Teaching Science: not so neutral textbooks…

Teaching children that water evaporates when it reaches close to 100°C, or that metal conducts electricity, does not really cause any ethical or philosophical issues. On the other hand, when textbooks present genetically modified plants as being a magic solution for drought, or skip the Theory of Evolution, this puts specific systems of values into children’s heads, unbeknownst to parents, teachers, or pupils.

It is obvious that a subject such as History could be subjected to questioning regarding which values should be included in textbooks. Recent debates about how the era of Colonial France was to be dealt with, and its "advantages" for the colonized populations, is a good example.

Teaching Physics, Geography and especially Biology are not usually at the heart of such debates. "However, Science lessons are not neutral and the content of textbooks often contains implicit ideologies or moral connotations” Pierre Clément points out. In the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Didactical Research and History of Science and Techniques (Lirdhist, University of Lyon 1), he has been working on these issues for several years. He has coordinated a European research project, Biohead-Citizen (Biology, Health and Environmental Education for better Citizenship), in order to analyze how certain delicate matters are taught.

According to the initial findings of this project, Sex Education is in decline (chapter 1). Worse still, several other subjects from Geography to Physics contain strong ideologies (chapter 2). The example of Biology to this effect is enlightening. According to Pierre Clément, the teaching of this subject does not change in relation to the acquisition of new knowledge; and the information put across often entails systems of values and ideologies which are often quite implicit. “The situation is quite catastrophic”, he says. “We have to start an international movement similar to what was done successfully in 1977, concerning Environmental Education.” It was known as “Tbilisi’s Call to Action"  (after the Georgian town where it took), and in the wake of this upheaval, it swept along the French Ministry of Education. In a bill, published a few years later, the ministry cited “Environmental Education” as being imperious.

The Biohead-Citizen project rightly aims at promoting profound changes in teaching, at least in the areas of the Environment and Health (chapter 3). Changes need to take place so that, for example, the same thing that happened with the very slow introduction of the Theories of Evolution into textbooks does not repeat itself (chapter 4). But, who decides what content is included in textbooks and how is this content decided upon (chapter 5)?

01.Sex Education: the return of moral values

Since the 1970s, the teaching of Reproduction Biology has been enhanced due to a new chapter: Sex Education. Textbooks take this innovative programme very seriously, breaking with the pre-May 1968 way of thinking (with its prudish moral values). Sandie Bernard explains how.  A Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Didactical Research and History of Science and Techniques (Lirdhist; University of Lyon 1), she explains that “the 1988 edition of "Biologie-Géologie" (Biology-Geology) for the French 4th grade*, from publishers Nathan, says that sexual intercourse is “a moment of pleasure for the couple. It can bring about the creation of life, if resulting in fertilization.” “Caresses” are evoked, as well as “the link between the erection of the penis and the lubrication of the walls of the woman’s vagina”. It goes on to evoke “rhythmic back and forth movements”, “orgasms”. And also  that “sexual intercourse ends with a relaxing phase and tender exchanges between the two partners.” It would be hard to be more explicit or thorough.”

This is a perfect example of the implicit values that drive a subject such as Biology: for example, that of feminist values, when it comes to highlighting the equality between men and women. “In this case, I would use the term “progressive”, Pierre Clément adds, “if we consider that our society should transmit both scientific and sociological knowledge.

Ten years later, the contrast is striking: “The same publisher, Nathan, still for pupils in the 4th grade, in "Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre" (“Life and Earth Sciences”) summarizes sexual intercourse as a union between a man and a woman that “is not always connected to the desire to have a child”, and to a story about “sperm being deposited in the vagina,” explains Sandie Bernard. Everything is said in three sentences. Nothing is mentioned about Humans’ social behavior. A real step backwards. "This regressive evolution is a current trend", Sandie Bernard points out. She revealed that, since the beginning of the 90s, texts about sexual intercourse have practically disappeared from textbooks. At least in books from the three main publishers analyzed: Bordas, Hatier and Nathan. Could this be due to an increase in conservative moral values as a result of AIDS? This is what the researcher seems to think.

The situation is worse in other countries. Pierre Clément outlines what has just occurred in Lebanon, which actually has a reputation of being tolerant due to being multicultural when it comes to religious beliefs: "Up to a few years ago, like in the majority of other EU countries, human reproduction was taught at school level, at the age of 13 or 14. However, due to pressure from Shiites and the Druses, it has been taken off second level education curriculums. This education is no longer mandatory and only certain private schools have decided to keep it, like it or not. Elsewhere, it is reserved for the final year of secondary school, a stage when most pupils have already dropped out of the school system.” Poland has also been heading in a similar direction since a conservative and nationalist coalition government came to power in 2006.

* Corresponding to pupils aged 13 or 14.


02.Rise up against textbooks

The “Applied Science” books of the 1960s may now seem amusing, presenting asexual anatomical diagrams or suggesting female predispositions to do the cleaning and male ones to repair cars. But current day manuals are not much better. "Automatically portraying twins as two perfectly identical individuals, right down to their clothing, haircuts, love of motorbikes… has heavy connotations”, says Pierre Clément, ironically. Even though genes would be totally identical from one twin to another, things such as character, taste and thoughts are not governed by these genes! The type of person we become is built up during our lives, acquired from our culture and by biological processes that are unique to each individual. "To speak of a genetic "programme" is to promote reductionist and determined ideas of man, adds Jérémy Castéra, one of Pierre Clément’s Ph.D. students. This message bears fatalist moral values that means that we are not responsible for our acts: it is written in my genes so I am not responsible for my actions.”

Other mathematical subjects do not escape criticism. Chemistry, for example, “that is never described as being polluting,” points out André Giordan, director of the laboratory of Didactics and Epistemology of the Sciences (LDES, University de Geneva). Sterilized chemistry is therefore far from being a reality; while numerous molecules are not without effect on health and the environment. What about Physics? “Here, teaching is reduced to portraying the small world of electricity, optics and mechanics, adds André Giordan. For textbooks, Physics stopped in 1904, forgetting about the Physics of Solids, Nuclear Physics, and Quantum Physics”. Thus, an atom is still portrayed as a nucleus with electrons turning around it. An image that has no longer been valid for over 50 years, due to discoveries from Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) in particular. This Austrian physicist, who won a Nobel price in 1933, demonstrated that it is in fact a cloud of electrons that surround constantly the nucleus, that each particle is everywhere at once. "Forgetting this discovery means having a backward vision of Science”.

Geography does not escape criticism. When a book speaks about a European continent and an Asian continent, it’s about politics and not geography!  In fact, there is no physical border between Europe and Asia and geographers speak about a Eurasian continent. To ignore this fact means not recognizing a shared Asian and European space (and even shared physical characteristics) and, in a mundane way, means “separating white and yellow people”. Would it not be interesting to make pupils think about this subject, instead of ignoring it? Even if it means highlight what comes under politics and what comes under geography.

In fact, all scientific content carries certain values, linked to the social consensus at the time, regarding environmental protection issues, access to culture, ethnics… Why would teaching science be any different? "Believing that textbooks should be neutral reveals a slight naivety, smiles André Giordan. The very fact of teaching Science is ideological. I have been thereby opposed by Islamists during a conference on the didactics of science given in a Muslim country." Guillaume Lecointre, a systematician in the French Museum of Natural History (MNHN) continues along the same lines: "Breaking down the teaching of science, as is done in France, to a series of facts, forgetting scientific reasoning, the “making of science”… is also a way of transmitting values. Values of glorified progress, revealing a naïve scientism, setting science objectives that are not their own, precisely because the perimeter of legitimacy is not understood. Or, when scientific facts are presented as being fixed forever, even though scientific truth is, in the short or long term, only temporary.” All these researchers are striving together to obtain a less ethereal presentation of science, less detached from its organic link with society… With textbooks that entice discussions on the values brought by science, without them going unsaid or unknown.

03.The Biohead-Citizen project, the first results (UNPUBLISHED)

The Biohead-Citizen Project is, without a doubt, very ambitious. It involves sixteen countries, from northern Europe to northern Africa, not to mention Lebanon or Senegal; several hundred textbooks dissected, from both primary and secondary education levels; almost 6,400 teachers and teachers-to-be were interviewed individually by way of an imposing questionnaire. The aim of this project is to analyze how sensitive subjects such as Health, Evolution, and the Environment are taught; and to analyze the interaction between scientific knowledge and systems of values. According to what parameters does these knowledge and their teaching methods vary? To socio-economical, cultural, religious issues, recent history of the country, or according to the disciplines being taught?

The initial fragmented results are still being analyzed. The first piece of information resulting from the work carried out shows that systems of values vary significantly from one country to another and are strongly connected with the degree of religious beliefs of the country. With the exception of Estonia and France, where only one third of teachers and teachers-to-be interviewed considered themselves to be religious (200 for Estonia and 700 for France), in all the other countries the number largely exceeded the two-thirds’ mark: 80% in orthodox Romania, more that 90% in Muslim Algeria and in Catholic Poland. And yet, the more religious teachers, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim, stand apart from the atheists and agnostics (and some Christians) as supporting more creationist arguments, more conservative values regarding sexual education, more innate, or even sexist values, and finally a lesser interest in environmental issues.

The second piece of information is more unexpected and involves the knowledge levels of those interviewed. In order to analyze this point, questions such as the following were asked: “If Einstein could be cloned, would all the clones be really intelligent?” or “After ovulation occurs […], high levels of progesterone and oestrogen are produced.” The result was as follows: “The knowledge level varies more according to the country and the education system than to the country’s dominant religion,” reveals Pierre Clément, Biohead-Citizen coordinator. In order to deduce this point, the researchers dissected numerous questions that intentionally mixed up science and ideologies. For example: “What plays the biggest role in the evolution of the species: chance, natural selection, viruses, organisms’ internal programme, God?” The answers given separated the creationists from the evolutionists but also, within these two categories, separated those with more or less knowledge. Thus, among the creationists, the Lebanese are more knowledgeable than the Tunisians.

Moreover, by analyzing school textbooks, it was revealed that the importance given to the concept of evolution varies a lot from country to country. Pierre Clément has worked greatly this subject with Ph.D. student Marie-Pierre Quessada and reveals that a specific theme of the origins of mankind is not on the syllabus in several countries such as Malta and the United Kingdom. It has at times been eliminated in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, but also in Portugal. When it features on the syllabus, it is sometimes not taught, for example in Greece and Cyprus.  This theme is “very hot,” suggests Pierre Clément, “and it crystallizes all conflicts.” Even in France it does not always feature in textbooks.

Another piece of information put forward by Biohead-Citizen involves the way in which Health Education is dealt with, once again closely linked to the culture of the country. North European countries emphasize Health Education in the way recommended by the WHO (World Health Organization), focusing on well-being, self esteem and contact with the environment. In France, the notion of health is exclusively biomedical, very remedial, where medication is seen as the solution for every pain, and germs are considered the only infective agents. What figures can back this up? In French school textbooks, more that 95% evoke health in this biomedical manner and the other 5% in a more preventive manner. Other countries also stand out: in Poland the subject of health promotion is never brought up. Elsewhere, it is more balanced, including a 50/50 balance in Germany, Mozambique and Portugal.

Apart from providing a snapshot of how education is carried out, the end aim of the research developed by Biohead-Citizen is fundamentally political. “We expect our work to contribute to bringing about changes in syllabi, manuals and the way in which these subjects are taught”, explains Pierre Clément. It doesn’t claim to solve social problems as important as sexism, racism, fatalism or the degradation of the environment…It is simply a wish to reduce and clarify the educational system’s responsibility in these areas.

For further information on the Biohead-Citizen project, consult its website. Some results will be presented here in the coming months. 
You can also contact one of the coordinators directly: Graça Carvalho or Pierre Clément.

04.Odyssey of the species through the syllabi

How long did it take for the zoological nature (i.e. animalistic) of Homo sapiens to be integrated into French school syllabi? Ninety-eight long years. In 1735, Linné chose to place humans together with the other primates, in his Systema naturæ. In 1833, a cabinet bill first mentioned this shocking news.

Pierre Clément and his Ph.D. student, Marie-Pierre Quessada have just published an article in Science & Education that analyses in great depth how the concept of the “origins of man” was introduced into French school syllabi in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: "This concept is a perfect example to illustrate the connection between knowledge acquisition, systems of values and the emotional aspect of teaching,” they explain. The fact that the National Education System has remained so against any evolutionist ideas for the last ninety-eight years was greatly due to Georges Cuvier and his heritage. He was a well-known anatomist and paleontologist, but above all an anti-evolutionist. In addition he was an inspector at the Royal Counsel of Public Education. Therefore, he did not go out of his way to include such matters in the school syllabi.

Marie-Pierre Quessada and Pierre Clément identified no less that seven obstacles over a period of two centuries that prevented the truth about human origins being spread. These obstacles included things such as the rejection than humans and monkeys shared the same origins, the belief that humans are superior, racism… Beforehand they had to identify the great changes that occurred in the area of the human origins over the last 250 years. Linné, Cuvier, Darwin…Gould and Coppens, were all taken into account. This progress was then studied in connection with school syllabi in order to calculate the time it took to publish this information. Pierre Clément speaks of "didactic transposition time gaps". Take for example the introduction of the idea that prehistoric man would replace the biblical heroes Adam and Eve. "Only" twenty five years went by from the time that the French Academy of Science and the British Royal Society recognized the existence of prehistoric man (1860) to the time that it was introduced into the school syllabi (1885). And what about the theories of evolution? There was a gap of almost ninety years between Darwin’s Descent of man (1871) and 1960, the year in which the great Charles’ work was introduced into French syllabi. "The data regarding man’s origins was not considered convincing enough by positivists, while the subject continued to bother the Catholic Church, explains Pierre Clément. This would explain why this subject did not feature at all in French syllabi in the first half of the twentieth century.”

Things began to improve from the 1960s onwards, notably with the appearance of the “tree” concept to explain the origins of Man. Several problems still remained: Humans were still often considered as being the supreme culmination of evolution, situated at the top of the evolution tree. In addition, racist views of our origins have not completely disappeared from textbooks. Of all the books studied, in France as in the other countries included in Biohead-Citizen’s European research project, only one portrays humans differently than the usual east European white image, by presenting an Asian, a white and a black person. Even in sub-Saharan Africa or in North Africa, humans are often shown as being white. The reason behind this may be the fact that these books are often reprints of French editions. Finally, even though Darwin’s ideas are implicitly presented in these books, the theory of evolution is, believe it or not, not taught as such. As Pierre-Henri Gouyon points out it was briefly introduced into syllabi in 1994 and was then withdrawn. And it has only been on the aggregation curriculum for a few years! Which would lead us to believe that it will be back in the textbooks soon…

Today, the “didactic transposition time gaps” calculated by Marie-Pierre Quessada and Pierre Clément, are very short. With all good intention, even the slightest discovery is added to textbooks. This prevents a certain critical detachment with regards this discovery. One example would be Toumaï’s jaw fragments and teeth. While Michel Brunet, one of the discoverers of these human remains, dating over 7 million years,  presents it as being the oldest known depiction of human lineage, some scientists contest this opinion. They believe that Toumaï is merely an ancestor of the great monkeys. French textbooks overlook this debate and prefer to present the certainty that Toumaï is the oldest hominid! “With regards such controversial issues, insists Pierre Clément, education should favor a historical and epistemological approach. Students, as well as their teachers, would be more prepared to deal with changes of opinion, which have been common over the last years, and will no doubt continue to increase in the years to come.

05.Developing Textbooks

How are textbooks put together? Why is there sometimes a time gap between acquiring new knowledge and including it in the content of books?

In the beginning there is a programme: a list of knowledge and know-how. The Ministry of National Education is in charge of drawing up this list to which changes may be introduced year on year. Regular informal meetings are therefore organized between publishers and programme developers in order to make publishers’ jobs easier and to respect the job of programme developers. However, as Dominique Borne, inspector general for National Education, points out in his report "Manuel scolaire" (School Textbook): even though "one of the functions of the body of inspection is to make sure it is implemented correctly […] publishers interpret the programmes as they see fit." Indeed, since the time of Jules Ferry, publishers have enjoyed total independence in their work. The only contractual agreement between them and the ministry is related to the paper basis weight and binding (paperback and not hardback), the focus therefore is not on educational issues but on health issues: to lighten the load of schoolbags!  

Textbook writers usually get together in groups of three to fifteen people, made up of primary or secondary school teachers, sometimes supervised by academics, and often by members of the inspection body. They decide on the contents and the mock-up. Tests are often set up with teachers and sometimes parents. Only after this does the actual writing begin. In parallel, photo research, the drawing up of maps, illustrations etc. are carried out. A first proofreading is followed by a second proofreading and then it’s complete. Then, the publishers use marketing methods to seduce their target clients, the teachers. It is perfectly normal therefore that “the books are designed to meet the wishes of the teachers more that those of the institution or the needs of the pupils." Dominique Borne points out. Fortunately at times, everyone has the same interests at heart.

A publisher’s sales rep possesses many tools, including presentation meeting and not to mention, free samples. "Large publishers can send several hundred thousand books to teachers per year", explains Savoir Livre, an association which groups the interests of six of the largest editors. According to Dominique Borne, this number sometimes borders on a million. When the objective is to sell, anything goes to attract the client. "The power of textbook editors could end up depriving the ministry of its role in the orientation of education material", says a worried Dominique Borne. As well, he believes that textbooks do not put enough emphasis on texts or definitions, and too much emphasis on pictures, diagrams and other visuals: "In Junior High School, written facts make up 5 to 11% of the volume of a mathematic book, 4 to 10 % of Earth and Life Science, […]. This increases a little in High School: 17 to 32 % for Math, 13 to 15% for Earth and Life science." Are these books not encyclopedic enough? Dominique Borne deplores the fact that photos make up sometimes half of the total surface of a book! "Books become, not reference manuals, but puzzles by adding headings and data, which only the teacher can solve […]. Far from favoring regular reading, it encourages short concentration spans." Others think the opposite: it's more attractive to the pupils, and decoding an image, reading a table must also been taught. A huge debate which means finding the right balance between “encyclopedic” and “learning through games”…

Why not set up a system of control? Those at Savoir Livre tend to think that this would be useless: "In practice, a control is already carried out by the thousands of teachers that receive samples and base their choice on a personal analysis, compared to colleagues in the same establishment." Elsewhere, in countries such as Spain, Japan, Sweden…another system prevails, known as ‘prior authorization': books published by a private company are not introduced into the school system until they have received authorization from a political power. This authorization failing, the book is not allowed.

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