NOTE: PLEASE SEE THE DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. I STAND CORRECTED, TECHNICALLY SPEAKING A NEEDLE WHICH HAS BEEN “MAGNETIZED” IS A MAGNET. I HADN’T REALIZED THIS PREVIOUSLY, SO THIS IS A BENEFIT OF MAKING YOUR THINKING TRANSPARENT… ALTHOUGH I FEEL SHEEPISHLY IGNORANT FOR NOT KNOWING THIS AS AN ADULT. THANKS TO THOSE WHO HAVE ADDED TO THIS DISCUSSION AND MY OWN EDUCATION!
My 7 year old daughter and I had an interesting disagreement a few weeks ago which was finally resolved on Monday. We had been discussing navigation and compasses, and she informed me that compasses have magnets in them. I asked her why she thought this, and she told me:
My science textbook says compasses have magnets in them.
I felt relatively certain she was mistaken, not only on a factual basis (because a compass is a freely spinning metal object on a pinhead or pivot, which is magnetized but does NOT have a magnet “in” it) as well as with regard to the facts included in her science textbook. SURELY her new, beautiful science textbook wouldn’t have a basic error in it like this? Surely she just “misunderstood” what was written in her textbook, and needs to re-read the information again to understand what makes up a compass?
To resolve this situation and clarify things, we worked together on Monday for about 10 minutes after school to build a basic compass in our kitchen. To do this, we used a needle, a small piece of foam which could float, and a clear bowl of water. We also used a magnet to magnetize one end of the needle. This was our simple, kitchen compass:
Sure enough it worked: The magnetized end pointed to the north, the same direction our house faces. Sarah experimented moving the floating pin around and watched as the free-floating needle spun around and always oriented itself to point north. Satisfied that, although we had magnetized the end of the needle with a magnet, the compass itself did NOT “contain a magnet,” we opened her 2nd grade science textbook to see “what the textbook says.”
As a second grader, Sarah has a beautiful, new science textbook from Houghton Mifflin:
As you can see in the following image, this textbook is copyrighted in the year 2007, so it was literally BRAND NEW last year in her school:
You will also likely note the copyright notice which is printed underneath the copyright year, and may wonder how I am legally able to share a few, limited photographs of this textbook here on my blog and still remain in legal compliance with U.S. copyright law. The answer is that I am complying with the fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law, which DO permit limited uses of excerpts of copyrighted works under certain conditions, including critiques and analyses of another’s work. This is a topic I discuss in my educational presentations on copyright, and addressed in more detail in the winter 2003 TechEdge article “Copyright 101 for Educators.” For more information about U.S. copyright and intellectual property law as it applies to bloggers and blogs, refer to the EFF’s Legal Guide for Bloggers.
Before I detail the erroneous information presented as “facts” regarding compasses in this 2nd grade science textbook, I want to show you the pages of the textbook (remember, printed in 2007) which focus on the planets of our solar system:
The first thing I notice, as a former elementary teacher as well as a lifelong learner interested in science, is that this picture provides an extremely misleading perspective on the relative distances separating our planets. No attempt has been made to make this “drawing” to scale, and no indication or disclaimer is included on the pages to bring this fact to the attention of 7 and 8 year old readers. The solar system overview of the wonderful “Nine Planets” website communicates these relative distances between the planets of our solar system quite well. Unfortunately, this critical “fact” is entirely omitted from my daughters’ science textbook.
Even more glaring, of course, is the fact that Pluto is presented as a planet on these pages, despite the fact that:
Pluto is now considered the largest member of a distinct region called the Kuiper belt. Like other members of the belt, it is composed primarily of rock and ice and is relatively small: approximately a fifth the mass of the Earth’s moon and a third its volume.
It is remarkable that although astronomers officially changed the status of Pluto from planet to “dwarf planet” in August of 2006, this science textbook copyrighted in 2007 completely ignores this controversial change. This omission can sadly lead to controversy in some classrooms. As a “big brother” in the Kansas Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, a year ago my cousin had to meet after school with his little brother’s fifth grade teacher, who had graded down his homework project on the solar system because he had not included Pluto as a planet. Instead, he had noted it was a dwarf planet and cited his online source, but the teacher had replied “The textbook says that Pluto is a planet, and we have to go with what the textbook says is right.”
Good grief. Give me a break. Thankfully, after meeting with my cousin the teacher agreed to give his little brother full credit for his solar system project EVEN though it contradicted the written gospel included in the classroom’s science textbook. So much for encouraging critical thinking and media literacy in that teacher’s classroom…..
Given this background, I was not entirely shocked to find another mistake in my daughter’s second grade science textbook, but I was still surprised. This is the page which describes and provides “facts” about a compass:
In case Flickr is blocked in the location where you are reading this post, I will transcribe the sentences from this image of the textbook:
People often use a compass when they are hiking in the woods. Ships at sea use a compass. A magnet in a compass helps you find direction. The needle always points north.
The third sentence in this paragraph is patently FALSE. Compasses do NOT have magnets in them. Yet my daughter’s 2007 second grade science textbook says that they do.
What are our learning points and “takeaways” from this situation? In the conversation with my daughter, we discussed how we CANNOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING WE READ, EVEN WHEN IT IS IN THE SCHOOL TEXTBOOK. This is a very important media literacy concept and conversation, and one which I am delighted to be able to have with her now. I don’t want her to believe everything she reads at face value, whether she is reading something on the Internet or a note written by one of her friends. She needs to consider the source as well as what other/competing sources tell her, and make up her mind for herself.
Hopefully, as a result of this conversation and our short, hands-on activity together building a simple compass in our kitchen, Sarah will have a much better idea of what a compass is and what it is not. Of course there are much more complex topics that we can and hopefully will dig into at some point that relate to compasses and magnetism. These include our current theories of how the earth’s molten core creates a dynamo and our planetary magnetic field, which in addition to making compasses “point north” also transforms the solar wind into the northern lights– also called the aurora borealis or polar aurorae. These are GREAT topics to discuss, investigate and explore in further depth, not only because they are so practical and engaging (using a compass is an important skill, and the aurora are beautiful) but also because they relate to scientific THEORIES which are continuing to evolve and develop through the work of diligent scientists around the world.
This conversation and controversy over “details” included in Sarah’s second grade science textbook also raises a critical curriculum and fiscal issue for our own school district and other school districts around our nation. WE ARE WASTING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN OUR COUNTRY PURCHASING PAPER-BASED, ANALOG TEXTBOOKS WHICH ARE OUT OF DATE AND OBSOLETE, IN MANY CASES, THE MOMENT THEY ARE PRINTED. We do NOT need to purchase ANY more paper-based textbooks in our schools. Instead, our school districts should be purchasing laptop computers for EVERY student which permit them to access up to date, multimedia and multi-sensory information online:
Unfortunately, the textbook lobby and textbook industry continues to maintain a virtual stranglehold on VAST quantities of public funding for education in the United States. For more on this, refer to my previous posts:
- House Bill 4 Could Dramatically Shape the Face of Public Education (2 March 2005)
- Sad to see the textbook lobby resort to personal attacks in the HB4 discussion (8 April 2005)
- HB2 / HB4 Advances in the Texas Legislature (6 July 2005)
We need to support 1:1 computing initiatives in our schools, and reject the pleas of textbook company owners, employees, and investors to “keep buying textbooks.” Please don’t misunderstand my position of advocacy here: I LOVE printed books, and libraries full printed books– especially children’s literature trade books. We still need books in our schools! We need to stop wasting money on PRINTED TEXTBOOKS, however, and instead embrace digital curriculum in various forms.
On a related topic, the WikiPedia article for compass contains a fascinating list of events and artifacts which relate to the question, “Who invented the compass?” The depth of inquiry and explorations to which we can stretch when we have access to online, digital resources is truly amazing.
When will this basic error regarding a compass and what it is “made of” be fixed in my daughter’s second grade textbook? Will Houghton-Mifflin issue an errata page in full color, and provide a copy free-of-charge to every student in the United States currently using this textbook which contains this basic, factual error? That doesn’t seem likely. If my daughter had access at school to DIGITAL curriculum sources, inaccurate information provided there could be fixed IMMEDIATELY. In her case, however, it seems likely this textbook error won’t be fixed for at least five years, when a new science textbook is adopted in the state of Oklahoma and purchased by our local school district. I hope by then, our state leaders in Oklahoma will have taken the enlightened step of providing a wireless, portable computing device for every student in the state, and freed up local districts to purchase varying types of digital and analog curriculum resources to meet the needs of learners. I’d much rather see our school district purchasing FOSS kits and student licenses to Explore Learning Gizmos than wasting money on another paper-based science textbook that can’t be updated once it has been printed.
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