Textbooks and real life information

Sometimes textbooks contain ‘real life’ information, which is sometimes overtaken by events, sometimes badly presented and occasionally just plain wrong. Maybe I should just leave well enough alone and mark the students according to the information given.

One textbook prompts comparative sentences with facts about countries, rivers, animals, ancient and modern buildings, bridges and precious metals. The example is:

The area of Brazil is 8.5 million km2. The area of Australia is 7.6 million km2. Brazil is bigger than Australia.

True enough. Further down the list of prompts is:

The World Trade Center, New York, is 415 m tall. The Sears Tower in Chicago is 443 m tall.

Yep – the book was published in 2001 (presumably early to mid-.) The students dutifully wrote: The Sears Tower is taller than the World Trade Center, which was true on the information given. Minor point: the Sears Tower was officially renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. Major point: the World Trade Centre was destroyed in 2001, which youngish students from some countries might not actually know. I just couldn’t leave it there. I showed them pictures and gave a brief explanation of the World Trade Centre as it was and on the day of the attacks, then of the new One Trade Centre, which at 541 m is taller than the Willis Tower.

On the next page, it prompts superlative statements with a drawing of the solar system. The example is:

Which is ____ (near) planet to the Sun? Mercury.

The next question is:

What’s the name of ____ (small) planet?

The drawing clearly shows Mars as being smaller than Mercury, which it isn’t. Mercury is the smallest planet.

The next is:

It’s got over thirty moons and it’s ____ (big) planet in the solar system.

The picture shows the sphere of Saturn as slightly bigger than Jupiter, which it isn’t. Jupiter is the biggest planet, but even photos available online are misleading to those not as seriously into planets as I am: with its rings, Saturn looks bigger. (The known count of moons for both may have been over thirty at the time; it’s now over sixty, which doesn’t invalidate the question.)

The next is:

Which is ____ (hot) planet?

Most of the students figured that the planet closest to the sun is the hottest, and answered Mercury, which, surprisingly, it isn’t: Venus’s atmosphere makes it the hottest (even hotter than the sunward side of Mercury), but that takes specialised knowledge, which I don’t expect my students to have. (Indeed, I had to check.)

The next is:

This is ___ (far) planet from the Sun, and also ____ (cold).

farest (as one student wrote)? No – furthest. And it’s not Pluto! The IAU plutoed Pluto in 2006. Neptune is now the furthest (which should be common knowledge), but Uranus is colder (surprisingly) (which is specialised knowledge).

The next is:

Which planet is ____ (easy) to see from the Earth?

In real life, it varies depending on the comparative orbits of the planets. One student reasoned that Jupiter is the easiest to see, being further than Venus or Mars but much bigger. Another student wrote ‘the moon’, which is kind of true, but it’s not a planet in the modern sense. (Classically, it was, which is why we have a seven day week with Sun-day and Moon-day.)

The last is:

Which planet is ____ (close) to Earth?

Again, it varies. On average, Venus is closer, which I had temporarily forgotten. The drawing shows Mars as slightly closer. I can’t remember what the student who wrote ‘the moon’ as his previous answer answered for this one.

I can’t remember that any textbook I’ve used has specifically explained the difference between a star, the sun, a planet and a moon (not to mention dwarf planets, asteroids and comets). So how much can I (or textbook writers) assume that students know a) in their own language and b) in English? And how geeky should I be in accepting answers?

And it’s not just students. On Christmas Day my wife and I travelled to a holiday area north of Sydney and met up with a number of her church friends. Some of them were keen fishermen, so we piled into a minivan and headed to a fishing spot (and caught very little, but that’s another story). On the way, someone (?my wife) pointed to Venus (clearly visible in the evening sky) and asked ‘What star is that?’. I said ‘It’s not a star – it’s the planet Venus’. Later, as some of the group fished and the rest hung around aimlessly, someone else pointed high in the sky and asked ‘What planet is that?’. I said ‘It’s not a planet – it’s the star Sirius’. The Korean word for star is 항성 (hang-seong); for the Sun 태양 (tae-yang); for planet, 행성 (haeng-seong); for Earth, 지구; for Earth’s moon 달 (dal); and for any other moon, 위성 (ui-seong). Note that star, planet and other moon have the common element of 성 (as do the names of the individual planets), but the Sun, Earth and Earth’s moon don’t.

Another example of a textbook being overtaken by events is one which asks (in the context of a review of a/an/the/(-): Where will ____ next Summer Olympic Games be held? a in ____ China b in ____ USA c in ____ Sydney. I didn’t check, but I infer that this textbook was published between 2004 and 2008. Now, the answer is ‘Japan’, which I would have thought was common knowledge, but maybe not.


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