figure 6.12 shows a pile of trade books -- with titles such as Superlearning 2000 and How to Be Twice as Smart -- and the caption says, "People can work to improve memory and their ability to access information." Perhaps, but it is entirely unacceptable for a science text to promote vulgar "self-help" books, most of which are antiscientific and worthless at best.

A passage on "Genotypes and Behavior: Is There a Connection?" is obviously misplaced. It assumes that students already know about Charles Darwin and his travels, but those topics haven't been introduced yet. They will appear in Unit Seven. Why didn't any of the 56 writers notice this? And why didn't any of the 56 writers -- not to mention the 112 other people who allegedly had a hand in this book -- learn what "fitness" means?

Like Unit Four, this unit has little to do with societal matters, though the writers throw in some stuff about mood-altering drugs, followed by a role-playing exercise in which an adolescent boy appears in court to be sentenced on some unspecified charge arising from an automobile accident. Are these items supposed to make the unit relevant to "real-world issues"? If so, they're unconvincing.

Unit Seven, "Biodiversity," has pretty good information, but the sequence of topics is wrong. The writers start with material about geologic time, the history of life on Earth, and the diversification of organisms. What they should do next is to examine evolution and the evolutionary mechanisms that cause diversification to occur. Instead, they try to deal with classification, with the identification of species, and with speciation -- topics that the student can't understand unless he first acquires some understanding of evolution. Then the writers unveil a misplaced survey of pond-water organisms, a misplaced "BIOissue" item about Lake Victoria (page 452), and an activity involving earlobes! Only after these diversions do they get around to telling about Darwin, natural selection, and so on. The sequence is so weird that it blurs the lessons that should form the very core of the unit and should be iterated again and again: Evolution engenders diversity, and diversity is a manifestation of evolution.

Later in the unit, the writers offer an activity dealing with recent extinctions, then some good "Diversity Case Studies" (on pages 473 through 479). The aforementioned material about Lake Victoria -- which seems so pointless on page 452 -- really belongs here, as another case study.

To use this unit properly, the teacher surely will have to rearrange its topics.

Unit Eight, "The Biosphere," revolves around environmentalism, as signaled by the question on the unit's opening spread: "How can we improve all life in our global environment?" Though that question is idiotic, the unit is a generally good effort to explain some major environmental issues and to relate these to the science that has been taught in earlier units. However, the teacher must steer clear of the section titled "Sustainable Methods," which is awful: The writers' depiction of aquaculture is romantic drivel, and some of their other stuff is unfathomable (as when they claim that "Recycling used motor oil" and "Repairing household items" are examples of "sustainable activities.")

As I have said, Biology: A Community Context has a lot going for it, but the teacher who uses this book will have to exercise care and judgment. Good luck!

It Deserves a Thorough Trial
in Some Teaching Situations

Ellen C. Weaver

Biology: A Community Context is a major departure from conventional high-school biology books, both in content and in style, and it deserves attention for its engaging, high-energy way of introducing students to science.

While a typical biology text may have 900 pages or more, Biology: A Community Context has only 576. It is a book of reasonable size, so a teacher can realistically hope to cover it in one school year. However, the writers have achieved this result by omitting or scarcely mentioning many topics that usually are considered essential for an introductory biology course. For example, the section headed "Composition of Chemical Substances," which supposedly introduces atoms, molecules and chemical notation, has less than one page of text. The same is true of the section "Chemical Reactions," which describes only one reaction: the formation of aluminum oxide from aluminum and oxygen. Plants don't receive any significant amount of attention in this book, nor do any of the major groups of animals, fungi, protists or bacteria. Human physiology is represented chiefly in chapters dealing with homeostasis and with the nervous system, augmented by scattered, short passages about some other topics.

I am troubled by the thought that students who use Biology: A Community Context may have to take tests that will require knowledge of the many things that this book omits, and that these students may have to compete with peers who have taken traditional biology courses. ln such competition, students who have used Biology: A Community Context will suffer a big disadvantage.

It seems to me, however, that Biology: A Community Context would be a superior middle-school text. Middle-school students who use this book will not learn much formal biology, but they can get that later, when they take biology in high school. What they will get from Biology: A Community Context, I believe, will be an interest in the natural world, an awareness that biological processes are taking place all around them, and an appreciation of the pleasures of scientific investigation and observation. All this is to the good.

Biology: A Community Context has eight units, the first of which is called "Matter and Energy for Life." That title is rather conventional, suggesting the usual survey of chemical facts, cell biology and metabolism. However, the unit itself is not conventional at all. The writers start with a section called "The Biology of Trash," which sketches the story of the Mobro -- a barge that wandered for nearly two months, in 1987, looking for a port that would accept a cargo of garbage. Next the writers take a broad look at garbage, telling where garbage comes from, how we try to get rid of it, and how it is (or is not) degraded in compost heaps or municipal dumps. This leads to sections about biological recycling and about how organisms use energy, followed by an activity in which the students observe some organisms collected from compost.

Here is relevance indeed, and I really approve of this approach. (During my years as a professor of biology, I used to take college students to a sewage-treatment plant for some lessons about microbiology, the flow of energy through an ecosystem, and the impact of sewage on natural habitats.)

From the very first, students who use Biology: A Community Context begin to apply methods of science, carrying out "guided inquiry" activities in which they learn to observe, to measure, to infer, and to keep records. Will the students be bored? Not likely. Though the text is sometimes so sharply condensed that it resembles an outline rather than a narrative, it is generally accurate and consistently engaging.

The "Matter and Energy for Life" unit is followed by units entitled "Ecosystems," "Populations," "Homeostasis: The Body in Balance," "Inheritance," "Behavior and the Nervous System," "Biodiversity" and finally "The Biosphere." The book ends with a dozen appendices, a glossary and an index.

Carelessness and Confusion

According to claims made on its initial pages, Biology: A Community Context has benefited from the work of 56 writers, 34 reviewers and 49 field-test teachers. Yet the book has errors, inconsistencies and oversights, even after the application of all that expertise. For example:

The glossary is very thin, and some scientific terms that appear in Biology: A Community Context are not defined at all. The index is notably incomplete, too, failing to show many terms and topics that appear in the book's main text. I recommend that the glossary and the index should be expanded when the next edition is developed, and that all the figures should be reviewed by knowledgeable persons.

In conclusion, I find Biology: A Community Context to be an innovative book that succeeds admirably in some ways. In terms of content, however, it is not comparable to, and cannot substitute for, a conventional high-school text. This book's high-energy, inquiry-based approach may work well in middle-school classes or perhaps in low-level high-school classes, and it deserves a thorough trial in those situations.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

Ellen C. Weaver is a professor of biological sciences, emerita, from San Jose State University. Her scientific specialties are plant physiology and the application of remote sensing to the oceans, and she has served as an advisor to the National Academy of Sciences. She is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a past president of the Association for Women in Science.

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