To help our website visitors easily find and compare different curricula and resources, it is important that we classify every item that we review or describe by subject and topic. We need to develop a comprehensive list of subjects and topics and then use it consistently for classification of our textbook and resource reviews.
I must confess that every time I’ve sat down to sketch out a subject-topic list, I have quickly become completely overwhelmed and flummoxed. Am I over-thinking the problem, attempting to do the impossible, or simply failing to see the obvious pattern? Is there a volunteer who will take the lead in developing a useful school subject and topic list?
What am I talking about?
For our purposes, “subject” refers to the main disciplines of science, such as physics or biology. “Topic” refers to the subdivisions within subjects, such as inertia or momentum in physics, and cell structure or organ systems in biology. Both levels of classification are necessary because some books or individual resources will be about only one or several topics within an overall subject area. (“Keywords” constitute a third level, but they don’t need to be organized in any particular way, so it is not the concern of this discussion except where we need to decide when a term qualifies as a topic vs. a keyword.)
Harder than it looks
Classification of standard middle and high school textbooks by subject is fairly easy (biology, chemistry, physics). Those are full-year subjects that more or less cover the same range of topics in all curricula. But that’s about as far as “easy” takes us. In fact, even with these standard subjects, there are choices to be made. For example, do we call it biology or life science? Isn’t the middle school subject called “physical science” a combination of physics and chemistry? At the subject level (usually in grade 7 or 8), earth and space are often treated together as topics under “earth science”; do we follow this convention or consider earth science and astronomy to be two different subjects?
Typical elementary school curricula break down primarily by topic rather than subject. A textbook for a given year might contain units on the human body (biology or health), electricity and magnetism (physics), the solar system (astronomy), and plants (biology again). Depending on the curriculum, these units are separate books, so one might classify a given book (or unit of a textbook) by its main subject and topic (e.g., biology – human body). Either way, some basic list of topics is necessary within each general subject area.
Some initial thoughts
I think the subject-topic list should be just large enough to meaningfully classify most of the materials we might discuss, yet small enough to be useful, simple and intuitive. The question is, “What amount of detail is sufficient and optimal and what particular subject-topic titles are simple and direct enough to enable homeschool teachers (parents) to identify relevant items?”
I’ve perused the table of contents of several textbooks, but they use a variety of titles for main sections (topics). I’ve even looked at places like the PBS Nova TEACHERS website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/teachers/), where they list the following subject areas for the teacher resources they have:
- Earth Science
- Environmental Science
- Forensic Science
- Health Science
- Life Science
- Physical Science
- Science & Society
- Space Science
I’m not suggesting that this list is exactly what we need. It’s obviously customized to the range of topics represented in Nova programs. However, this Nova Teachers site is “standards-based” so topics are related to areas that are considered key subject and topics in education content. For example, environmental science is usually a major topic within middle school earth science and again in high school biology. Should we classify it as a subject or just a topic? Likewise, health science is split out from life science (biology), and that is probably appropriate at the subject level.
Science content standards as a guide
I have found it helpful to consider the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962). You can download the entire PDF document for free. The portion on “content standards” (pages 103-111) identifies several content “topics” in each of the following eight categories:
- Unifying Concepts and Processes
- Science as Inquiry
- Physical Science (includes Chemistry)
- Life Science
- Earth and Space Science
- Science and Technology
- Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
- History and Nature of Science
Obviously these are not directly school subjects, but a consideration of the main content standards for the three grade levels (K-5, 6-8 and 9-12) in each of these content categories is instructive with regard to the task of developing a subject-topic list. (You’ll have to view the document to see the list of individual standards in each of these categories.)
And what about the Christian perspective?
In addition to categorizing regular (merely secular) school subjects and topics, our site must provide an expanded list of topics and subjects relating to science and Christian belief. We need more detail in this area because our site will have much more content in this one area. Of course, discussion of Christian perspectives cuts across all subject areas (and all of content categories of the NSES). However, some topics are unique to the Christian audience.
If I were to add another content category and its standards to the NSES, it would be:
- Science and Christian belief
- Science and the Bible
- Science and belief in God
- Science and Christian theology
- Science and Christian practice
Those seem like logically distinct areas within this additional category.
Putting it all together
Okay, so I’ve described some of the issues involved in developing a subject-topic list (or index). And I’ve suggested that it’s instructive to think about subjects and topics in relation to the NSES content categories (plus a new category specific to the Christian perspective). This provides a framework and a beginning, but I need help bringing it together into a final, practical subject-topic index. Ideas and suggestions, anyone?
Do I have a volunteer who’ll take the lead on this one?