Roger Schank’s Top 10 Mistakes in Education

Roger Schank has some serious ideas to offer education reformers at his web site Engines for Education. Engines for Education is a nonprofit organization founded by Roger Schank, whose goal is to radically change our notions of school. If you haven’t visited his website, please do. It is well worth it.

The following is from Roger Schank’s Engines for Education web site:

What are the top ten mistakes in education?

Mistake #1: Schools act as if learning can be disassociated from doing.

There really is no learning without doing. There is the appearance of learning without doing when we ask children to memorize stuff. But adults know that they learn best on the job, from experience, by trying things out. Children learn best that way, too. If there is nothing to actually do in a subject area we want to teach children it may be the case that there really isn’t anything that children ought to learn in that subject area.

Mistake #2: Schools believe they have the job of assessment as part of their natural role.

Assessment is not the job of the schools. Products ought to be assessed by the buyer of those products, not the producer of those products. Let the schools do the best job they can and then let the buyer beware. Schools must concentrate on learning and teaching, not testing and comparing.

Mistake #3: Schools believe they have an obligation to create standard curricula.

Why should everyone know the same stuff? What a dull world it would be if everyone knew only the same material. Let children choose where they want to go, and with proper guidance they will choose well and create an alive and diverse society.

Mistake #4: Teachers believe they ought to tell students what they think it is important to know.

There isn’t all that much that it is important to know. There is a lot that it is important to know how to do, however. Teachers should help students figure out how to do stuff the students actually want to do.

Mistake #5: Schools believe instruction can be independent of motivation for actual use.

We really have to get over the idea that some stuff is just worth knowing even if you never do anything with it. Human memories happily erase stuff that has no purpose, so why try to fill up children’s heads with such stuff? Concentrate on figuring out why someone would ever want to know something before you teach it, and teach the reason, in a way that can be believed, at the same time.

Mistake #6: Schools believe studying is an important part of learning.

Practice is an important part of learning, not studying. Studying is a complete waste of time. No one ever remembers the stuff they cram into their heads the night before the exam, so why do it? Practice, on the other hand, makes perfect. But, you have to be practicing a skill that you actually want to know how to perform.

Mistake #7: Schools believe that grading according to age group is an intrinsic part of the organization of a school.

This is just a historical accident and it’s a terrible idea. Age-grouped grades are one of the principal sources of terror for children in school, because they are always feeling they are not as good as someone else or better than someone else, and so on. Such comparisons and other social problems caused by age-similar grades cause many a child to have terrible confidence problems. Allowing students to help those who are younger, on the other hand, works well for both parties.

Mistake #8: Schools believe children will accomplish things only by having grades to strive for.

Grades serve as motivation for some children, but not for all. Some children get very frustrated by the arbitrary use of power represented by grades and simply give up.

Mistake #9: Schools believe discipline is an inherent part of learning.

Old people especially believe this, probably because schools were seriously rigid and uptight in their day. The threat of a ruler across the head makes children anxious and quiet. It does not make them learn. It makes them afraid to fail, which is a different thing altogether.

Mistake #10: Schools believe students have a basic interest in learning whatever it is schools decide to teach to them.

What kid would choose learning mathematics over learning about animals, trucks, sports, or whatever? Is there one? Good. Then, teach him mathematics. Leave the other children alone.

This list does not detail all that is wrong with school, neither do the teaching architectures we propose fix all that is wrong with education. Nevertheless they give an idea of where to begin.

thanks to Roger Schank.



5 thoughts on “Roger Schank’s Top 10 Mistakes in Education

  1. Schank’s work speaks to me to the point I’d like to work for him. I worry quite a bit about just how entrenched these ideas are in education now. It’s getting more and more depressing to be part of a system that is focusing entirely on things like testing and assessment. Between his comments and other people like Alfie Kohn, I find things that echo what I feel in my heart about education- really that things don’t have to be like this. What I don’t know is how to change it. I don’t know if that change happens from within or without. I don’t know where I should be to create that kind of foundational change.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Good to hear from you and as usual a very perceptive comment. I waited a few days after reading it, so that I might give my response some thought…so here goes.

    I just heard Sir Ken Robinson speak and he used an image that resonated with me. He spoke about how desolate the terrain in Death Valley is. Nothing growing. Temperatures above 110 degrees. No rain for decades. Then, in 2005, it rains 2 inches for the first time in maybe 100 years. Within days flowers start sprouting everywhere, in a few more days there are flowers covering the hillsides. Flowers everywhere! They called it the 100 year bloom. I looked up images on Flickr and they are amazing.

    So, I think that change can take place in even the most barren and desolate places. The seeds of change are just below the surface in each of our schools, in each of our teachers, administrators, and students; just like they were in Death Valley. They just need the right conditions to bloom.

    Make rain!


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