In 1984 the science educator in our education school told me that the company for which he wrote elementary science textbooks was looking for a new physics author and suggested that I apply
Writing textbooks for the pre-college audience
Paul W. Zitzewitz
In 1984 the science educator in our education school told me that the company for which he wrote elementary science textbooks was looking for a new physics author and suggested that I apply. As a result, for the past fifteen years I have been co-author and principal author of the Merrill, now Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, high school physics textbook. I have also been a member of a team of eleven authors that wrote three middle-school integrated science books, and the only physicist on a team of seven that wrote a ninth-grade integrated science book. I have tried to make the physics correct, understandable, and inviting to students, and to write books that aid teachers in their task of helping students learn.
I would like to present an entirely personal account of this part of my professional life. Writing textbooks has been an educational experience. I've learned how easily one can make mistakes, and how hard they can be to correct. I've also learned quite a bit about the way the textbook publishing industry works and the way the K-12 system buys books. When a publisher produces a new book it actually produces a package of the student edition, teacher edition, about a dozen ancillary books, video tapes, CD-ROMS, and, today, a website. This, obviously, is a large financial undertaking, so, before beginning such a project, a publisher needs to be assured that there will be a market for the product.
The K-12 market has two components, adoption states and free states. In an adoption state like Texas, Florida, or California, roughly every five years, a state authority issues a call for new books in a given field. The call often includes very specific requirements for content (e.g. the textbook should include treatment of inertia, centripetal force, torque, the Compton effect, etc.), and pedagogy (e.g. it should adhere to the national standards or to the California themes). The call often requires bound textbooks to be delivered in a very short time frame, often within one year. After the books are delivered, a state-wide adoption team reviews the submitted books and selects several to be approved. Schools can then choose one of the approved textbooks. Often the state pays for approved texts, but requires schools who want to use other books to pay for them out of their own funds. Thus if a book is approved in one or more of the adoption states, a large market is guaranteed for several years. Adoption states also drive the development of new editions. A new edition should be ready for the year Texas adopts, not one year later.
In the free states, on the other hand, books are specified and sold district-by-district, and so an order may be as few as twenty or as many as several thousand books. Given this diverse market, books must respond to the desires of many state curriculum committees and textbook adoption committees and be attractive to a wide audience. They should appeal to teachers who emphasize concepts, those who believe students should do many problems, and those who are convinced that getting significant figures correct is of greatest importance, to teachers who have Ph.D.'s in physics, and those who had one course a dozen years ago. The books should attract the interest of students who want to be prepared for college physics, those who are in the class to be with a friend, and everyone in between.
Do these conflicting requirements result in books that always tend toward the common denominator? Perhaps, but I have been pleased by the freedom given me by my publisher to incorporate modern pedagogy. In the most recent edition of my physics book, half the lab exercises contained in the textbook are open-ended explorations. The first of two chapters on velocity and acceleration is conceptual and qualitative (with motion diagrams). Throughout the book, each solved problem includes a sketch, strategy, and check for reasonableness. The 6th through 9th grade texts were written in response to a call from the National Science Teachers Association for a thorough integration of the sciences (Scope, Sequence, and Coordination, or SSC). Their goal was to introduce each new idea with an exploration for students to make before providing an explanation for them to read. Corporate America may be more willing to change than the majority of the physics teaching community!
The production of a new edition requires a large team who must work together on a tight schedule. In addition to the author and editors, there are in-house designers and artists, and free-lance photographers, contract writers for features, problem solution checkers, content consultants, and reviewers. Not only the printing, but the production of the final four-color plates, films, or computer files may be subcontracted. In the K-12 area books are identified by the publisher first, then the title, last by the author. The book is very much the property of the publisher.
Often the book is printed as quickly as seven months after the project is started (requiring a revision of two chapters per week). The author may be writing one chapter, responding to the first edit of another and reviewing the second edit of a third chapter simultaneously. There are many other constraints. Each chapter must be an even number of pages, and the style of features, such as example problem solutions or science-and-society essays, must be the same in each chapter. Some states require enough laboratory activities in a book to take up 40% of class time. The space left for text is limited, but so is the interest in reading of many students.
Textbook writing can be a lonely activity, quite different from laboratory research. It is very hard for publishers to find and hire editors, to say nothing of artists, who know physics. Thus it is hard to get timely feedback on ideas. External reviewers usually don't see the text until it is almost ready to go to the printer. Extensive changes at that point in the process are very costly, and therefore unlikely to be made. Everyone involved in the process has to choose a few battles to fight, and withdraw graciously from the rest.
Writing is rewarding in many ways. Because of the size of the production team, royalties are substantially less than in the college market. Books are used for five or more years, but they eventually wear out. There is also great satisfaction in getting positive feedback from teachers, parents, and students. Many seem to be surprised that a real person writes the books! Although my research on positronium decay rates isn't in the book, one or two references to positronium are, and a problem involving the collision of a hockey puck with an octopus shows that I live in Detroit.
I believe that it is important for professional physicists and university physics educators to establish and maintain connections with traditional textbook publishers. We are best able to interpret the work of the physics research and physics education research communities to the large number of high school teachers and students who, unfortunately, have little contact with our profession except through their textbook.
Paul Zitzewitz is the outgoing chair of the Forum on Education. He is on the faculty of the Dept. of Natural Sciences at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.