Less memorizing, more engagement, Stanford physicist Quinn says

Stanford physicist leads project that will affect nation's K-12 classrooms

Less memorization and deeper engagement is the way of the future for K-12 science classrooms, says Stanford University physicist Helen Quinn.

Quinn chaired a top-level committee of the National Research Council, which last week released a 282-page report calling for a new approach to science education.

The first such review in 15 years, the Framework for K-12 Science Education Standards is likely to affect the way science is taught in all 50 states, with consequences for low-performing schools as well as high-end districts such as Palo Alto.

The framework also will form the basis for "common core standards" in science, similar to those already in place for math and language arts. The existing common core standards have been adopted by 44 states, including California.

Quinn, a theoretical physicist and professor at Stanford since 2003, has long been interested in science education, running summer programs for teachers and bringing college students from around the country to do research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

She retired from SLAC last year to devote herself full time to the science framework committee "without feeling guilty about not doing any physics."

In an interview last week, she described the committee work as "enormous and fascinating intellectually.

"One of the challenges was to make the parallels across the disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics) such that they are coherent, so that what students are learning about energy in the physical science stream matches what they're asked to apply in life science.

"For example, if you talk about the water cycle and you don't know the particulate nature of matter, how do you understand what evaporation is? Those things need to match."

If someone walked into discussions about energy in today's classes in biology, chemistry and physics, "you'd be hard put to figure out they're talking about the same thing," which is confusing to kids, Quinn said.

The framework stresses core ideas in four areas: physical science, life sciences, earth and space sciences and engineering, technology and the application of science.

It incorporates new scientific findings of the past 15 years, in areas such as DNA and climate change.

It also incorporates research on how kids learn, Quinn said.

"The research says that kids don't change their mindset by being told a fact.

"For kids to really understand an idea, they have to work with that idea. So what you need to do is have fewer facts and more development of ideas," she said.

"It's a whole different culture of the classroom."

Even in top districts like Palo Alto, she said "if you assess the discourse in a classroom today, 90 percent or more of what goes on is the teacher asks a question and a student answers and the teacher either affirms or critiques the answer."

The new model would have students debating one another about whether measurements made in the classroom confirm a certain hypothesis, with the teacher guiding the process.

Quinn's committee, comprised of university scientists and education scholars from across the country, said educators should de-emphasize "discrete facts" and refocus on "a limited number of core ideas and crosscutting concepts." Every student should have a chance to work with the ideas, make connections and experience how science is actually done.

By the end of 12th grade, students should be able to "engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives," the committee said.

Quinn said her committee's work is consistent with the direction the College Board has taken in revising its Advanced Placement science curricula to place greater emphasis on being able to apply knowledge and less emphasis on memorization of facts.

"We're cutting out details that are not depth," she said. "People tend to think of detail as depth. But -- talking about a cell, for example -- it's much more important to take the time and depth to understand how a cell functions than to be able to give the Latin names for all parts of the cell.

"If you're going to be a biologist or medical researcher, you will need to know the Latin names because that's the language of the discipline. But what we have right now is too much the language of the discipline and not enough of the idea."

The framework report will be passed to Achieve, a Washington-based organization created in 1996 by the nation's governors and corporate leaders, to raise academic standards and graduation requirements.

Achieve will translate the framework directives into standards, expected to be released in late 2012.

Major support for the framework project came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as from the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Carole Langston
a resident of University South
on Aug 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

This is good news and long overdue! Young people will really benefit from this approach!

Like this comment
Posted by Joyce
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2011 at 11:01 am

Finally, some one pays attention to whats wrong with current school system and why are USA schools lagging so far behind compared to European and so called "Third world countries" they do math, and logical things much better.

Like this comment
Posted by nothingiswrong
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 1, 2011 at 11:06 am

There is nothing wrong because a lot of those countries are trying to learn something from us of our education systems too,it is best to combine both.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2011 at 11:45 am

This is terrific and long overdue! It would be great if we actually had science in elementary schools (most of our science is funded thru PiE). In middle school the focus is on keeping neat notebooks with all your science papers in them, numbered with a nice table of contents. By the end of middle school, too many kids think of science as a boring class in which you memorize facts and color worksheets. Science is an exciting, engaging subject - except in public schools.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Duveneck School
on Aug 1, 2011 at 11:52 am

Why do we feel the need to continually "improve" our education system? I believe these "improvements" explain why the US is falling behind the rest of the world. Memorization is absolutely essential for young minds to develop a strong foundation of FACTS upon which they can build scientific understanding later in their lives. I am not discounting the importance of engaging students, but science and specifically, mathematics, requires memorization. Additionally, many real life applications of science and math require instant recall of facts, a phenomenon best accomplished by memorization.

Instead of reinventing education (to its detriment), why not copy what other successful countries have used, such as the Russians, Germans and Chinese (other countries, too)? Ever wonder why most of the top US graduate school students in science, math, and engineering are not American? It's because our primary education system is spending too much time trying to find a "better" way instead of just focusing on what works.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm

"deeper engagement..." huh? These loosy-goosy phrases aren't for me and I get vaguely uncomfortable with educational fads.
I am uneasy about this idea and feel there is a need to pass on a clear body of knowledge, which includes facts. Curriculum should be kept up to date, of course. I have no problem with lecture based classes. I had a very strong Biology class in high school which was taught (operative word) by a teacher with this philosophy. I still remember tons of stuff even though I never had contact with Biology professionally.

This reminds me that there are still CLASSICS of literature. For example: One of my kids, a young adult, is going back and reading classics which were not taught/used in school (but used to be) and this is a personal initiative, nothing to do with me, the parent. As has been discussed on a couple of other threads in past months, there has been a recent emphasis on unpleasant literature or very specific ethnic literature.

Some countries have a national curriculum - I have witnessed one which was remarkably strong. This means a common body of shared knowledge across that country.

That doesn't mean there ALSO should be creative learning, handss-on, group work, interesting labwork, thinking about the HOW, whatever.
The idea that children should teach themselves or teach each other (in some sort of serendipitous or random way that may or may not work in a particular class) should be purely secondary.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm

typo: also shouldn't

-- as you can see, I am not much for the notion a teacher should hover around as a "facilitator." In VERY rare cases, such a style could work. I believe the teacher should TEACH.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Good initiative and badly written article!
First impression, that author of the program is trying to destroy completely already not functioning system, and only at the end of the page the reader can finally figure out some real ideas, which are actually very reasonable. Good luck Ms. Quinn!

Like this comment
Posted by Fix it many times and it remains broken
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm

In India I studied Trigonometry in High School using a book written in 1893 [ Plane Trigonometry, by S. L. Loney ] - I ended up going to the top engineering schools in India and USA.

Trig has not changed much since those times. The price on Google E-Book Store - FREE.

When we keep changing to nicey - touchy - feely stuff we make it expensive and we end up getting worse results.

Why are other countries doing better than us. I'll let Helen Quinn answer that.

Like this comment
Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:30 pm

This is about the kind of people the schools produce. We have now generations of people incapable of critical thinking. That's why we have the kind of governments we have been having and why our political establishment is so terribly dysfunctional-people who are incapable of critical thinking can't make educated choices about voting and are unaware of the fundamental flaws in our society and political system. Memorization kills critical and and creative thinking and it produces zombies.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

We need to have students do both: memorize what needs memorization and use that information and skill set as a basis for thinking critically.

One problem we have here in the US is fast-pacing. In other countries kids specialize earlier, those who are not headed to university peel out of the academic track earlier and kids go to school year-round. In the US we assign massive amounts of homework and move very quickly in some cases to compensate. It results in a soft foundation and lots of stress.

Furthermore, kids need quite and academic identity safety to think critically. In our noisy, competitive classrooms many kids shut down. Those who are not fast never get the chance to develop that life-skill of solving a problem their own way.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm

"Daniel" is completely wrong about memorization. It's only when you've really mastered what others have already done in a field -- not only heard about it once, but internalized it so your mind remembers it and incorporates it automatically as you consider new ideas -- that you can really do any worthwhile new work. Imagine how difficult life would be if you didn't memorize anything. Every day, you would need to consult the map or GPS to get to work, where you would then need to re-read the manual (if you remembered where it was) to be able to turn on your computer. Foreign schools turn out good scientists because they teach the known facts first, then problem-solving skills.

Like this comment
Posted by true
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 2, 2011 at 1:21 pm


You are so right on this.

Like this comment
Posted by true
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm


At foreign schools, teachers usually assign what they call "pre-read" a new concept or a new chapter before they start to teach us about this new concept(enforced) .After the teachers taught us in the class,we already had a big impression about this concept in this very first instructional period,then they let us do some easy problems when we were at home to be familiar with it, the next day,we would probably have already memorized it,the teachers would review the concepts again then took out harder problems which require more critical thinking skills, we did it together in the classroom(quite,no free-roaming),then the teacher would explain it with this concept once again to show us how to use it critically and creatively.Now we moved on to the next level which is to solve complicated problems by using the concepts we just learned.

Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Why is there this great respect for foreign schools that the other countries themselves don't have? In the US we test and count all the students. China and India don't do that. There are as many good US students as ever. Effectively people are demanding that all US students do very well or no one does - a dangerous proposition and an economy killer.

Don't buy corporate propaganda about unprepared Americans. Corporations are multinational and may make the bulk of their profits elsewhere. They are moving R&D as well as manufacturing elsewhere as fast as they can. While brain-draining the world is a fine idea, the devil is in the details. The work visa programs that corporations have bought in Washington indenture visas workers, enable firing local workers over 40, and enable moving tech and increasingly science out of the US. The corporations are no longer American but get to do Pay-To-Play in Washington anyway. Ditto Wall Street, in charge of recycling trillions in US trade deficits. Advocate for yourself, not indifferent global corporations.

In China the rote-memorization education system is called "Stuff the Duck" in translation. It selects for industrious students with good powers of memorization and that's what they often get - people who do well in tests but not so much anything else. Universities here started to get really fine students from China when they depended more on networking there than academic records - but that's the way the society works anyway. Students from Japan used to complain about something similar - why do you think US universities were drawing so many students across the Pacific in the first place? Students do, indeed, need to simply know a lot about the subject material at hand, but a US "Stuff the Duck" system would be a major, major error.

The more visa workers the corporations buy in Washington the more the best US students bail on STEM fields and the more visas the corporations buy. It's a downward spiral leading to US undevelopment and subsidizing US corporations in moving offshore. US state taxpayers, especially, are subsidizing a Brave New World where their own students will have fewer and fewer possibilities. Again, brain-draining the world is a privilege, but there are estimated around 650,000 H1-B visa workers in the US now and an undetermined number of L-1's. Most of those kind of numbers are average.

Like this comment
Posted by nothingiswrong
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Yes,it is called "stuff the duck".But now they are realizing it,they are changing too, they want borrow some of our teaching methods which are more creative and students thus have more free ideas.A lot of students now have more choice.Starting from the first year of the middle school,if you want to join tech schools or nurse schools, then you do not have to take the exam to get into high schools(yes,they need to take exams to get into high school).When in high schools, you have two years to decide which route you want to do,either go science/medicl school route ,or go music/arts/political/humanitarian route or still tech/community college/nurse school route.Of course they have strict tests for all those schools.

Like this comment
Posted by Demographics in "backyard USA"
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

Not sure how many writing on this topic/forum have had the privilege of going inside the buildings of tech giants like Cisco, Google, Intel etc.

The demographics of the populace in these buildings is far different from what you see on the streets of Palo Alto or the bay area.

The demographics is jaw dropping: It is almost all Chinese or Indian.

And this is right in our backyard - not any other foreign country.

We are still trying to figure out how to teach our students Physics - ya right.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2011 at 12:06 pm

How do we human beings learn? We actively engage both physically and mentally with the material at hand. School needs to become much more inline with the way in which we learn and the computer is an important part of that learning these days.

I have come to that conclusion and more after teaching for 38 years.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Contemporary Indian restaurant, Ettan, headed to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 6,224 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,461 views

Is racism also a local problem?
By Diana Diamond | 41 comments | 1,195 views

Two degrees can do all that?
By Sherry Listgarten | 14 comments | 1,158 views

Tame, Maim and Claim the Wild Sea Vegetable
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 672 views


Register today!

‚ÄčOn Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More