Putting our ideas into action

A sample for a new science textbook

Andy Smart and Margaret Sinclair describe a new sample for a science textbook

If you can’t illustrate your advice, don’t give it!

Since we launched four years ago, NISSEM has focused on networking and advocacy for textbooks to embed the themes and values of SDG target 4.7 and social and emotional learning (SEL). Our focus has been on low and middle income countries (LMICs). From time to time we’ve been asked, ‘So, what would your ideas look like in practice?’ We agree – as we put it in a chapter entitled ‘Integrating SEL into Textbooks and Instruction in Low and Middle Income Countries’ for a forthcoming book[1]: ‘If you can’t illustrate your advice, don’t give it!’

Our response was to roll up our sleeves and seek out national partners in order to co-create examples of textbook content, contextualized to a national setting. NISSEM was already in touch with CSEL, a small company based in Rajasthan and one of many organizations in India that now include SEL as an important element of their work. Vrinda Loiwal, CEO of CSEL, responded enthusiastically. With Vrinda, we decided to focus on lower secondary science. CSEL also introduced the group to Dilsheen Kaur, a middle grade science teacher in Delhi, with experience in curriculum work.

We further approached Jwalin Patel, a former biochemist and teacher educator in Gujarat, where he is president and co-founder of the NGO, Tide Learning. Jwalin is currently a fellow at Cambridge University and undertaking research on SEL in learning to live together harmoniously.

Our plan was to link our new colleagues and counterparts in the Global South with professional textbook writers with whom we had worked in the past. NISSEM therefore contacted Philippa Gardom-Hulme, a well-known writer of secondary school science textbooks with experience in writing for the Global South as well as for the UK. Philippa recognized the value of what we wanted to do and immediately agreed to contribute her time.

Together, the team chose to work on metals, a topic that features in science grade 8 in the Indian curriculum for many states. Later, when we decided to expand the writing activity and start a second sample – on microorganisms, and therefore tapping into a widespread interest in viruses as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic – Philippa asked a second UK-based writer, Ann Fullick, if she would also contribute, Philippa’s specialization being chemistry and Ann’s biology.

The work was spread out over 2021, longer than any writing team would usually spend on two textbook units, due to the voluntary nature of the contributions and with long gaps when COVID-19 struck India. We wanted to ensure that the voices of all members of the team were heard and that they had a chance to contribute to the work in progress. We also intended from the outset that we would document the process as well as create textbook samples.

NISSEM’s aim is to help students gain agency towards personal and societal well-being and environmental sustainability, through embedding relevant content and associated skills and values in existing curriculum frameworks. In the sciences, this means exploring key messages and actions for personal and societal action that draw upon knowledge of biological, chemical or physical processes. The first of our two topics, namely metals and microorganisms, is relevant to sustainable use of materials. In the case of microorganisms, we proposed asking paired students to discuss why a teacher with a severe respiratory infection might weigh the obligations to go to work as usual or to isolate at home, relating these decisions to knowledge of how the viral infection is transmitted.

Our approach is much like that of professional textbook writers. The starting point is pedagogical: one of the earliest of many documents that we created along the way was a PPT slide showing what a typical double page spread might look like.[2] Formative assessment – or assessment for learning – runs throughout. Formative assessment, which is carried out while something is being taught rather than after it has been taught, is a practice that all teachers and students benefit from, however limited the resources and however large the class size. Planning a textbook with formative assessment in mind helps writers to design activities that support formative assessment. In teaching school science, it is valuable to know as much as possible about students’ misunderstandings as well as their understandings.

The text of the samples is written in simple, clear language, reflecting NISSEM’s Carriers Not Barriers table. A first principle is that the language should not constitute a barrier: it needs to be complex enough to describe the phenomena but simple enough to engage the students, including those in rural schools.

Other key features of the sample are:

  • An opener, or entry point, to the sub-topic and topic: based on situations that are familiar in the context and where possible relating to positive human behaviour in some way
  • Teacher-led questions, which provide signposts in the text.
  • Pair talk, in which students talk to their neighbor in class, asking and answering questions together, describe to each other how they feel about an issue, and working out why something is important in society. Pair talk is where an SEL-based pedagogy of collaboration and perspective taking is developed.
  • Activities: Practical work or discussions with the teacher, such as the example of ‘Class Talk’ illustrated here. These are limited in number, well-scaffolded, and aim to deepen students’ grasp of the concepts and their applications through practice in broad skills such as analytical discussion and creative problem-solving in human and environmental contexts.
  • Our proposed lessons do not assume the presence of laboratory equipment, which is lacking in many LMIC schools, but draw on simple activities that can be conducted with everyday resources (e.g., growth of fungus on stale bread).
  • Case studies: this is the exit point of the topic, where students explore the societal implications of what they have learned, including the themes and values of target 4.7, and the potential for agency at personal and societal levels.

Each chapter/topic would end with summative assessment as well as suggestions for extension activities for when resources and time allow.

We will also develop a teacher’s guide which will include background to the topic, help for teachers to address common misunderstandings by students, guidelines for teaching the activities, and answers to summative questions.

In summary, the design has three main elements that represent aspects of good science textbooks:

  • Strong scientific content, which links the factual knowledge being taught to wider social and societal dimensions (with an added focus on students’ agency as citizens)
  • A strong pedagogy, based on a sociocultural approach to teaching and learning, in which students learn through interactions with each other as well as with the teacher.
  • Assessment: in which formative assessment is a foundational feature, reinforced by summative assessment that models and ultimately may shape the form of higher stakes national exams.

The sample pages from the unit on microorganisms (subtopic ‘Controlling COVID-19 through information and public health’) will form part of a new platform, currently under construction, which will offer open access to an emerging range of teaching and learning materials that embed contextualized SEL and nationally prioritized SDG 4.7 topics for curriculum specialists and textbook writers in LMICs around the world.


[1] Social and Emotional Learning in Action: Creating Systemic Change in Schools. Editors: Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, Mike Strambler, Kim Schonert-Reichl. (Guilford Publishing, 2023)

[2] The double-page spread is the norm for primary and secondary textbooks in advanced textbook publishing systems. A clear example may be seen in Bangladesh’s primary school textbooks.

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