Roger Schank and School Culture

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. the educational chat #MichED will host education revolutionary and edupreneur Roger Schank as a guest chatter. Schank’s background is in the academic world, where he studied linguistics and worked on projects with artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. But to hear him speak, his former life in the academic world is more of a demerit than a badge of honor. Schank frequently bemoans the world of academics for it’s lack of focus on what really matters in learning. And what really matters? Schank’s answer to this question is straight-forward and pragmatic – what really matters in education is doing. For Schank, time spent teaching academic facts without context, memorized to simply pass a test, is wasted time. Students dump this information from their brains within minutes of finishing the test. In speeches, Schank likes to demonstrate this reality by asking audiences if anyone can remember the quadratic equation. It’s a reasonable question, considering all the time spent in schools around the world teaching the quadratic equation. It’s funny to watch Schank’s expression as he scans the audience, looking for any hands of someone in attendance who can remember one of the cornerstones of basic math classes. When no hands go up, Schank gives a little nod, then continues on with his broader point.

“Why should everyone know the same stuff? … Teachers should help students figure out how to do stuff that students actually want to do.” – Roger Schank

There are only two problems with school, claims Schank – 1) what we teach, and 2) how we teach it. While this may seem a little extreme, it’s a good example of just how revolutionary Schank’s ideas are for the educational system. Schank wants to do away with a teacher- and curriculum-centered institution and replace it with an educational approach which puts the student’s motivation and learning front and center. For Schank, this is accomplished by giving the student some independence. “Why should everyone know the same stuff?” asks Schank, “[besides] there isn’t all that much that is important to know. There is a lot that is important to know how to do, however. Teachers should help students figure out how to do stuff the students actually want to do.”

Schank takes this practical approach into a field whose reputation is anything but practical. In his latest book, “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools” (here), Schank applies cognitive psychology to academic institutions. For Schank, schools ought to teach student how to “do” and “think.” Forget the traditional knowledge-based process of education and focus on process-based education. Schank describes a knowledge-based approach to education:

“In our society we have set up school to teach knowledge. We concern ourselves with facts children know, we test to make sure they know them, and then we complain that the schools are failing when they don’t.” – Roger Schank, “Teaching Minds”

What we ought to teach instead is the stuff of thinking – teach student the process of thinking, which looks more like this:

“Make a prediction

Prediction fails

Make a generalization

Explain your generalization

Make a new prediction”

Notice how failure is central to this process. For Schank, schools need to teach students how to fail. Students should fail again and again, because failure – and learning how to deal with failure – is a cornerstone in the process of learning. Once again, this idea is practically rooted and makes more sense when we consider our own personal lives – true growth and learning begins with failure, and our most profound lessons are rooted in our most profound failures. It’s this type of practical sense that Schank wants to apply to the classroom. Don’t teach students “what” – teach them “how.” This is the heart of Schank’s gadfly approach to education.

If interested in learning more, check out the #MichED chat tonight – 8:00 p.m. Or look into Roger Schank’s new book: “Teaching Minds


One thought on “Roger Schank and School Culture

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