Roger Schank: Revolutionist. What is The Ideal Learning
Roger Schank, thank you so much for giving me this great opportunity as I have been dreaming of interviewing you for a long time.
Roger Schank is one of the greatest Artificial Intelligence theorists/learning scientists in history. There is no doubt that his theories and approaches have grown to become the foundation of Artificial Intelligence today. Now, he is the President and CEO of Socratic Arts, designing and implementing low-cost story-based learning. He has contributed to reforming the education system in order for children and young people to learn what they truly want to learn instead of memorizing information given by schools. In fact, he founded the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) at Northwestern University in 1989. He is also well known as the author of "Dynamic Memory: A Theory of Learning in Computers and People" and "The Cognitive Computer: On Language Learning and Artificial Intelligence"
-----For those who are not familiar with you, allow us to get to know more about you. How did you become interested in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Psychology? I first encountered computers in the early 60’s when I was in college. In those days you had to submit your card deck and wait 24 hours for it to come back to you. Many times mine came back with, “a semi-colon is missing” as an error message on the print out I received. I can’t tell you how annoying this was.
If the computer knew a semi-colon was missing, why didn’t it just put it in? This started the beginning of my hatred of computers. They were always stupid and difficult to use. This didn't (and doesn’t) have to be the case. I decided to work on making them better.
My first thought was that we should be able to just tell them what we wanted them to do. But spoken language would be a hard problem. I thought it might be possible to get them to understand typewritten English, so I spent the first years of my research life trying to figure out how computers would understand typewritten sentences. It was only a matter of time until I inevitability discovered human memory.
People can actually understand sentences easily enough, but they can't understand them without a experiential memory that enables them to relate what they are hearing to what they already know. I was trying to get the computer to hear a sentence and say what it meant without actually knowing anything about the world. This made no sense I soon realized. So I began to work on finding out what people know about the world, how they represent what they know in their memory, and how they change their memories in response to new experiences. This led me into a career in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science.
I became less interested in making computers better, although I am still very interested in that. But, I became more interested in figuring out what makes people intelligent, and how people learn, than I am in getting computers to learn. So, that's how I got to be somebody who is focused on human learning.
-----What has motivated you to empower people through teaching, writing books, giving speeches, or responding to interviews?
It's a normal part of a professor’s job to give speeches about his work, and to write books about his work, so, of course I was always doing that. But, things changed when I switched from Artificial Intelligence to education. We all went to school so everyone thinks they know about education, but there are a lot of powerful forces in education that are trying to preserve the status quo even when the existing system is so obviously dysfunctional. I learned this in an important way when I was giving a keynote address at a conference about teaching reading. I was actually starting to yell at this audience full of education professors about why they had allowed reading education to be so bad, when there was so much relevant research about how learning to read actually worked. How had they allowed the school system to teach in such a wrong way? They told me that they all knew about my work but the problem was that the book publishers were determining what went on in education, not me, and not them. This made me very angry.
My concern for children’s unhappiness in school and the bad education they get that often leads them nowhere in life is what motivates me to write about education and talk about education and give interviews about education.
The general public has to begin to understand something that academics may well understand (but it doesn't matter) which is that the school system is not for them. No one cares about them very much. It's about the publishers making money and governments making sure their students become good citizens and behave well and do what they are told. The publishers and governments simply do not care if children enjoy school or are excited about learning. So, it's my anger about the system that is in place that causes me to run around the world and trying to talk to people about the kind of changes we need to make.
-----When you started reforming the education system, you were already successful in the field of academy and business. What was the major reason for it and why do we need to reform the education?
As a successful professor you get to teach what you feel like teaching. This usually means your own latest ideas. Early on, I realized that most students weren't interested in whatever I had thought up that morning. They were there to get good grades and graduate and move on. Nothing I was teaching them was relevant (except to the odd student). I began to see the academic system as fraudulent, and I realized that I was a big part of it.
Most people don't realize how insidiously bad the education system is. They accept that they went to school and studied some subjects and passed some tests and then they went to university and eventually they found their way. For those who do find their way by doing that, that’s fine.
But there are a lot of people who would have liked to have been doctors, or business people, or marine biologists, but had trouble with algebra and so they never could get into the right schools. What does algebra have to do with being a doctor? Nothing. The system requires algebra. No one remembers why. A student could try practicing to be a doctor, if that’s what interested them, when they are little kids, using a simulation. They could see if they really wanted to be doctors. People go to law school and discover that they really don’t want to be lawyers. They could have tried lawyering in high school. But we won’t let them do that. Many people get so frustrated in our education system that they drop out even though they're very talented because they just can't stand all the tests, the boredom, or the pressure. I have met many very intelligent people in my life who have had very difficult lives because the schools treated them badly in one way or another. I know a guy who works as a personal chef. He is very smart, but he just hated school so he dropped out. He likes being a chef. But he is frustrated knowing he could have done so much more.
Some people do well at school but that doesn’t help them either. I know somebody who was very good at school and did terrifically. She could get A’s on every test. She memorized every book. But she never got an opportunity to be what she really wanted to be, because nobody ever asked her or showed her the opportunity that exist in this world. So, she just took the courses that she was told to take and end up being a teacher which she hated. School should be about finding out who you are, not about “doing well in school.”
School has become a kind of contest. The losers are mistreated, and the winners don’t know what they have won exactly. Students are cynical about school. They have figured out that its about getting letters after your name. If you decide to go to business school its because you think someone will hire you if you have an MBA after your name. School has become about credentials, about getting letters after your name. Most students know that they can do the minimum amount of work and get degree and it will all work out all right.
But I'd like to see a school system that wasn’t a game that students were trying to win. I’d like to see a system where the professors in the best schools in the world (who are mostly into research) think their job is teaching a student how to do something (other than their own research.)
I want students to be able to express their interests and not all have to take the same subjects that everybody else is taking. School has come to be about academic knowledge for everyone when academic knowledge is not all that important to the average person.
I didn’t want to be part of this system that failed to treat students as individuals. We can do better, so I quit being a professor and became a revolutionary. (Being a professor pays better.)
-----When you have ideas that could potentially pose a challenge to existing authorities, such as the education system, people are often hesitant to take action. If you had a big idea that could change the status quo, what would be your first step to make such a change?
Changing the school system is more or less impossible. I'm aware of that. We are not going to get any school to decide to do things differently. Professors want to teach the courses they have always taught. They don’t want to work harder at teaching to move into a mentored, learning by doing, model. They would rather lecture despite the fact one can rarely remember a lecture one has heard.
The major impediment to the change we need is money. The change that I'm looking for is not going to happen overnight, but there is hope. The hope is that the frustration of the people will eventually be heard. People tend to win when they complain enough to the government.
Governments around the world are beginning to hear the complaints. This is part of the reason that I am happy to do these interviews. I want more people discussing why things are the way they are. I want students to complain that the lecture/test system is bad education. No one learns how to do something they want to do by listening to lectures. They just try doing things and they ask for help. We need to implement that model of education: do it and get help.
The government won’t provide that because book publishers don’t make money that way, and test makers don’t make money that way, and teachers would have do something different and many would resist.
But that doesn't mean that the average citizen can't really do anything about it. There is only one answer about how to make the changes we seek: money. We need to get money to build the alternative. I've gone to Congress in the United States to ask for that money and it made them laugh. I've gone to rich people to ask for the money we need and they usually say that they don't really care about education.
With enough money we can build individualized, learn by doing, mentored, education that allows anybody anywhere to learn what interests them. If you want to build airplanes, we could teach you to become an aerospace engineer even if you live in a small town in Spain. You don't have to move to Seattle nor should you have to try to get into the University of Washington (in Seattle.) We could build a very nice elementary school or high school aerospace engineering curriculum and you could practice building airplanes anywhere in the world working with experts and other kids around the world to build airplanes and have fun building them. You could learn all about writing, and speaking, and negotiating, and planning, and diagnosis to deal with anything that might come up while you are designing your plane. Some kids would have a jolly good time doing that. We have to build that aerospace engineering curriculum (and hundreds of others) and make sure some school system somewhere allows kids to take those curricula.
-----It seems more to be difficult for people living in developed countries to take an alternative education for fear of being isolated from others or having disadvantage when looking for a job. What would be the first step to changing the education system drastically in order to let people learn what they truly want to learn?
Actually I am not sure that developed countries are the first place to make educational change. I built an alternative first grade for my grandchild in Brooklyn and my own daughter would not let him attend. She and her friends are all very fixated on making sure that their children will get into Harvard and they will do whatever Harvard dictates, which is, of course, the standard set of subjects, courses, and tests.
What college you went to matters a great deal to people in developed countries. People put up with anything because of that. I think the place where I will be successful are the countries in say Latin America, or maybe Africa. Those kids are not going to Harvard (or its equivalent) anyway and they really would like to get a job, and develop businesses, and learn how to live in a healthy way, or raise their children well, or learn new skills. We need to go where learning really is more the issue than credentials. As long as credentials are the first thing people think about with respect to education I can't have an effect because I'm not a credentialing authority. So, first, we need to find a country that really cares about its people and really cares about improving the welfare of its citizens.
The first step is simply providing courses that lead to jobs. We have been doing that in the US and in Spain with online “boot camps” that teach technical skills such a programming and data analytics. We teach you to do those things in a learn by doing fashion with mentors. There is a great need for these skills. If you need programming help you will not care too much about what degree someone has. You will want to see what they have done. So, we need to make our own certification in areas in which there are more jobs than people with the skills to fill them.
-----For the majority of people, motivation for learning is to get a better job and earn more money. Does this truly help people learn something and make the most of their potential? What does the ideal environment for learning look like?
To find the ideal learning environment look at any good home. Children do what they feel like doing, play with toys they have, or are engaged in various activities with their friends, or try out new things. Kids play and they learn. The parents role here is to make sure the kids don't hurt themselves or do anything dangerous and to be there when the kids have questions. Being there to help as needed is all there is to understand about good education at home.
Intelligent parents could spend all day with their children and it would be great learning experiences for the children. But, school exists for two simple reasons. First, parents want to be rid of the kids for a good part of the day while they go to work or just to do something other than deal with their kid. Second, not all parents would know how to do this well.
Learning is about doing what you feel like doing and getting better at it, or trying to learn how to do something new. This can be done in any good home. What school does is give you a set of activities that you probably don't care about.
Who wants to memorize all the rivers in Spain? In the US every kid must memorize the state capital of each of the 50 states. What for?
School is not about learning to get a job and has never been about getting a job. This wouldn’t be so bad if kids didn’t actually go to university because they think it will lead to a job. Instead of teaching job skills, universities sell the idea that you're an ignorant person if you don't know all the kings of Spain, or all the capitals of Europe, or if you don't know what Cervantes wrote. This is especially true in Spain where intellectualism is very highly valued by the elite. Intellectuals put down people who don’t know what they know. University education is about being able to feel intellectually superior, not about job skills. What's really going on in school is memorization and trying to not look like a fool by acting like an intellectual. It's never been about jobs. It should be about jobs. MBA programs are about jobs but, even there, theory is emphasized over practice most of the time. Learning should be fun, and is fun when you are not in school.
The ideal learning environment provides choices, helps when you are frustrated, experts who are available to you and achievable goals that have been set out for you that align with your interests. School rarely looks like that.
-----Many people tend to attempt to select a “correct answer” from given options. This tendency makes them suffer from understanding what they want to do with their life. How can you find things that you truly love to do and spend your life for?
My son was a kid who knew his goals. When he was ten he was utterly and completely fascinated by subways. He visited the subway system of any city I took him to as a teenager. When he went to college he asked me what I thought he should major in. I said ‘subways.’ (He had already chosen to go to college in New York City, which, of course he loved because it had a great subway.)
I didn’t need my son to fulfill my dreams for me. I only wished for him that he could find his own dream. Subways seemed a weird choice, but who was I to say? He thought that majoring in subways was an odd idea but as a college professor I knew it would be possible to do this in some way or another. But, this is not the point of my story.
My son is now grown and works in Washington D.C. as the head of a transportation policy organization. He has called me three times in the last days to discuss a choice of two jobs that he has been offered. He has asked everyone he knows it seems for their advice on which (or neither) to take. Many people with serious knowledge of his field and about politics have offered their counsel. They often mention which would be a better career move for him.
The problem with all this advice is that it assumes that they know who he is and what he wants. I have been listening to him all his life and I know that his real question is which of these jobs is on the path to running a subway system. This is not the question that his advisers are answering because they don’t understand him or his real goals.
Understanding your real desires is the most important step in making decisions in your life.
The real question, for a teenage student is what they want in life. Nobody can tell them that. But, we can help them seek answers.
We can help students figure out their path in life. As an exercise, they could write down five things they want in life. (Not “money” or “power” or “love.” That is stuff they have been told about or have read about but can barely understand.) They should write specific things they would like to do at some point in their lives.
Now ask if they know about those things really. You can’t say you’d like to be a lawyer if you don’t know what lawyers do on a daily basis. If you think you want to be a lawyer you must spend some time in a legal office and see what goes on there. My students at Yale often told me they wanted to be lawyers. With a little prodding it was clear that what they knew about being a lawyer came from television shows.
Next, have them write down what their parents want them to do in life. Ask them to make a specific argument as to why their parents might be wrong. They do not have to be wrong. They might be right. But one needs to think about the other side of any issue in order to really understand it.
The point here is to help children know how to justify their choices in life beyond just following a path mindlessly. School doesn’t try to help kids set goals, and therein lies the biggest mistake that schools make.
-----Normally, schools teach you only “what to think”(subject) and not “how to think." How can you learn “how to think” in order to enrich your life?
When my grandson Milo was six and we were talking on the phone, I asked him if he’d learned anything interesting in school lately, and he told me about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species. We discussed this a bit, and my reaction was to teach him that one person’s endangered species was someone else’s food. So on my next trip to visit with his family, we ate kangaroo, elk, wild boar, rabbit and pigeon (not all on the same day). Milo loved them all.
I visited him again some weeks later and he handed me a piece of paper. It was a letter collectively written by the kids in the class to all their parents, asking for a donation to the Save the Rhinoceros Fund. He had addressed his copy of the letter to me (and as an afterthought, it seems, he included his mother as well). I asked him why he was asking me for money for the rhinoceros and he said it was because we had discussed it.
I am against indoctrination of any kind in school. Besides which, I can think of a lot more important social problems to be concerned about than dying rhinoceroses. But this was part of his classroom’s “science,” you see, so they weren’t talking about social studies at the same time.
I may be morally opposed to indoctrination, but I am profoundly in favor of Milo learning to think hard, so I gave him five dollars for the fund. (His mother had earlier refused. That’s my girl.)
I added that he could keep the five dollars for himself and buy whatever he wanted with it or he could donate it. It was his choice. His eyes lit up. He said he was confused about what to do. I said it was his decision.
The following week I learned that he kept the money.
What else is there with respect to learning and education besides conversation that challenges you to think hard?
-----If you can make a call to 20 year-old Roger Schank, what kind of advice you would give to him?
As you can tell from my answers to your questions I am pretty angry about the situation in education in this world. All my life I've been angry about one thing or another. I was angry about how Artificial Intelligence was being approached when I first encountered it when I was young. I was angry about how linguistics ignored the mind when I was working in that field. I was angry about how psychology was only about experiments when I was working in that field. I was angry about how universities function when I was working in them. If I could go back and talk to my 20 year old self I would suggest learning how to be more of a politician and less angry. I doubt I would listen.
-----If you can leave one message to make the world better, what would your message be?
Stop teaching. Parents don’t teach their children, they help their children follow their interest. Stop talking at people. No one is listening. People listen only as long as it takes them to have their own ideas and then they want to react to what they heard.
Start having conversations and stop teaching.