Miller and Levine Biology

Note: Hi! If you’re trying to determine if Miller and Levine Biology would be a good fit for your use, I hope that you’ll find this post helpful! Happy educating! In case you are just dropping in, I have a medical degree and before that, a pharmacy degree, so I’ve had a little science. I love homeschooling my own four children.

We completed one semester of good, solid biology this 8th grade year with my oldest student,  and we ended up covering the first 4 units of Miller and Levine’s Biology curriculum from Pearson. I chose Miller and Levine’s Biology (Macaw edition) because it is comprehensive, frequently used for high school biology courses (including AP Biology), and includes supporting consumable materials (labs, worksheets, and tests). While I can say many fine things about this curriculum, I can also say I have reservations.

Materials We Used

This curriculum has two intensity levels to choose from, A and B, but they both use the same textbook. The A curriculum material writes and asks questions from a more complex and higher reading level than the B curriculum. More depth and comprehension is expected from those who use the A curriculum. You do not need both. I wasn’t sure which I would need, so I ordered both.

  • Miller and Levine Biology textbook
  • Study Workbook A or Study Workbook B
  • Study Workbook A Teacher Edition or Study Workbook B Teacher Edition
  • Lab Manual A or Lab Manual B
  • Lab Manual A Teacher Edition or Lab Manual B Teacher Edition
  • Teacher’s Edition Assessment Resources (includes quizzes and tests and their answers for both A and B levels)
  • High grade microscope
  • Lab materials (beakers, flasks, test tubes, pop beads, planaria, etc.) ordered from various sources on-line based on resource list in the lab manual.

Process

We progressed through the spine textbook mostly in the order the authors’ presented the material, taking it at the needed pace. If concepts needed more explanation and practice, like cellular respiration, I would lecture on the chalkboard or print off extra worksheets from the internet. We spent as much time as needed for mastery. We used the accompanying worksheets for each section, mostly from Workbook A, but sometimes I would use Workbook B if something wasn’t clicking or if I liked its simplification better.

Most importantly, we taught the process of outlining a chapter/taking notes, identifying important points, and drawing one’s own charts and pictures to help in comprehension and retention. This was required for particular topics that I know will be extensively tested in any future biology class, such as cellular respiration, meiosis, mitosis, and DNA replication.

If you take your time reading, learning, doing labs, reading the interesting supplemental materials, and taking tests and quizzes, then there is way more here than you could cover in a year of biology, while still doing other school courses at the same level. We did as much as we could in one semester (about 4 units, but we were not as diligent on the lab work as I would have liked), but we’ll take next year to knock out what I think will make my student exceptionally prepared for college AND keep her interested in learning for the fun of it!

Pros of the Curriculum

  • Comprehensive and appropriately detailed coverage of general biology for a student who may pursue a science-based college degree
  • Excellent concise and pertinent outlines for each chapter section included in the workbook manuals
  • Excellent worksheets
  • Excellent lab manual
  • Tests and quizzes available for purchase
  • Two levels for different levels of learning intensity
  • Contains sections called “Careers and Biology” to show students all the fun career options available with a biology background, which I think is very helpful for students to know about
  • More here than you could ever dream of covering well (you’ll see this listed as a pro and con): basic biology, careers in biology, controversies in science, mini-labs, labs, cool mysteries in science
  • The chapter reviews at the end of each chapter are very good, focused, and pertinent

Cons of the Curriculum

  • Sometimes, the writing and format (graphic design) do not make major biological concepts clear from more minor concepts, making it difficult sometimes for a new biology learner to tease out the most important points from the reading material. The book reads and displays sometimes like it’s “ALL” important. However, the worksheets do a good job highlighting the most important points.
  • The textbook is chock-full, and the pages, as many textbooks now, are super “Dora-the-Explorer” busy, making it difficult to stay focused. It’s nice to have the career excerpts, history excerpts, controversies, quick labs, and mystery case reports, but it can also be very distracting. There are so many different highlights packed in the margins and throughout the chapters that they’re hard to keep straight, and they detract from investigating the photos and tables of the main material that is required to be learned.
  • I often wrote my own tests. I used many of the test questions from the publisher (and eliminated ones I thought were poorly worded or minutiae), and then added my own questions. Why? Because I didn’t feel like important concepts were given heavier weight on the tests than fluffier, “less needed” material. I wanted important topics that I knew would be studied extensively in college to receive more in-depth testing than “less” important topics.
  • Not catered to homeschoolers so no accompanying internet resource and had to search around to find all the written resources. (I stumbled across a web page somewhere in which a person described how they were able to get access to the internet links that mass purchasers get for their students. So it’s out there somewhere, FYI, but I lost the web page. I didn’t need to pursue the internet support and resources.)
  • Complete, thorough, clearly visible vocabulary lists are needed. Each chapter section has a few vocabulary words listed at the beginning in the side margin, but it is not a complete list of the new words and terms introduced in each chapter section. One of the most difficult obstacles for students in biology is all the new terminology. It would be more effective if all of the new terms were listed clearly together.
  • Focuses on controversy

The Use of Controversy

My biggest reservation regarding this biology curriculum is its huge focus on controversy. (Maybe Joe Levine’s journalism background contributes to this.) Regarding the Miller and Levine Biology text, Pearson (the publisher) states on its teacher training site, called my Pearson Training:

“Using controversial topics in biology instruction grabs students’ attention and shows them that biology is relevant to their lives. When studying controversial topics, the goal is to help students gather scientific data, gain a scientific perspective, and evaluate media coverage.”

And elsewhere in material from the afore mentioned site:

“When looking at the Miller & Levine textbook, it is easy to see that many topics come directly from today’s headlines.”

It’s sensationalized biology. But our American society is so polarized, I’m not sure that building a biology text which screams the word “controversy” over and over is a good thing. Which side of a controversy should be taken? As thoughtful as the book seems to be, bias sometimes seeps into word choices. It seeps into the controversies chosen to discuss. It seeps into the controversies that were minimized.  The writing seems like it tries to offer opposing view points on controversial ideas, but sometimes the wording and arrangement is just subtle enough to indicate an eagerness to have the reader choose one side over another.

For example, before the ethical issues of stem cells are discussed, the benefits and needs are discussed.

“Basic research on stem cells takes on a special urgency. . . Given the suffering and death caused by these conditions [heart attacks, strokes, paralysis]. . . Many hope to see a day when damage caused by a severe heart attack can be reversed. . . “

After exuding enthusiasm about the benefits that stem cells can offer, the ethical issues are discussed, and it is stated that harvesting stem cells causes “destruction” of an “embryo.” (All true.) It’s subtle, but notice it does not cause “death” of something alive, just destruction of an embryo. Whereas as you keep reading in the next line or two, harvesting and using stem cells can “save human lives.” Minor wording choices can affect which side of a controversy we’re on.

Most of the controversial topics are clearly marked with the word “controversy” or “ethical issues” and the book makes a concerted effort to present well-rounded discussion. But some of the controversies of our time, such as global warming and evolution are treated as if there is no controversy, which I think perpetuates the distrust from opposing viewpoints even more.

I understand that the authors and other scientists are sick and tired of all the criticism and hate they receive from people who don’t believe these ideas. BUT the fact of the matter is, these ARE still controversial topics in 2018 and it would be more productive to list the factual reasons or cite the research which causes other people to be skeptical about evolution and global warming, fostering respect rather than scorn. It would be productive to provide the evidence which makes a significant number of people have questions about evolution from the fossil records or have questions about the role and significance of humanity on global warming–and allowed for uncertainty where uncertainty exists.

Politically, those instrumental in putting Miller and Levine Biology together understand how lucky they are to put together a textbook for the captive, young audience mandated to learn biology. They urge:

“Don’t just memorize today’s scientific facts and ideas. And please don’t believe them! Instead, try to understand how scientists developed those ideas. . . In our society, scientists make recommendations about big public policy decisions, but they don’t make the decisions. Who makes the decisions? Citizens of our democracy do. In a few years, you will be able to exercise the rights of a voting citizen, influencing public policy by the ballots you cast and the messages you send public officials. That’s why it is important that you understand how science works and appreciate both the power and the limitations of science.”

They urge kids to think for themselves, yet their textbook has subtly worded stances (intentional or not) and makes an unstated point to root out disbelievers of points they consider moot discussions.

There is so much information to cover and learn in basic science classes, that instruction woven around controversy belongs in other classes. I teach science for my homeschool co-op, and we keep plenty busy just mastering what nucleotide bases are and have enough controversy discussing how exons could affect translation of our DNA. Now THAT’S science!

A Note on Evolution

You can’t get away from evolution in this book. The authors have made it the entire theme of the book. It is woven throughout the chapters, starting right front and center in chapter one. Right away the book states:

“Today, evolutionary theory is the central organizing principle of all biological and biomedical science. It makes such a wide range of predictions about organisms–from bacteria to whales to humans–that it is mentioned throughout this book.”

But the writers go on to say:

“A useful theory that has been thoroughly tested and supported by many lines of evidence may become the dominant view among the majority of scientists, but no theory is considered absolute truth.”

If you want a gentle approach to evolution, this is not the book for that. Whammo. Bammo. Evolution. Controversy and evolution are the themes woven throughout this book. But, I don’t mean to sound too negative, there is TONS in this book to be taught no matter what you believe about evolution. I still don’t know what in the heck to believe about elements in a primordial environment coalescing into one little organism and then eventually forming me! The simpleton faith in me just says, “Wow. God, just wow.”

Closing

The Miller and Levine Biology program is not a bad choice, per se, because it does a good job including everything a student can expect to see in a college biology course. Many high schools use it. I like that my kids are learning what the rest of the United States’ kids learn scientifically because that’s who they’ll be working side-by-side with for the rest of their lives. I like the resources that come along with the text.

But I don’t like the controversy used as its educational tool. I don’t like the cloud that hovers over me as I read the book, feeling like particular ideas are being indoctrinated into a population. I also wish the authors did a better job at making important topics seem important and at putting together vocabulary lists.

For the 2018-2019 school year, our plan is to finish the topics covered in the Miller and Levine book, add in a couple of other texts to help my student read complicated material as explained by other writers (when I feel like Miller and Levine is weak or confusing), review the topics I know will be hit hard in college science classes, focus more diligently on completing labs, and use some “living books.”

I have ordered two additional texts to use:  Campbell’s Biology and Test Prep Series: Preparing for the Biology AP Exam (also by Pearson). For now, I just intend for them strengthen our program and round it out, not replace it.

The Test Prep Series: Preparing for the Biology AP Exam is reported to make the main points of biology very clear and concise, leaving no question about what must be known in each topic of biology. At this time, I do not plan on AP tests, but I must research more on that. I feel like everyone is saying, “Take AP. Take AP.” And, well, I’m just not sure this is the way our education system should be going, so I need to read more and decide.

That’s it! Feel free to ask any questions. I’ll try to help if I can. If you see any typos, let me know so I can fix them. If you have any concerns or counter comments, I’ll try to field them with the best thought that I can. Thank you.

Terri F

 

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