Where Are The Children’s Adaptations of the Great Works of Science?

The Origin of Species: Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species: Charles Darwin

Children get a great deal from novels, even challenging Victorian novels. The great themes and rich language are wonderful. And if the original text is too challenging for younger readers, novels get adapted. Some of my favourites are from the Save The Story series, in which authors rewrite classic, but neglected stories for modern readers. Personally, I’d love one by H.G. Wells: The First Men in the Moon. It’s got some great science in it. But it isn’t science.

The great works of science don’t get adapted, especially not for children. Science gets mini-textbooks with lots of pictures. These are often very good, but they aren’t the real thing. I want my children to read Darwin and Faraday, Curie and Davy. But children don’t read these books, and it’s obvious why: they aren’t meant for children. They are written for an academic audience. Often a Victorian academic audience. A decent adaptation, however, would be just the job.

So I’ve had a go. I’ve adapted the first chapter of The Origin of Species to be used in secondary science classrooms.

The Origin of Species is a wonderful book. It explains one of mankind’s most important ideas by the man who thought it. It explains carefully and gently. It is full of wisdom and generosity. It reflects the time in which it was written. Darwin is persuasive, recognising other possible explanations, but carefully and thoroughly providing evidence to justify his own interpretation. I wanted to show this to younger readers, so I set myself this challenge:

  • Use Darwin’s phrases and examples where possible.
  • Keep Darwin’s conversational tone, his use of ‘I am convinced” and ‘my impression is.’
  • But, keep the word count to 500 words per chapter.

I decided only to adapt the first four chapters, because they contain most of the big ideas.

The result is a text that children won’t be able to read unsupported. Just like any challenging text, it needs to be taught. So I have included teachers notes – a sort of lesson plan. The idea is that reading the text comes as the achievement at the end of the sequence of preparation, like a performance after rehearsals. The satisfaction of reading the text is the reward for hard work. Please feel free to use. I will adapt chapters 2, 3 and 4 over the next few months.




Like a Bat Out Of Hell: How NOT to Read Hattie…

John Hattie's Feedback Speedometer - responsible for tonnes of nonsense.
John Hattie’s Feedback Speedometer – responsible for tonnes of nonsense.

There isn’t enough time to read properly.

Busy educators need super-condensed ideas. That’s why John Hattie’s little speedometers are so inspired. Want to know how effective feedback is? Simple – it’s really effective. Just do it!

It’s more complicated than that. Hattie subtly hides the subtle details in plain sight – the one place no one will look – in the text between his speedos.

Hattie’s work has been used to waste a staggering amount of teacher time. If he had just written the text and left the diagrams out, he would have been read properly. Influential education leaders, attracted by the numbers, have made feedback the defining concept for this generation of teachers. Thoughtful, slow-reading would have revealed the complexities of his analysis. We might now be giving learners really effective feedback.

In his follow up book, Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie learnt from his mistake. The speedos are gone. Instead there is clear information and advice with exercises on how to get the most for your pupils’ learning. But you have to read it. In his own words, Hattie summarises his Visible Learning approach, which I think is wonderful:

The messages in Visible Learning are not another recipe for success, another quest for certainty, another unmasking of truth. There is no recipe, no professional development set of worksheets, no new teaching method, and no band-aid remedy. It is a way of thinking: ‘My role, as teacher, is to evaluate the effect I have on my students.’ It is to ‘know thy impact’, it is to understand this impact, and it is to act on this knowing and understanding. This requires that teachers gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.

This is the opposite of speedometers and effect sizes. This is the difference between slow reading and reading like a bat out of hell.


I want you, I need you; but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you.

The Mighty MeatloafI want you, I need you; but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you.

Meatloaf: Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

You want a textbook, you need a textbook; but you’re never gonna love a textbook. A textbook is unloved nonfiction. Functional, dry and terse, they have no place in the bedroom; yet the right textbook at the right time delivers.

Louise Rosenblatt describes two reasons for reading: reading for experience and reading for knowledge. The textbook is 100% knowledge. Rosenblatt’s argument is that when we read, we are negotiating meaning with the text. When we are reading for experience, we appreciate the writer’ skill. Many nonfiction texts are beautifully crafted and moving:

‘… the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface.’ (The Unofficial Countryside, Richard Mabey).

But the textbook is not a lovely thing. The reader is as responsible for creating meaning as the writer. The reason you want and need the textbook is because it contains the missing piece of knowledge. Your missing piece of knowledge. For a moment, the paragraph, sentence of word speaks to you alone and it is glorious. And then it is gone. The words are the same, but you are different; the words have changed you and you don’t need them anymore.

So textbooks will never win prizes. Their moments of loveliness are brief, lonely and rare. The challenge is to convince a young reader that textbooks have something for them; that they are more than a chore. Learners need textbooks. Successful learners will want them. Sadly, they might not ever love one, but two out of three ain’t bad.

Next week: I’ll do anything for love (but I won’t do that)

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