Science Kits vs. Textbooks: A False Dichotomy

I’m often asked whether schools should purchase science kits or textbooks for elementary and middle school students.

A decade or two ago, there was some merit to the argument that because many elementary teachers were not comfortable teaching science, their district should invest in textbooks to teach non-fiction reading and communicate scientific information. And for districts that could provide professional development, science kits were the best choice because hands-on activities are better for teaching science than textbooks.

However, the landscape of science education has changed. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)* call for three-dimensional teaching, which places equal emphasis on the core ideas of science and engineering, as well as practices and crosscutting concepts. The focus on science and engineering practices has also shifted away from a narrow emphasis on experimentation and now places greater emphasis on students’ abilities to obtain, evaluate, and communicate scientific and technical information and to argue from evidence. I interpret the new standards to mean that students should engage in both reading and doing, and that both aspects of instruction should be designed to lead students to higher levels of thinking.

In responding to the new standards, I’ve seen evidence of two kinds of changes. The most thoughtful and effective kit developers now include more extensive student readings that provide context to the hands-on activities and help students develop a deeper understanding of related scientific ideas and crosscutting concepts.

I’ve also seen evidence of the most thoughtful and effective textbook developers making fundamental changes: HMH Science Dimensions®, for example, has developed reading materials for students that don’t simply present information; they also engage students in making observations, conducting hands-on experiments, solving engineering challenges, conducting internet research, arguing from evidence, and making sense of phenomena.

In other words, the best kit materials have adopted some of the elements of good textbooks, while the best textbook series have adopted key elements of kit programs. The result is that it makes little sense to make a blanket decision on whether textbooks or kits are best. Each set of instructional materials should be evaluated based on its merits, services provided by the publisher, and the best “fit” between the teachers’ interests and capabilities and the qualities of the instructional materials.

For teacher teams holding the responsibility of selecting instructional materials, and whose state science standards are based on the NGSS or the Framework for K–12 Science Education, I suggest use of the EQuIP Rubric and the shorter Lesson Screener to help identify the instructional materials that best meet their needs.

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Dr. Sneider hosted a free webinar, How Crosscutting Concepts Are Related: A Case Study from Astronomy, on Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Watch the recording here.

*Next Generation Science Standards and logo are registered trademarks of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards was involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.