Over the last century, some books on, or bearing on, science education reform have survived as classics. My work-a-day definition of such books is that they should be required reading for all future teachers of science and other science educators. I also admit that the list may be idiosyncratic in that they are all publications that I found especially helpful in shaping my own views on the nature of science.

Except for the books dealing with education more generally and those having to do with language, I have selected titles that are to be found in Resources for Science Literacy. That publication lists outstanding books, reached after more than two years of effort, for each of the 12 chapters of Science for All Americans.


In addition to a good dictionary-The Shorter Oxford Dictionary has been my faithful companion most of these years—every science educator needs some books about words. Here I cite the copies I happen to have, but newer ones are available. First there are the great Mencken volumes, entertaining and informative, confrontational and  witty, penetrating but not academic.

  • H.L. Mencken, The American Language, fourth edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936 (A paperback is now available, and used copies of all three hardcovers can be found.) (also, see Google Books)
  • H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement I, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945
  • H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement II, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948

And while there are hundreds of books around on word origins, many quite good, one cannot go wrong staying with the master:

  • Eric Partridge, Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, New York: The Macmillian Company, 1958
  • To keep up, a wonderful site is World Wide Words at http://www.worldwidewords.org/index.htm

Just for the hell of it, of course, there is the acerbic wordplay champion, Ambrose Bierce, who antes up hundreds of wickedly clever definitions of  everyday words:

  • The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary (see Google Books)


For me, a practitioner more than a scholar, the American Education series of  Larry Cremin (The Colonial Experience 1607-1783; The National Experience 1783-1876; and The Metropolitan Experience 1876-1980), along with his Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1945 were invaluable and should, I believe, be on every educators reference shelf. But the one to have in hand and reread from time to time is

Lawrence A. Cremin, Popular Education and Its Discontents, New York: Harper & Row, 1989

And there is no escaping John Dewey—prodigious and controversial, but invaluable. Of all his volumes, for us the one that counts is

John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (see Google Books)

Where Dewey championed the social and analytical skills of education, the “Red Book” featured knowledge acquisition. As a Harvard University faculty report, it is not surprising that it is elitist even as it articulates a strong case for liberal education across the disciplines—as James Bryant Conant revealingly put it, “an inquiry . . . by a Committee largely composed of members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—in short, men of distinction in special fields of learning.” Even so, it was influential, at least for me. Reading it surreptitiously in a San Francisco bookstore deflected me from a life in science to a life in science education.

General Education in a Free Society by The Harvard Committee on the Objectives of a General Education in a Free Society, Harvard University Press, 1946. In this, science education is examined as part of general education rather than as technical education.


The Teaching of Science, Harvard University Press, 1966, is comprised of two essays, one by Joseph Schwab, the other by Paul Brandwein. Each deals with science inquiry, but in very different ways, and both are still enlightening.

Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy by Michael R. Matthews, Routledge, 1994, stands alone for its comprehensiveness on place of history and philosophy in science education. Its list of references is invaluable. (see Google Books)

The following science classics, all linked to descriptions in Resources for Science Literacy, include some that deal with the nature of science (and its cousins math and technology) and others that focus on the life and physical sciences as such. They are cited for there importance in science education, assuming one values literary aspect of science learning.  Note: Once you are in Resources for Science Literacy, you can click on Trade Books to access all of its titles recommended books and their brief descriptions. In the following list, extended previews of titles preceded by an asterisk can be found on Google Books.

*Jacob Bronowski, The Common Sense of Science

*George Gamow,  One Two Three…Infinity

Martin Gardner (Ed.), Great Essays in Science

*Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (see Google Books)

Philip and Phylis Morrison, Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero

*James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics

*Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: notes of a biology watcher

*Warren Weaver, Lady Luck

*Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice and History