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Gulf Daily News

August 5, 2010

I’ve started writing what I hope will be a regular column in the Gulf Daily News, which is Bahrain’s English-language daily newspaper.

This one is a piece about Professor Roger Schank, a US academic who has views on education very similar to my own, except that he’s far more erudite, coherent and thought-through than I am. His website is at www.rogerschank.com.

The article is at http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/ArchiveNewsDetails.aspx?date=08/01/2010&storyid=283648.

If you can’t be bothered to follow the link, here it is:

“This is the season of exam results. Next month, thousands of students in the UK and Bahrain will be anxiously awaiting their A-Level results. For many, those results will determine which University they will be going to, or whether they will be going to a University at all.

Three or four years later, the same students will be pictured by proud parents as they walk up to the podium to collect their degree certificates. Brimming with knowledge, they are ready to start their careers.

Professor Roger Schank thinks they’ve wasted their time – at least a large part of it.

I came across the thoughts of Professor Schank a few days ago. A young Saudi engineer of my acquaintance sent me a link to the Professor’s website. My friend graduated from one of the best universities in the UK with a First Class honours degree in mechanical engineering. He’s deeply frustrated because he feels that his degree has failed to equip him for the workplace. He has learned to think, he says, but not to do. He graduated a year ago, and already he’s forgotten much of what he knew. And what he still knows is not necessarily relevant to what he has to do now.

Roger Schank is an expert in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. During his a 35-year career as a professor at Yale, Stanford and North West Universities in the US, Roger came to realize that the model at the heart of most of the world’s education systems is fatally flawed. Now he’s dedicated the rest of his career to fixing it.

Schank’s view is that in the current system, large numbers of students passively receive the wisdom of a single teacher or lecturer and cram their heads with conscious knowledge. The student’s ability to take in and understand that knowledge is measured by regular testing. The test, of course, determines the next stage of the education process, all the way up to the degree. He argues that the vast majority of what we learn in school and university is of no use to us whatsoever. He uses algebra as an example. Most of what we’ve learned we will have forgotten within a couple of years. What’s missing in the system is that we don’t learn how to do the things that will be most useful to us. Not only in our working lives, but as parents and as members of society.

As he says on his website “in 35 years as a professor I never once assigned a research essay or gave a multiple choice test. I did, however ask students to think and write about things that had no right answer. And I asked them to build things. I actually expected them to think.”

So Schank has helped to found a number of institutions in the US and Europe which apply a different model of learning. Learning by doing. No more classes, but simulations of real life challenges which the student tackles either individually or in groups. The teacher is no longer the focus of the system. He or she acts as the mentor, the coach or the facilitator.

Professor Schank accepts that he is unlikely to be able to change the curriculum-based schools system, because it’s too entrenched. So he’s trying to bypass it with alternative programs. He’s also helped to launch a number of graduate and postgraduate programs at institutes such as La Salle University in Barcelona.

His ideas make a lot of sense to me. In my career I’ve seen and employed graduates with great degrees who have proved incapable of dealing with real life problems because they haven’t been taught that way.

As we welcome thousands of new graduates into the workplace, and as so many of those proud possessors of the all-important certificate come to the shocking realization, like my friend, that they know plenty but can do little, perhaps we should pay more attention to the visionary Professor Schank. His website, incidentally, is at www.rogerschank.com.”

Thanks to the GDN for publishing the piece, and to Professor Schank for inspiring it.

2 Comments
  1. I’m really impressed together with your writing skills as neatly
    as with the format for your weblog. Is that this a paid theme or did
    you modify it yourself? Either way stay
    up the nice high quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

    • Thanks for the compliment. I take no credit for template – it’s one of WordPress’s standard offerings. But the writing is all mine! S

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