Science 7 December 2012:
Vol. 338 no. 6112 pp. 1263-1263

Failure of Skin-Deep Learning

Bruce Alberts | 16 Comments

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I encouraged my son to take biology as a freshman in high school, and the experience had the opposite effect from what I had hoped for - it turned him off sciences permanently. The textbook was just as you describe - full of biochemical detail from mitochondrial function to the Krebs cycle - impossible to comprehend without biochemistry. It becomes a vocabulary memorization experience rather than science.

Submitted on Tue, 12/18/2012 - 10:41

I found this article extremely interesting because of a tangential reason. There are colleagues who believe that you can educate future generations of systems biologists at the undergraduate/graduate level, by teaching them a balanced mix of biology and hard sciences (computer sciences, physics, math, engineering, etc).

But I wonder if we could extend Alberts's argument to saying that unless you go seriously deep onto biology AND any of the above (which may be humanly impracticable), you'll be creating jacks of all trades, masters of none. On the other hand, someone could come up with clever ways to dive deep and achieve truer understanding on more than one discipline? Thoughts anyone?

Thanks for reading.

Mariano Loza-Coll, PhD (UCLA, Los Angeles, CA).

Submitted on Mon, 12/17/2012 - 17:23

Your editorial (“Failure of Skin-Deep Learning”) raises an important problem in K-12 education. We feel that the same problem persists in higher education as well. We at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are addressing the problems your editorial raises through a unique, integrative approach to science education. In 2010 we launched the Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) program, which trains students to probe and investigate, at depth,problems of global significance. The iCons program builds on the disciplinary strength of a student’s major—whether in engineering, natural sciences, or public health—by training the crucial skills of finding and critically evaluating information, working productively as a team member, and effectively communicating research findings to others. The mission of the iCons program is to produce the next generation of leaders in science and technology with the attitudes, knowledge, and skills needed to solve the inherently multifaceted problems facing our world. Our approach has already inspired a school in Western Massachusetts to develop an analogous Integrative Science Program. We hope that other schools will follow suit to prepare 21st-century scientists with 21st-century teaching methods. Scott M. Auerbach, Susan B. Leschine, Mark T. Tuominen, and D. Venkataraman

Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA, USA Department of Microbiology, University of Massachuetts Amherst, MA Department of Physics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA

Submitted on Sun, 12/16/2012 - 17:54

Instead of "Failure of Skin-Deep Learning", the more appropriate title could be "Future of Skin-Deep Learning".It has been rightly pointed out about the consequences of teaching and learning processes starting from School to University. It is not only true for USA as has been discussed here, rather it is true for all the countries. It is easy to criticize the quality of contents in the curriculum or the writing style in the text books prescribed for School children, undergraduates or graduate students, however, fact remains that how to correct it. I personally feel that couple of things needs to be done in this context. 1. Curriculum should be framed by reputed scholars in that particular field. Though in many cases, experts in the curriculum committee have profound knowledge in that particular subject, lot of unknown and unexplained influences on the committee could compromise on the quality. 2. Qaulity of text books--Only text books written by experts can be recommended for the students---How to do it? 3. Hiring of quality teachers-- Here we are at loss. Though there are highly reputed schools at world level and teachers in those schools are good but how many percentage of studetns are getting chance to educate themselves in those schools? May not be even 1 percent. And to fix this problem is an herculian task. It is simply impossible to get high quality teachers for the millions of schools worldwide. However, we can start our job in this regard and fix the problem. It may take another minimum 20 years or more but that work needs to start today. First, we need to separate education from politics worldwide. Some countries may be able to do so but not every country. Some hard decisions must be made in every country in this context. A high level committee has be formed in every country and there must be one committee at international level to monitor the quality of education. We must not think that a single country must progress and others will be left behind. Let us move forward together and provide best education to all the children in the world.

Submitted on Sun, 12/09/2012 - 04:52

continued from above: I agree with Soumitra Roy: Bruce Alberts was able to fully exploit his college experience *because* of the knowledge that he had absorbed from his high school courses, much of it gained through memorization. We tend to forget that a lot of the early years of elementary and middle school involve repetition of material covered earlier, with additional complexity added in succeeding years. So, all is not unrelieved memorization. And the goal of memorization never is to be an end in itself. It lays a foundation, a platform from which increasingly wider and deeper learning can take off.

Submitted on Sat, 12/08/2012 - 15:47

The framers of curricula can't be this wide of the mark. The problem with American Education lies not in a glut of information but in expectations and performance that are *too low.* The kids who spend their time memorizing and absorbing their course info are not causing the crisis in education. There was a time when I hought that memorization was beneath the dignity of any intelligent person. But I realized that this is merely an age-appropriate *stage* in gaining of knowledge. We know the history of Jewish and Vedic learning of sacred texts involves massive memorization feats and some complementary techniques such as head-banging or rocking and other rhythmic mnemonic devices---whatever it takes! One cannot comment upon and interpret material until one has internalized it. In the secular classroom what's missing so often is the link between the mass of information and the motivation to absorb it, that is provided by inspired teaching. It is here that the crisis in American education lies. Inspiring teaching only can be provided by someone who already has absorbed that information and much more and who delights in adding to his/her own knowledge, thereby solving puzzles, answering long-standing questions, and who loves seeing others develop the same delight in themselves. Students do this by seeing a living example in fron of them every day, proof that the goal is worthy and attainable. Such a teacher wields not a goose-gullet-stuffing tool but "soft" ware like knowledge of human nature, a sense of drama, conscientiousness and love of working with students. S/he has the ability to take a half-step back and become a *facilitator* of students interacting and challenging and teaching each other *in* the classroom. It's known that nothing & no one is more important to secondary students than their peers. Given the opportunity, they can experience "passion" of the kind that exists "in the souls of the scientists working in the labs" all around Bruce Alberts. The students may not get breakthroughs, but what they will get is a respect for the complexity of the subject, and its relevance to their lives. Every high school graduate should know, among many examples, what ATP is and does, or s/he will be shut out of common discourse with peers on into the future. I disagree with the "1% solution" suggested by a respondent. If it were true and applied, there would be no science being done, no innovation happening. (continued)

Submitted on Sat, 12/08/2012 - 15:37

Two things. It amazes me that in American English we talk about “training” not learning, educating. We write “somebody was trained in physics” instead of “has learned physics or got a degree in physics”. In my education I was guided by the 1% model of human development, it goes like this Many years ago one of my mentors told me that only 1% of students seeking a university education should get it, then only 1% of Ph.D. students should get the coveted degree, then only 1% of fresh Ph.D.’s should get grants and do research, then only 1% of those could produce decent results, then only 1% of these may finally find new facts, and then only 1% of these could make a discovery, and then… Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D., D.o.S.

Submitted on Sat, 12/08/2012 - 11:33

The problem of how to acquire knowledge and most important how to teach/induce the brain to think (whatever it means) was tackled already in ancient Sumer. As recorded students spent a lot of time first to memorize the cuneiform writing and grammar (just acquiring all types of memory and grammar constructs). Then the brain was induced to relate things to each other in 3D space. It took an Einstein ~5,000 years latter to radically change this human trait and think in new terms of multidimensional space-time. Even today an effort is needed for educated students to move away from the 3D space intuitive concept. So, learning is effort coupled with “thirst for knowledge” (as Anton van Leeuwenoek recorded in1675). Michael Lerman Ph.D., M.D.

Submitted on Sat, 12/08/2012 - 00:29

Q: Did that course result in, or use a textbook or collection of readings that would be useful to access?

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 15:01

Thanks for this. I am a graduate student at UMass Medical School in Worcester, MA and had a similar enlightenment through my social and political history classes. I think we can easily incorporate a "current events" section in many middle school and high school curricula that would teach kids that science is more than memorizing enzyme names and the spelling of the names of bacteria.

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 13:22

For those concerned about content and coverage in American K-12 science standards, the time to make your voice heard is now. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the upcoming national science standards based on the National Research Council Framework for K-12 Science Education.

Written by a coalition of 26 Lead States, NGSS has already undergone one public review and been revised accordingly. In the first week of January 2013, the second NGSS draft will be open to the public for a final round of public feedback. This feedback period will last only two weeks; in preparation, interested parties will want to read the NRC Framework carefully to understand the intent of NGSS. All of this information can be found at

Given that the first National Science Education Standards (NSES) came out in 1996 and NGSS will likely be implemented after 2013/2014, the next time we will have this opportunity to affect national science standards may be another 20 years from now. Since AAAS is listed as a Partner in the NGSS, perhaps our membership should take a vested interest in these standards and the final public review – the NGSS team is certainly expecting us to do so.

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 13:14

It is interesting that Professor Albert focuses on the superficiality of his grandson's textbook as a source of educational deficiency. It is probably not the information in the textbook that is deficient but the nature of the medium itself. The paper textbook is clearly antiquated and cannot hope to compete for the attention of the 21st century learner. It is quite ironic that an editorial on paper textbooks will no doubt be obtained by the vast majority of readers via electronic media. Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of Prof. Albert's assessments is that his grandson is using a paper textbook at all.

Besides the obvious advantages of increased portability and reduced overall cost, a truly modern the electronic textbook could provide both unlimited breadth and unlimited depth on virtually any topic. One could easily design electronic modules which are scalable to provide increasing depth for readers who are interested or teachers who demand it. This would allow instructors provide greater depth based on the skill and needs of the class or even the individual learner. Also these texts could be provided online, perhaps for free. This would allow for teachers to bypass the burdensome and capricious standards of state purchasing boards.

In an age of video games, smartphones and all manner of electronic distractions it embarrassing to think that humble paper textbook can compete with these electronic distractions. Many students at the secondary school level have access to an extraordinary trove of information via a phone they keep in there pocket. We must design learning tools that provide both broad knowledge and allow in-depth exploration. This is quite possible using tools that have been available at the university level for at least 20 years.

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 10:41

I will posit that Prof. Albert's Harvard history course was useful to him because of (and not in spite of) his previous history lessons that he had learned so well. He had learned how to learn, which is what school (and possibly most of college) is meant for; any ability to recapitulate the factoids is a bonus, and somewhat tangential to the main goal of education.

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 06:14

I applaud the sentiment in this article. I'm not against a wide coverage - biology is a broad subject. What I'm against is breadth and depth. Why? Because it's impossible. You have to ask how much of the factual detail that our students are obliged to commit to memory can be recalled after 6 months of 10 years. If the knowledge is entirely gone then, really, what was the point. Would it not be better to communicate the principles, the concepts and leave the details to a degree education when the student has made a decision to narrow their focus into Chemistry or Physics or American History or Economics or English? How long will it be, I wonder, before we require our kids to be familiar with details of the human genome, epigenetics and the Higgs Boson? Please let's stop this overblown, fact-heavy approach to education. I recommend that you find some Dewey to read this weekend - sometimes it seems we have unlearned what was understood one hundred years ago. This is, I believe, true in education.

Submitted on Fri, 12/07/2012 - 03:34

From the article and discussion, I assume facts and in-depth are both needed in some balance. I have a pretty good idea of what a fact is, but I'm not sure what "in depth" means from a practical point of view. What do you add to facts that eventually produces in-depth understanding? The article has an example of 'facts as mere associations' which I would like to compare to examples of 'in-depth' to possibly get your point, but there aren't any that I see. Is there any commonly agreed upon definition of what 'in-depth' means? I'd need that as a start to get to a possible 'Aha! about the need for 'in-depth'. Or have I missed the point?

Submitted on Thu, 12/06/2012 - 21:41

I don't believe that just zooming in is a way of improving learning: Sometimes you have to see the forest to understand the tree.Besides, we can't miss the importance of evaluation as a fundamental factor influencing outcomes in teaching& learning process.

Submitted on Thu, 12/06/2012 - 20:35

Fortunately in the New South Wales (NSW), Australia education system there are no mandated textbooks for any high school science course. The curriculum for junior science students (12-16 year olds) is organised into objectives, expected outcomes and an outline of knowledge, understanding and skills to be studied. The actual teaching program is designed by individual schools although reference can be made to the number of available textbooks. While there is an emphasis on a thematic in-depth approach as proposed by Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, there is concern among some science educators that not enough emphasis is made on students learning basic facts. In the same way that mathematics students find algebra difficult without a rote-learned knowledge of the times table, it is difficult to develop an understanding of chemical processes involved in water pollution without factual knowledge of elements, compounds, mixtures, chemical reactions and their symbolic representations. We are finding it increasingly difficult to convince young students that the retention of facts, often rote learned, will assist in learning when addressing an issue in depth. Only a small proportion of confident, self-motivated learners are able to address an issue in depth and develop the factual knowledge to assist in understanding. For the majority of students, lack of basic, factual knowledge results in rapid disengagement from a learning activity and subsequent misbehaviour. The challenge is developing a balance between learning facts and applying them to learning activities reflecting real world issues. While the NSW science curriculum allows teachers and schools to developed appropriate learning programs, state based testing often results in a focus on ensuring a broad coverage of facts and shallow learning.

Submitted on Thu, 12/06/2012 - 18:44