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02/18/92

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Science "a special kind of story-making" to educator Rowe

STANFORD -- Early one morning, on her school's annual visit to Princeton University's scientists and labs, a teen-aged Mary Budd Rowe came across Albert Einstein. He was gazing at a fountain, "tilting his head this way and that and sometimes moving his hands rapidly up and down."

"I stood beside him, puzzled," Rowe recalls. "He said nothing for quite some time. Then he turned to me and said, 'Can you do it? Can you stop the water enough to see the individual drops of water?'"

Einstein showed Rowe how to move her hands until she, too, could create a strobe effect that appeared to slow the stream to individual drops. They experimented a bit to get the best effect.

Then they turned and walked on.

"Never forget that science is just that kind of exploring and fun," he told her.

Rowe never has. Now a Stanford University education professor, she has been an outspoken advocate for "edutainment" science programs for children -- she is, in fact, science adviser for two PBS children's programs, Reading Rainbow and 3-2-1 Contact.

She argues passionately that students learn more when science courses allow more experiments and discussion, and has criticized the current emphasis on the rote teaching of science "facts," which results from America's "fantastic drive to do testing."

Most recently in the New York Times, she has been hailed as a leading national education innovator for her development of videotapes to teach physical science concepts to elementary school teachers. She also has been praised for her research on "wait time" -- in other words, how long teachers wait for student responses. Just by increasing that from the average one second to three seconds or longer produces remarkable improvement in the language and logic of students, Rowe said.

Her current passion is CD ROM technology -- "super- diskettes" that allow students direct access to the same information scientists work with -- whether it is Voyager data on the rings of Saturn, water quality databases or the 1990 census data. She has produced a CD ROM called Science Helper that provides more than a thousand science activities for elementary-student science instruction.

"Each CD ROM carries the equivalent of 300,000 pages of print," Rowe said. "This technology has a tremendous potential for equalizing education. To me, we're moving closer and closer to giving power to the people.

"I'm really gone on science -- it's an exciting, playful thing," she said. "It changes the way we think of the world."

Putting playfulness and adventure into science for children has been a lifelong mission for Rowe, whose articles reflect her sense of proportion and humor: "Getting Chemistry Off the Killer Course List," "The Uncommon Common Sense of Science," "Riding a Beam of Light: Tripping out on CD ROM!"

Her mission is easily subverted in a nation where high school science courses have been found, on average, to introduce more vocabulary than a first-year foreign language course, and where science texts have increased an average 1-1/2 lbs. per book over the last decade.

Science, she said, is "treated increasingly as a second- language learning program." The wrong images of science spring from texts and teachers driven by tests that make "the coverage of large amounts of content a prime objective but with little concern for meaning or usefulness of ideas."

The journal Daedalus summed it up this way:

"Typically, the 300 to 350 pages assigned during a school year means that students are expected to learn between 2,400 and 3,000 terms per science course. Thus, in a school year of 180 days, and in class periods of approximately 55 minutes each, 20 concepts would have to be covered per period, an average of one every two minutes. That there is very little discussion or inquiry should come as no surprise -- there is no time for it."

Rowe recalls a frustrated student throwing down his very thick earth science text and complaining, "It's a damn dictionary! And who reads dictionaries?"

Rowe had to agree.

"Science books have turned into fancy dictionaries," she said. "The plot, the storyline -- the way in which ideas interact -- have disappeared.

"Science is a special kind of story-making. There are no right and wrong answers, just better and better stories. You live with the best story you have at the moment."

Too often, however, the national hunger to test destroys the delicate mental interplay involved in such science "story- making." "Testing in its present form has perverted the image of what science is," said Rowe.

Science, she says, is "a way of asking nature a question, a way of teasing an answer out of nature."

Rowe described a chemistry classroom where a teacher was trying to draw out student responses, which tended to be brief and uninventive. Finally, one student called out plaintively, "Why don't you just tell us the answer and get it over with? We have to take college entrance exams and need to know the right answers. This inquiry stuff is sometimes kind of interesting, but we haven't got time for it, and besides, it always ends up the same way -- what we are supposed to think. We need to know the right answers."

Said Rowe: "In today's schools, the students' primary responsibility is to learn the official story well enough to be able to write or recite it correctly, regardless of whether they understand it or believe it."

To illustrate the shortcomings of such an approach, Rowe characteristically resorts to another story: During a foggy Oregon- to-San Francisco jet flight, she sat with a 10-year-old girl who was putting together a paper model airplane given to her by the stewardess. Rowe noted that the child was correctly labeling each part as she assembled it -- the wings, the engines, fuselage, propellers.

Then the girl turned and looked up at Rowe. "Does this plane have wings, too?" she asked.

"It was really interesting," Rowe said. "This girl had no functional understanding of the relationship of the wings to flight. But if you had watched her label and assemble the plane, and failed to have a conversation with her, you would have missed a fundamental fact: she does not connect structure and function."

Rowe argues that an education that fails to make such basic connections produces children who are "test-wise and knowledge-poor."

Rowe says science classes should always ask the question, "So what?" She has developed a "So what?" chart for science educators, which moves from Ways of Knowing ("What do I know? Why do I believe it? What is the evidence?") to Actions/Applications ("What are the options? Do I know how to take action?") to Consequences ("Do I know what would happen?" "What's the payoff?") to Values ("Do I care?" "Who cares?").

"I wouldn't trust a course that doesn't work around this cycle five or six times a year," said Rowe.

A few 'quick fixes'

Science education is often viewed as expensive, elaborate, or too deeply embedded in schoolwide reforms to change easily.

Rowe, however, believes that some solutions are simple and cost-free:

1. Wait for answers. Because teachers are trying to keep a momentum to classroom discussions, Rowe said the average time a teacher at any level, elementary to college, waits for an answer is about .9 seconds -- less than a full second.

"If you increase the time to 3-5 seconds, the probability of a useful answer goes way up. It gives students a chance to make more connections, which the 'fast inquisition' does not," she said.

In one of Rowe's "wait time" studies, the length of student responses increased on average from 12 to 40 words. Students asked more questions, and linked more inferences to evidence without teacher prodding.

2. More discussion. Students need many examples and a great deal of time to discuss them if they are to understand concepts well enough to use them -- particularly when science understanding runs counter to intuition or common knowledge, she said.

Rowe recalled one discouraged A-student who complained:

"What is this game that scientists play? They tell me that if I give something a push it will just keep on going forever until something pushes it back to me. Anybody can see that isn't true. If you don't keep pushing, things stop. Then they say it would be true if the world were without friction, but it isn't. And if there weren't any friction, how could I push it in the first place? It seems like they just change the rules all the time."

3. No verbal rewards. Current instruction patterns exhort teachers to respond to students' answers with such remarks as, "Good," "O.K.," "No, think again." This promotes the short-answer orientation of students, encourages them to believe that science explanations are "right" or "wrong," and dissuades focus on the process of exploring alternatives, Rowe said.

No "right" answers

"What today's students do learn is that someplace there are people who produce the 'right' answers," she said "There is always an official response to be recited, whether or not one believes it."

Rowe recalls a flight to Europe where, again, she was seated next to a child, this time a sixth-grade boy. The boy watched her as she worked out some data results with a slide rule and a pocket calculator.

He tugged on her arm. "When you're done," he asked, "where are you going to look up the answers?"

"I don't know any book that has the answer to this question," Rowe replied. The boy was silent for a minute or two.

"How will you know if you are right?" he finally asked.

"Well, I'll show it to a lot of people. They'll argue with me, if they want to. And then I'll have to think about it some more," Rowe responded.

"And then will your teacher tell you if you are right?"

"No, I don't think so," she answered. The boy looked at Rowe "very sympathetically," she recalled.

"Some teachers are like that," he said.

"And that," concluded Rowe, "tells us a lot more than test scores do about what children think teaching and learning is about."

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