Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Roger Schank: Only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach

I first saw Roger Schank talk in Denver, Colorado, over 25 years ago and have barely disagreed with a word he’s said since. Schank is a critic of the current educational system, pointing to 19th century curriculum, teaching by telling, lectures, memorisation and standardised tests, as structures and techniques that distort learning. I’ve seen him ask audiences of academics to tell him the quadratic equation, taught to most children – they can’t. I’ve seen him ask audiences about the safety briefing on a 737, something they’ve seen dozens of times – they can’t.
With characteristic boldness, Schank often starts with the statement, “There are only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach it.” So let’s look at his work through these two lenses.
1. What we teach
Schank’s research took him back to the 1892 curriculum in the US, where he found that the current subjects were fossilised into a curriculum designed for testing and to filter students for university. The very idea of a fixed curriculum seems odd to Schank, as it fixes knowledge and we mostly forget the stuff we’re asked to remember.
His bête noire is ‘maths’. Our obsession with maths and standardised tests impoverishes education. In fact the two are linked. Maths is popular because it is easy to test. Driven by PISA tests, which he debunks by showing that their supposed relevance is bogus, the world has become addicted to tests not performance. Algebra, in particular, he sees as a hangover from a fossilised curriculum.
Similarly with the sciences; physics, chemistry and biology, STEM subjects, he thinks, are overrated. Sure we need to learn how to write well in English but that comes through regular practice, not occasional essays. As for languages, Roger has lived abroad and as he speaks French, he finds the French taught in school laughable, as it rarely results in any real success and is not the language spoken in France. The classroom, he claims is not the place to learn a language, especially in a country where there’s no real opportunity for immersion or practice.
In short, school he thinks, has turned into a funnelling process for Universities. This is a big mistake. His solution is to have lots of curricula and allow people to follow their curiosity and interests, as this is what drives real, meaningful and useful learning, as opposed to memorisation and hoop jumping. Organise school, not around subjects, but cognitive processes that match what we do in the real world.
Higher education?
The idea that everyone should go to college he thinks absurd. It’s fine for some but not all. With impeccable, academic credentials, and a background in cognitive science, computer science and education, he explodes the view that Higher Education has of itself, as the pinnacle of teaching competence and achievement. Professors like research and mostly see teaching and undergraduates as something to be avoided. In any case, he thinks, they’re often very poor teachers, relying on stale lecture series that teach what they research.
To cut to the quick, Schank things Higher Education is a con. You pay through the nose for not very much more than a three or four year vacation and a good social life. The courses are poor and the system designed to select researchers.
2. How we teach it
Schank has a strongly libertarian view in that he wants to abandon lectures, memorisation and tests. Start to learn by doing and practice, not theory. Stop lecturing and delivering dollops of theory. Stop building and sitting in classrooms. We need to teach cognitive processes and acquire skills through the application of these processes, not fearing failure.
What most people fail to realise about Schank is that his recommendations are based on a lifetime academic interest and contributions to cognitive science and a deep understanding of these processes.
Script theory
Based on an examination of language and memory, Schank explored the idea of personalised scripts in learning. This personalised, episodic model of memory led to a theory of instruction that exposed learners to model scripts by allowing them to experience the process of building their own scripts. We need scripts for handling meetings, dealing with customers, selling to others and so on. Knowledge is not a set of facts, it’s a set of experiences. This is not taught by telling, it is taught by doing, ‘there really is no learning without doing’. Interestingly, recent memory research confirms this view.
Learning by doing
He rejects the idea that we have to fill people up with knowledge they’ll never use. Too much education and training tries, and fails, to do this. We need to identify why someone wants to learn then teach it. In this sense he puts motivation and skills before factual knowledge. One can pull in knowledge when required.
Meaningful stories (scripts) lie at the heart of his instructional method. These contextualise learning and link to previous schema. A fierce critic of lectures and classroom education and training, he has developed simulation methods for exposing learners to script building environments, where they can learn by repeated exposure to failure and ultimately success. Expectation failure is when things turn out to be different from what you expected. This is when you learn. Breaking with traditional linguists and theorists of learning, he sees learning as a difficult and messy process, where failure is the primary driver. We match incoming problems to past experiences. Case-based reasoning is therefore instructive, where we learn by doing what we want to do. We also learn by making mistakes and reflecting on what those mistakes were and what we can do about them. Learning by doing, works. Learning by telling, doesn't.
In e-learning this means using case-based instruction, emotional impact, video, role-playing, storytelling. Learners are put into situations that seem realistic to them, to solve problems, and possibly fail, and have someone help them out. Design is hard, reworking the thing into a case-based scenario; something that seems like a goal someone has, then to helping them accomplish it - that's learning.
Story-Centred Curricula
He prefers to deliver learning from mentored experience, not from direct instruction presented out of context. Fictional situations are set up in which students must play a role. They need to produce documents, software, plans, presentations and such within a story describing the situation. Deliverables produced by the student are evaluated by team members and by mentors. The virtual experiential curricula are story centred. Story-Centred Curricula are carefully designed apprenticeship-style learning experiences in which the student encounters a planned sequence of real-world situations constructed to motivate the development and application of knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion.
Cognitive processes

In his latest book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools he focuses on cognitive processes as the basis for learning interventions.


Conscious Processes
1. Prediction: determining what will happen next 
2. Modeling: figuring out how things work
3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
4. Values: deciding between things you care about 
Analytic Processes
1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened
4. Judgment: deciding between choices
Social Processes
1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do 
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal 
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others 
These are the skills one needs to master. By allowing users to fail in controlled environments, he saw that instruction is not about telling, it’s about real or fictionally constructed experience, involvement and practice, including the experience of failure.
Online education
In fact most current online education he sees as just a change in venue, not a change in method. He argues for much more problem solving, simulation and learning by doing. He is also critical of MOOCs largelyjust lectures on line interrupted by quizzes and discussion groups” and he has little time for Coursera and Udacity, which he sees as replicating poor college courses.
Schank has turned most instructional methods on their head by rejecting the subject-led, academic approach for a more meaningful, experiential, learn by doing method. Using sound principles in cognitive science, he uses case-based scenarios and stories are used to create contexts in which learners succeed, and just as importantly fail. As time passes, Schank seems to become more and more relevant. He’s seen as a heretic but most of the actors in education know in themselves that he’s exposing some deep truths.
Schank, R.C. (1975). Conceptual Information Processing. New York: Elsevier.
Schank, R.C. (1982a). Dynamic Memory: A Theory of Reminding and Learning in Computers and People. Cambridge University Press.
Schank, R.C. (1982b). Reading and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schank, R.C. (1986). Explanation Patterns: Understanding Mechanically and Creatively. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schank, R.C. (1991). Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schank, R.C. & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum Assoc.
Schank, R.C. & Cleary. C. (1995). Engines for education. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.
Schank, R.C (2005). Lessons in e-Learning. Pfeiffer.
Schank, R.C (2011). Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools


jay said...

Thank you for this, Donald. Roger's thinking is fresh as a daisy. I love his take on training... He says he can describe everything that's wrong with training in only four words: IT'S JUST LIKE SCHOOL.

Jon Revelos said...

Great stuff, Donald. It's good to see that Roger's claims and arguments are standing the test of time and more people are beginning to see him as (a little bit) less crazy and extreme. Struggles remain in bringing his recommendations into action, but he's blazed a solid trail for others to further clear and pave.

Fatimatuzzahro said...

Thank you ^_^
I am a teacher at a high school in Cirebon, Indonesia. ^_^

Alan/MDX said...

We can leave aside the obvious ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions and perhaps reframe Roger’s idea … we know that the emergence of online technologies are radically changing learning in all spheres (schooling; the workplace; the home) and that traditional models of education look archaic in their various forms. The issue that needs addressing before the others is the ‘why’.

It strikes me we need to ask firstly ‘for what purpose are we teaching?’ Personally (and as a university academic) I’m pretty convinced that my teaching is almost entirely for my own benefit. It is to give me something to do! The system is there for the system first and foremost. My students get small change. If you don’t believe this, then make a simple calculation on how much an average university spends on direct teaching costs (i.e. take out the time university teachers spend on things other than teaching plus all the central admin costs, research etc).

There was a time when the tertiary education system (in the UK) was preparing young men for service in the higher professions (for the future control of the Empire). The lower classes were being prepared for the needs of industry and commerce (unlucky blighters).

Many commentators have identified the shift in the western world towards a postcolonial, post-industrial society. So here’s the big question for me:

What place does a C19th model of higher education have in this new world? What exactly are we preparing citizens for?

The only answer I can up with is it suits the inhabitants of the educational system themselves to maintain the system and structure of education and some policy makers who see education as a form of anaesthetic for the general citizenry (I’m directly paraphrasing Ken Robinson http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

We are on the cusp of a dramatic change in every sphere of life driven by WWW. It invites us to reconsider public schooling (inc. higher education now) at a fundamental level. So not ‘learning technologies in the classroom’ but ‘Learning for a digital existence’. It strikes me the education system is in the most part really not doing this.

My Blog if of interest: http://adurrant.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/from-ink-to-click.html

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Alan. Couldn't agree more. Thought you may also like this. http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=idi

Anthony Hopper said...

Great post...I will have to read some of Schank's work when I get a chance.

Chris Prince Udochukwu Njoku said...

Donald, this is superb, a message that educationists all over the world should accept. I'm in University of Nigeria http://unn.edu.ng where I set up a project aimed at moving the university's teachers and students away from our traditional ineffective teaching and learning contents and methods. You'll be an excellent contact in this regard.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Chris
I'll be visiting the University of Nigeria in March. Hope we can meet up. I'll be giving lectures from 25 to 29 March 2013 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN.

Unknown said...

Especially appreciate the bibliography. If teachers don't do primary research, we're in a quandary asking our students to get those skills.

Unknown said...

I agree with Roger Schank's view on how we learn: By doing, copying, imitating, not listening, memorizing and intensive testing. The problem is education reform will never allow this type of change. The results would be an independent, self-sufficient, compassionate, educated public. This is not what our governments are truly looking for (Canada / US / UK).

The boring teaching methods and setting, outdated subjects, non-thought provoking materials, selective history, obsessive testing is all designed to create a dependent, indifferent, inattentive, live in the moment, afraid, uncompassionate, materialistic public. The kind that believes whatever corporate media tells them and never questions authority. The kind that lives outside their means and racks up a ridiculous amount of debt because they feel that “things” bring happiness. The kind that is afraid of everything; kids can’t do anything today without their parents hovering over them with helmets and gluten free products – god forbid a 10 year old walks to his neighborhood park without an adult. The kind that lacks compassion for the misfortunate and who laughs at weakness. The kind that will do everything to conform or fit in with everyone else because having different ideas is labeled “weird”. School has created a predictable manipulative public; ideal for a world run by a corporatocracy. Yes not everyone turns out this way. There are those who escape the behavior modifications of the school system. These lucky few keep asking for change and reform. They see through the manipulation of the state. But they are not the masses. It’s been over a century now since man has begun to study how we learn. To honestly think that our governments will implement these rational and natural ideas is naïve.

I highly recommend reading John Taylor Gatto’s “Under Ground History of American Education” (Canada and UK have adopted the same policies and reforms).

Donald Clark I love your passion and vision for online learning. I personally have learned more online then I ever have in the public school system or at university. I definitely see reform moving in that direction, however, I am cautious of its future curriculum. The amount of behavior modification technics that our children could be exposed to is frightening. A computer offering rewards and punishments for learned behavior could be a dangerous tool. A curriculum that parents would have little access to and of little control. I do not have faith that our policy makers would implement such a powerful tool to create independent creative thinkers. Now that Pearson is “in bed with” OECD I’m even more reluctant to see the technology used for the benefit of our children. Over the past decade Pearson has pretty much purchased its entire competition for virtual schools and virtual curriculum. It will have complete control over what our children will be virtually learning in the school system. Pearson is now even developing the 2018 PISA assessments! Does anyone else see the conflict of interest here? One company designs the curriculum and the testing assessments that is used internationally?

I’m from Canada where we scored fairly high on the International PISA results. However, my country is still pushing for reform and looking at the amazing Finnish education (roll my eyes).
If Canada is in the top 10 every year why the need for change? What does the Finnish education system have that we don’t? A national curriculum and federal appointed schools boards. No more elected school boards which means parents have no more influence. People need to wake up and really see why our countries are focused on PISA test results and the Finnish education system. It’s not because they score so high on the tests; its education system is controlled by the national level instead of the state level with no input, control, or say from the general public.