Farewell Roger Schank

“Learning by doing is really how we learn: Teaching others to do this is the next step in the education revolution.”Roger Schank

I found out yesterday from Socratic Arts that its founder, Roger Schank has died. Roger’s work has been an inspiration for my own over the past two decades. Roger’s work on story-centered curricula was helpful as our children were going through school.

These are story-centered curricula. Students work in teams in virtual apprenticeships with experts producing deliverables that get increasingly complex throughout the year. No classes. No tests. One curriculum per year — complete four of them and you graduate. Ideally there would be hundreds of curricula to choose from but we have to start somewhere so I chose those four.

When I talk to people who might be interested in radical education reform I always ask what curricula their communities might need so we can think about how to produce those as well. The idea that every high school should be more or less the same offering of the same potpourri of algebra, American history, and Charles Dickens is just absurd, so I ask what they need in their world. —Roger Schank 2006

Our son was so impressed with the Student’s Bill of Rights — from Roger’s book Engines for Education — that he took it to school and showed his teacher. She was not impressed!

School should not be a place where teachers and administrators make students jump through arbitrary hoops, memorizing things that could not possibly matter in real life. How does a student tell the real things to be worked on, the stuff that matters, from the junk, the stuff that is part of the curriculum because no one ever thought about it much, or the stuff that is part of the curriculum to help make teachers’ lives simpler?

One way to improve matters is to allow students to have some say in their own education. I do not mean by this that students should be part of curriculum committees. Students are not prepared to determine what other kids should know any more than teachers, administrators, book publishers or cultural literacy advocates. But students can determine what interests them, and they should have the right to complain when outmoded teaching methods are in use.

For the use of students and teachers everywhere, and by way of summing up the real issues in education, I present the Student’s Bill of Rights:

1. Testing : No student should have to take a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test.

2. Real-Life Skills: No student should be have to learn something that fails to relate to a skill that is likely to be required in life after school.

3. Memorization: No student should be required to memorize any information that is likely to be forgotten in six months.

4. Clarity of Goals: No student should be required to take a course, the results of which are not directly related to a goal held by the student, nor to engage in an activity without knowing what he can expect to gain from that activity.

5. Passivity: No student should be required to spend time passively watching or listening to anything unless there is a longer period of time devoted to allowing the student to participate in a corresponding active activity.

6. Arbitrary Standards: No student should be required to prepare his work in ways that are arbitrary or to jump through arbitrary hoops defined only by a particular teacher and not by the society at large.

7. Mastery: No student should be required to continue to study something he has already mastered.

8. Discovery: No student should be asked to learn anything unless there is the possibility of his being able to experiment in school with what he has learned.

9. Defined Curriculum: No student should be barred from engaging in activities that interest him within the framework of school because of breadth requirements imposed by the curriculum.

10. Freedom Of Thought: No student should be placed in a position of having to air his views on a subject if the opposing point of view is not presented and equally represented.

“The value of the computer is that it allows kids to learn by doing. People don’t learn by being talked at. They learn when they attempt to do something and fail. Learning happens when they try to figure out why.”Roger Schank, NYT 2000

Roger suggested that the best way to teach wisdom was to induce colossal failure repeatedly — sounds like a typical computer game 😉

To put this another way, wisdom can be learned and so it can indeed be taught, but only if we are willing to re-conceptualize education.
We simply have to get over the idea of teaching wisdom as the transmission of information and we have to emphasize repeated tries and failure followed by reflection. —Education Outrage 2012

Four years ago Roger was writing about AI which is all the rage today.

All the talk about AI these days relates in no way to self reflection, to knowing what you need to know, or to anticipate the future. We talk about “AI” but we are not talking about the “I”. We have intelligent entities already. (They are called humans.) When they are confused they ask for explanations. When today’s so-called “AI’s” start doing that, please let me know. In the meantime, it would be nice if there weren’t an article a day in major publications about AI when what they mean is number crunching and pattern matching, not wondering and trying to find out.

I learned a lot about story-telling from a DARPA presentation Roger made in 2010.

  • Comprehension means “mapping your stories onto my stories”. It’s difficult to communicate with someone who has different stories.
  • Stories: should be full of details but short
  • Lecture: people cannot think about what they are thinking and listen to the speaker at the same time
  • Stories, to be effective, must not be too abstract for the person listening. Listeners must be able to absorb the stories.
  • In good stories, we do not give answers.

This informed my own work on the power of story.

Comprehensions means "mapping your stories onto mine". —Roger Schank

Farewell, Roger. I’m sorry that we never had the chance to meet.

5 Responses to “Farewell Roger Schank”

  1. annie schank

    Thank you for saying such lovely things about my Roger. He really was a special person not just a brilliant academic.

  2. Les Milton

    Thanks very much for writing this. He was a big influence on my thoughts on education, and he also helped to decrease any sympathetic anxiety I might have felt about A.I.!

  3. Mike McGarry

    Harold: I’m glad I was able to stumble upon this today. I helped start Socratic Arts with Roger back in 2002. I was its President until a little over a year ago. We miss him dearly. I truly appreciate what you have written about him and his vision/journey. Please reach out if I can ever be of help. We still have a long way to go to get education on track. Thanks again.


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