“School is profoundly broken”: Roger Schank’s visit to BYU

On Monday and Tuesday, Roger Schank visited BYU and gave several presentations. I was able to attend three of them. I have attempted to make sense of my notes for each presentation. Dr. Schank would be the first to point out that the lecture I heard is different from the one he gave (and different from what anyone else in the audience heard), so I welcome any clarifications of Schank’s ideas by those who know better. I also welcome questions that would force me to clarify what I have written.

Presentation #1

Roger Schank began by saying that school is profoundly broken and then he told us why. He blamed it on the “6 P’s”, but he went on a tangent after the 4th “P”. Though he did add another P later in the presentation, we never got to six. Here are the 5 “P’s”

  • Parents (who think school should be the same as what they experienced)
  • Press (who wants to report on students’ falling test scores)
  • Publishers (who want to make money on textbooks)
  • Princeton (the academic institution and the test maker)
  • Politicians (who mandate that children learn things that they can’t remember themselves)

After introducing the problem, Schank began to talk about solutions. He showed us a video clip of his 7 month old grandson learning to crawl. He said that it encapsulated everything we needed to know about learning. In the video, young Max was placed on a carpet (the traction on the carpet created an environment where crawling was possible) and a small toy frog was squeaked and then placed in front of him. After looking first for help and getting none, Max was clumsily moving towards the target. Eventually, he succeeded. According to Roger Schank, learning starts with a goal, with wanting something. The role of the teacher is to set up the conditions for achieving the goal. In other words, to put the frog in the right place.

School is broken because there is rarely anything that students want from the curriculum. Getting an A or passing a course, isn’t enough of a goal for true learning to take place. Schank related his personal experience as a young instructor of Semantics at Stanford. He would begin class by asking students “Why are you here?”. Students admitted to being there for an easy A, because the course fit in their schedule, or because it was a required course, but not because they wanted to learn semantics.

Additionally, Schank argued that learning by listening is flawed because human memory works by pairing new information with similar information already stored in the brain. As you listen to a lecture, your are thinking about how that information is similar to what you already know. Since each person’s knowledge is different from everyone else in the room, every gets a different lecture.

When Schank retired from being a professor, he began to develop curriculum and training for corporations and universities. He created an online degree program for Carnegie Mellon West Coast University and has recently developed a curriculum for high school called VISTA. Both programs are intended to be entirely learning by doing. The three skills that the high school program intends to teach are:

  • human relations
  • communication
  • logical/scientific reasoning

Presentation #2

In this presentation, Schank focused on what is currently wrong with k-16 education. He attributed our current high school curriculum to Charles Eliot, the Harvard President who proposed standardizing the University curriculum in 1892. According to Schank, the main subjects we study in high school English, History, Math, etc. match up to departments at Harvard in 1892. Schank also suggested that our current curriculum is in direct opposition to what we have known about learning since Plato, that learning is by doing.

Schank claimed that there are four types of university courses.

  • student-centric (students demand it be taught)
  • weed-out (designed to get people to change majors or drop out so that upper division classes will be smaller)
  • discipline-centric (what is actually relevant to what you need to do to be in the field)
  • faculty-centric (relevant to faculty research interests)

Schank proposed a story-centered curriculum. In order to determine the story you must identify

  • goals (career and otherwise of the students)
  • main activities
  • sub tasks
  • characteristics of the environment
  • everyday skills
  • commonplace obstacles

and use this information to create goal based scenarios. Educators need to ask “what stories does a community need its students to live?” The curriculum should be created by expert practitioners. The result should be a year of complete immersion, filled with a series of projects. Professors/instructors should mentor, not teach.

Presentation #3

Roger Schank introduced the idea of learning as being the result of a “goal-plan calculus”. He also talked about scripts as a standard way of organizing information and defined intelligence as the retaking and rewriting of scripts. Schank provided the following ideas about learning:

  1. learning begins with a goal
  2. learning requires a plan
  3. without wondering why, no learning can take place
  4. a theory of how things work is on the critical path to learning
  5. learning depends upon reminding; in every circumstance, one needs to be reminded of something similar
  6. learning entails memory modification
  7. learning depends upon failure
  8. learning demands story creation; storytelling solidifies/constructs the memory
  9. learning comes from sincerely derived questions
  10. learning is an adventure

Schank also suggested that students goals in school are not learning goals, student can not actually hear lecture, that the true role of the teacher is to provide help when one is ready for help, and that curriculum is irrelevant.

He compared the problem with learning in schools to eating processed foods. Humans are not evolutionarily prepared for either. According to Schank, modern man, like primitive man, is set up to hear, tell and remember stories. Education needs to help people develop nonconscious knowledge: procedures and scripts. In his opinion, we shouldn’t teach anything were success isn’t its own reward.


About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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6 Responses to “School is profoundly broken”: Roger Schank’s visit to BYU

  1. Pingback: Buzz in the Blogosphere - Week 3 — antonioviva.com

  2. Pingback: The End in Mind » Roger Schank and the Tyranny of Grades

  3. Greg Sadler says:

    That’s interesting. I wrote a related post here:

    To my mind school worked okay as motivation. I think as a kid ‘getting an A’ and ‘avoiding detention’ did alright for me. But there are certainly situations where motivation systems are broken!

  4. @Greg – I have to admit that the motivation system in school worked well for me also. Unfortunately, the system works dismally for a large number of students who fail to graduate or who manage to graduate, but without gaining any real skills. I’d like to see the motivation system in schools change to allow more students to develop intrinsic motivation. What do you think is the best way to fix a broken motivation system?

  5. mteach says:

    Thanks for sharing these ideas. I think school is outdated. Let’s face it – it’s mainly a “Henry Ford assembly line model” for the most part – one size fits all. As a teacher I get ever so frustrated by the rigid system of my elementary school – it’s stifling for teachers and students. There’s so much potential for wonder and achievement out there, but there’s so little opportunity for innovation or new ideas. The politics related to school are daunting and have become more so in the past ten years. I’m not giving up though – I’ve been using my voice to no avail. Next year I’m really going to try to run an innovative classroom and wear blinders when it comes to the rest of the school. Isolation isn’t the best way, but it may be the only way for some satisfaction in my school.

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