Monthly Archives: November 2013

Book: Heinemann Chemistry 1 Enhanced (VCE Units 1 & 2)

The huge advantage of putting book reviews on a personal blog is that my reviews can go off wildly at huge tangents and people will still appreciate them. That would never happen if I were to write on Amazon or Goodreads.

You also don’t get a “stat counter” on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂

This site had its 30,000th visitor last week. Each new book review I write brings at least one new subscriber (263 and counting!)

Here’s we go…

Heinemann Chemistry 1

Dated blueprint for VCE Chemistry textbooks.
416 pages, ★★★★

Comparing textbooks is dull. Given that textbooks written for the VCE syllabus in particular are bound to be nearly identical in content, reviewing this book in the same way I reviewed the last one (Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2) seemed pointless.

Instead, I’m going to compare all the main textbooks that I’ve read. I’ve bought some, borrowed some, pirated some and skimmed through a few others in bookstores.

Textbooks differ in three main ways: popularity, design, and digital “swag”, and these are the three aspects that I care about most when choosing my textbooks.

The best thing about Heinemann Chemistry 1 is its local feel. I recognise most of the pictures in this book, which isn’t the case with Nelson Chemistry. Monash University (yay!) is mentioned many times, and so is its particle accelerator, the Synchrotron. Reading it, I feel proud that such a high-quality textbook was been made for such a small audience (Victoria has a population of only 5.7 million); and I also feel proud of  Victoria’s significant contributions to science despite its relatively short history as a state (the colony was only established in 1851).

However, Heinemann Chemistry 1 looks really dated. The body text is upstaged by ostentatious background images—yes, images—of tab dividers, cork-board pins, and pointless squares and lines. Don’t get me wrong: the layout looks good, but in design terms, it also begs for an update. It needs to be brought into line with the “clean, minimalist” design fad of the last few years if students are going enjoy reading it.

Heinemann provides PDF versions of its textbooks to all those who purchase a physical copy, which is awesome. This allows me to keep PDFs of all my Heinemann textbooks on all my devices so I’ve always got VCE Chemistry, Physics and Maths information in my pocket (and in my briefcase, on my desk, and even in the car). Searching the PDFs is quicker than looking through the index in the physical copy. The PDF version is a huge bonus that most publishers do not provide, and students seem to love it, too.

The Heinemann CD also includes something called “Exam Café”: a Flash-based software package that allows you to revise (just a little bit) and watch the occasional low-resolution video while your CD drive makes noises like a power drill. To get any use out of it, you’ll have to navigate through a heavily skeuomorphic interface that reminds me of Monkey Island, or the menu screen in Driver. Flash-based, it feels alien on Mac and PC. Like most students, I gave up on the “Exam Café” CD after just a few minutes. I have never heard “Exam Café” mentioned in schools, and never intend to use it myself, despite the textbook being full of references to it.

But it’s not just Heinemann Chemistry 1 that needs a revamp: it’s the entire textbook publishing industry that needs a digital shake-up, too.

This is because many students are repelled by dated textbooks. Students want information that’s instant, customisable, social, digital, and interactive, and the textbooks of 2013 are none of those things.

So students don’t use the textbook when they need information—they use Google instead, which usually directs them to unreliable sites such as or Yahoo Answers. (Students avoid Wikipedia, even though it’s much better than Yahoo Answers, because they’ve been told that Wikipedia is unreliable!) Google is their primary source of information, and they use the PDF textbook only when they have to locate the homework questions at the end of each chapter. They avoid the textbook’s key feature—the body text—because reading PDFs on a screen is so 2010. This begs the question: How can publishers make digital textbooks instant, customisable, social, digital, and interactive as to make students want to read them again?

Switching to iOS apps or iBooks on an iPad solves most of these problems. While PDFs are searchable, which is useful, they are also static and unresponsive to look at, and are no longer a suitable choice for making digital books. Among the major publishers, Pearson Publishing is definitely leading the way digitally. Pearson Publishing has created standalone iBooks (sold for A$19.99 each in the iBookstore) that contain the videos, animations and interactive 3D graphics that that the class of 2014 has grown to expect. They’re sold separately from its printed textbooks and are being updated continually. All textbook publishers will be forced to follow suit eventually.

But there’s a lot of ground yet to cover. Students expect social media integration into everything. They want a textbook that updates your Facebook status when you’ve finished your homework. One that allows collaboration on homework projects and real-time shared annotations with classmates. They want one a book that contains up-to-date news stories and context-relevant tweets on some of the pages. They want books to update themselves via the App Store during the night. When will we get textbooks that track your learning progress with points, like an amalgamation of Kahn Academy and the Nike+ FuelBand…? When will publishers make a “KnowledgeBand” that tracks how much reading a student has done in a day? Why don’t digital textbooks include video tutorials like Richard Thornley? (They should!) Why don’t they have built-in forums that connect right to the pages in the book? Why can’t teachers edit copies of the book and vote each other’s edits up and down like Quora? If publishers could accomplish all of this and kill all the skeuomorphism at the same time, making the app visually really, really simple, then I’d finally have my perfect, five-star textbook.

Above: this Vox pop by DynamicBooks says it well. I wish they did free trials…

I digress.

Strictly in terms of text content, I still prefer Heinemann Chemistry 1 over any other textbook out there. I’m therefore happy to use Heinemann Chemistry 1 as my primary textbook and Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2 as my secondary source for the superior diagrams, questions and alternative explanations it contains. While Nelson is more visually-pleasing (but still not perfect), Heinemann Chemistry 1 seems more ubiquitous in Victoria and is therefore a better investment for a VCE teacher.

In short, there’s no perfect textbook. I’m excited about the digital textbooks that I’ll see entering the classroom in years to come. ★★★★

Book: China: Land of Dragons and Emperors


As simple a Chinese history as is possible to write. Needs a revamp.
255 pages, ★★

Chinese history is notoriously complicated. There have been 83 dynasties (maybe 85) and 559 emperors (plus about 8 more “chairmen” since the 1911 revolution—but this is debatable), each with their own cultures, palaces and stories. As a civilisation, China enjoys the longest unbroken history on Earth. For five thousand years, dynasties followed the predictable cycle of “conquer-rise-prosper-decline” due to warfare, patriotism, tyranny and corruption, respectively. Dynasties often ruled simultaneously in different locations, particularly in the first half of China’s 5000-year history. With China’s vast population and its fondness of large governments, the number of influential people in China’s history is unfathomably large for most people. To confuse matters further, many important people and cities had several names, and the historical record was destroyed and re-written several times in the course of China’s 5000-year history.

China’s official history of the last 100 years alone comprises several tomes filled with tiny Chinese characters on wafer-thin bible-paper. To make an abridged version of the last 5000 years especially for children, therefore, is a remarkable feat. Adeline Yen Mah (whose other books I’ve reviewed here) writes beautifully and accurately in a way that captivates. She includes anecdotes to keep children interested, and peppers the book with editorials that keep young people’s moral compasses on track during scenes of violence or promiscuity.

This book lacked sufficient detail to make it interesting for me. Zheng He’s story is a really exciting one, but it was glossed over in just a few pages in this book. Only the Qing and Tang dynasties were written in sufficient detail for me. Despite its brevity, though, all the most important people and events were at least mentioned in this book.

Reading this book on an iPad, I found myself reimagining PDF as a real iBook specifically designed for the iPad. Chinese history is an exciting topic, and iBooks on the iPad lends itself wonderfully to the videos, animations, speeches and 3D relics that could help bring this colourful history to life. The current version, a black-and-white scanned PDF, seems very dated in 2013. This book needs a digital revamp.

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors was definitely less interesting than Watching the Tree for several reasons. As someone who reads almost every remotely-interesting book on the “China” shelf, particularly non-fiction, I already know most of what she’s writing. It’s also aimed at children, and I was reading it on an iPad with all its drawbacks. If only the book could be re-engineered to take full advantage of all the features the iPad can offer, this book would be very special indeed.

I recommend this book for young teenagers (aged 10-16) who already love reading but don’t yet know much about China. Its discontinuous, highly-chaptered structure lends itself well to reading in bed. (For those who already know a lot about China but don’t like reading so much, I recommend 1421 instead.) ★★★

Book: Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Colourful VCE Chemistry textbook especially good for visual learners
492 pages, ★★★★★

I care a great deal about colour and design. My revision notes always have a colour-scheme that makes sense to me, and I draw colour-coded character maps of the novels that I read (see examples in the “Popular Today” section on the right!). Information makes so much more sense to me in visual form. You can see some of those visualisations on the infographics section of by blog.

That’s one of the reasons I loved this VCE Chemistry textbook. While it doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s noticeably designed for visual learners such as myself.

First, I love the varied yet consistent use of fonts. The main text is set in Garamond on a white background, which makes it easy on the eyes when reading. Titles, tables and questions are set in a tall, rare, old-fashioned sans-serif font on a colourful background, which gives this book its unmistakably unique appearance. Annotations and extra information is set in a neutral sans-serif font (similar to Helvetica) off to the side, usually in colour, and balances the old-fashioned feel of the other two fonts beautifully. The whole book is visually pleasing, which makes me want to spend longer looking at the pages!

I also love the visual summaries at the end of each chapter. (This is where Heinemann—another VCE Chemistry textbook—falls down.) In particular, the visual summary on page 156 explains the properties of metallic bonding clearly and beautifully in one diagram. The diagram made a relatively complicated topic very simple to understand.

Nelson VCE Chemistry 1 & 2 page 156

I hope textbooks become more and more visual. Maybe with the introduction of the iPad in schools, colourful diagrams and interactive animations will become more common in the classroom. I hope so.

I’m also not alone here. Many students I’ve taught in schools are actually averse to reading the main text in a textbook. They don’t even notice the Garamond—they only see the titles and diagrams. While we still need to focus heavily on improving literacy on the one hand, we also need to acknowledge this trend towards more visual ways of presenting information on the other.

As a teacher, I advocate more ‘translation’ activities as discussed on and as is routinely done with ESL students in IELTS: set students the tasks of translating diagrams into prose and vice-versa. We need to incorporate visual learners in our curricula, for which, this textbook is an excellent starting point. ★★★★★