Review of Roger Schank’s “Teaching Minds”

Teaching Minds image

Along the lines of yesterday’s post evaluating the efficacy of higher education, here’s my review of Schank’s book, Teaching Minds:

In Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science can Save our Schools, Roger Schank critically evaluates current methods of education in light of what is known about how we learn. The core of his argument is that in order to be successful in the world post school, students must master cognitive abilities, or processes, instead of subjects and the fact-based knowledge that subjects often entail. Specifically, Schank identifies twelve processes which he claims underlie learning, all of which fall under the categories of conceptual, analytic, or social processes. They include abilities such as experimentation, evaluation, planning, causation, teamwork, and negotiation. Schank’s view is that mastery of the twelve cognitive processes is crucial for success in life after school.

Because subjects, such as math and history, are the core of our current education system, Schank argues that we are doing a disservice to 98% of our students. At the university level, he claims that all institutions attempt to emulate Yale, whose curriculum is ideal for future scholars. However, most students receiving a college education aren’t going to be scholars, so they shouldn’t go to colleges that only teach useful skills for a career in academia. Because colleges are focused on training scholars, and high schools are focused on getting their students ready for college, high schools are also teaching useless knowledge and subjects to students. Again, what is necessary is a shift in focus from subjects to cognitive processes.

Another tenet that Schank relies on is that students need to want to learn what they’re learning; they need motivation. Young children have great motivation to learn to walk and talk, and not surprisingly, he argues, they master these skills relatively quickly and are generally successful. By learning through real-life projects, students will be more engaged and will consequently gain more from their studies. In order to provide the real-scenarios from which students would optimally learn, Schank advocates for a shift to more online learning. Online curricula would allow dissemination to a greater number of students and would also allow students to make more choices in what they learn, thus ensuring they are motivated to learn what they are studying. The book concludes with examples of lessons aimed at imparting the cognitive processes that would be effective online.

Schank’s argument that our education system over-emphasizes subject knowledge and under-emphasizes the cognitive skills underlying all professions is compelling. Instead of being able to recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, shouldn’t students be able to use logic to diagnose problems in the real-world, understand their causes, and make hypotheses about potential solutions? However, the program outlined in Teaching Minds is radically different from the current education system, and would therefore be met with resistance if it were proposed as an alternative.

Schank’s twelve cognitive processes are one source of skepticism: why did he choose those particular skills and not others? Why are there no physical skills, such as bodily awareness or deep breathing, included in his list? If the processes on which his proposed program is based seem arbitrary, how can we avoid being skeptical of his entire program?

It is also surprising to read an education advocate who would like to overhaul the current system in favor of online curricula. Schank does not address the educational costs of online learning. For example, schools are dynamic environments that foster spontaneous learning which will disappear if students learn entirely from pre-planned online curricula. In a similar vain, the time students spend at school outside of the classroom, such as in the cafeteria or even the halls between classes, is also valuable time. Students encounter peer pressure, bullying, and have the opportunity to engage in relationships that would be fundamentally altered if they communicated with each other solely through their computers. Might this type of learning hinder students’ social skills, which are already coming under attack in today’s video game-filled society?

A final concern of mine that Schank does not address is the danger of allowing students to learn only that which they choose. Although Schank does not believe there is a compelling reason that students must be “well-rounded” in their knowledge, intuitively it seems to me that having exposure to many different fields and ideas is beneficial. Further, it seems likely that students, in choosing only subjects that initially interest them, they may miss out on interests they didn’t realize they had, interests that could have become evident had the students been exposed to them.

Overall, Teaching Minds is a thought-provoking read, especially for those of us who feel the current state of education leaves something to be desired. While his main point is one that few people would argue with, his radical proposal for fixing it is likely to render it an impossibility.