For children of the 1980s, the subject matter they learned in middle school may not be vastly different from what today’s children are learning however, the teaching styles have changed.
The difference is evident in textbooks published in the late '80s when compared to textbooks from the last few years.
Using the Florida Department of Education’s adopted materials guidelines, Local 6 selected four middle school science and math books to analyze.
For science, we compared Holt MacDougal’s “Florida Science Fusion: New Energy for Earth Science” published in 2012 against MacMillan’s “Earth Science” published in 1986.
In math, we specifically looked at teacher’s editions for “Big Ideas Math 7” from 2010 and Houghton Mifflin’s “Mathematics: Structure and Method Course 1” from 1985.
The main difference is evident in the first few pages. Newer books are brighter and more visually stimulating with lots of illustrations and pictures throughout.
The newer math book even started off each chapter with cartoons, while the old book basically just showcases numbers and how to manipulate them.
The newer science book uses far more visual demonstrations than text to explain concepts and only asks questions of the student at the end of a lot of reading.
“We know that that's not how students learn. Today's classroom should be alive with activity and abuzz with student dialogue processing what they're learning, making meaning of it,” said Dr. Nancy Lewis, senior administrator for Elementary Math and Science at Orange County Public Schools.
Lewis said educational research in the past two decades has led to differences in teaching styles, which in turn changes the way the texts and written and used.
A study from the early 1990s even found that the science textbook in particular was really used more as a dictionary and actual understanding of scientific concepts came from interactive teaching styles.
In Susie Qillan’s 7th grade science class at Howard Middle School, students did not take out their books until after they’d conducted a very active experiment.
Afterwards, she asked them to read through the book and answer the questions which reinforced that experiment. Collectively, they discussed their answers aloud as Quillan gave feedback.
The science book itself encourages that interaction and is even appropriated named an "interactive copy." The pages are perforated and can be removed and space is given directly on the page for students to answer questions.
Lewis said today’s texts are really just one component of many materials that students and parents have at their disposal.
Mathematics books come equipped with QR-codes that launch to video tutorials on a smartphone.
Heather Raab, an Algebra teacher at Howard Middle, places QR codes throughout the room that have equations embedded into them.
“They still have to solve the problem, but they just like scanning things on their phone so it makes it fun,” said Raab.
Textbook companies build websites with activities and games for students to practice at home.
Lewis said parents have an arsenal of new tools at their disposal to help their children versus relying on just a single textbook like they had in the past.
But when children reach middle school, many of their parents will start to be less involved with schoolwork.
In a national survey funded by the GE Foundation, 47 percent of parents said the increasingly difficult schoolwork was a ‘major reason’ they become less involved as their children get older.
The perceived difficulty could come from the way concepts are being taught.
When we looked at the tables of contents between the new books and the old the same range of topics was covered. The questions are more thought-provoking and the language is more abstract.
For instance, new science books asked children to ‘analyze’ throughout, whereas in the past the questions were much more straightforward.
The chapters were also ordered differently. A concept that wasn’t’ taught in math until the very end of the book is taught within the first few pages of the new book.
In science, space is not taught until after everything regarding earth and its atmosphere has been discussed. The current book basically starts off with space and space exploration.
Lewis said some of that is because of a national push to get children interested in science and math careers.
She said since the 1990s the numbers of students majoring in engineering and technology fields has vastly declined so educators like herself are trying to figure out how to fan the flames of interest from an early age.
“Let's start asking some questions, what do you wonder about? Do you wonder if there's any more planets in our solar system and if so why do you think we haven't found them,” she said.
According to Lewis, the push for those careers is also why the new science text focuses so heavily on the role of human impact on the environment. It’s to encourage a generation of environmental engineers, which she dubbed "a hot major" right now.
In the older book, students learned that the use of aerosol spray cans was thought to be contributing to a hole in the ozone layer, and that industrial pollution had led to smog.
In total, about eight pages of the entire book relate to human impact on the environment. “Fusion” dedicates an entire unit to human impact.
“Science isn't just something that's just out there on its own, it's about how we interact with the world and how the world impacts us and knowing that and our place as a civilization in that,” she said.
Sunshine state standards are also peppered throughout the newer books which are custom made for Florida. Lewis said the beauty of being a larger state is that textbook publishers are willing to create books customized for our educational standards and benchmarks.
[READ: From Mathematics Structure and Method, Course 1, Teacher Edition 1985 book | 2012 book | Copyright by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.