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Sunday, December 23, 2012

How does online learn by doing actually work? See the video we made 10 years ago at CMU

This is a movie we shot 10 years ago to describe what a learn by doing projects only mentored, team based curriculum looked like. There are interviews with the mentors, the students, and the faculty (Lynn Carter video referred to in my post yesterday starts at about 3.22).

We learned how to do it and worked well until CMU administrators decided they didn't want to have thousands of online students and didn't want have brand new empty buildings.

XTOL has re-thought and re-built these online learn by doing curriculum taking advantage of ten years of change in computer science. (See my post here from yesterday.)

We are now ready to offer real learn by doing education to everyone, taught be the people who invented it the first place (unless you count Plato or Dewey, which, of course I do.. but they didn't have) computers.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best and Brightest Teaching Computer Science Online

In the 1990’s I was running the Institute for the Learning Sciences, trying to re-envision education in the age of computers. My former PhD student (at Stanford) and colleague at Northwestern, Chris Riesbeck, was not only designing the technical side of what we were building at ILS, he was also putting our ideas into practice on a daily basis. He stopped showing up to teach his programming classes. Instead he posted assignments on line and responded to questions and problems that students were having with the assignments. He evaluated the work they did and, as they improved, gave them more difficult assignments. He saw no reason for lectures or classes.

Of course, the authorities at Northwestern objected. His students simply stopped coming to class. It was easier to communicate by email. Many people have learned to program from Chris and most will tell you that he is the best programming teacher they ever had. They were learning to do something and that is not done by listening, but by constant practice with help from a mentor.

Some years later, I was asked to design the educational offerings for master’s degree programs at Carnegie Mellon’s new Silicon Valley campus. Ray Bareiss who had been the associate director of ILS moved to California, and the team at Socratic Arts and I designed some radical new ways of teaching on line. Of course, what we did was built upon what Chris had done and what we had done in a previous venture with Columbia University. We added a story line to the projects students did so it would look and feel like they were on a real job. They were not taking courses nor were they attending classes. We were working with the faculty at CMU in Pittsburgh, many of whom objected to this new style of teaching by mentoring projects rather than by lecturing. One who did not object was a former PhD student of mine (at Yale) Jaime Carbonell, who together with Michael Shamos had enough weight to convince his colleagues in the eCommerce program to go along.

One who initially objected was the Software Engineering professor assigned to CMU-SV, Lynn Carter. But after a few months of teaching our way he said (and I have this on video) that he couldn’t see teaching any other way now that he had understood what good teaching in computer science was all about.

We built a great many computer science master’s degree programs for CMU. All learning by doing, all on line, no lectures, no tests, just mentors available as needed and students working in teams to get things done.

This was before online suddenly became fashionable in the university world, before putting lectures online became the must do trend, an idea that is absurd it is hard to contemplate. Who remembers lectures they heard in college? CMU actually was decidedly uninterested in the fact that our learn by doing offerings available online or even a way to improve face to face teaching, and with the exception of eCommerce did not bring our new teaching model back to the main campus.

My friends and I are still trying to get good practical computer science education to the world in a way that would allow many people to become effective programmers, software engineers, mobile app developers, ecommerce specialists, big data analytics experts and so on.

So, we started XTOL.

You’ll notice, if you look at that site, that the old gang is back together again. We are committed to getting on line education right and to changing the concept of school from a passive experience to an active one, solving challenging problems in realistic settings.

The first two schools (there will be others) to offer what we have built are:


The latter is offering an MBA we built for them and will be offering some of what we are doing in computer science as well.

In particular we will be launching much of the computer science masters degree programs as short courses, in addition to the full degree programs.

The short courses can be taken by anyone who can complete them. They teach real world skills that a high school or college student would not learn in their school and would give them useful knowledge for employment. (As an example, how to optimize a website for search engine ranking is a short course we will soon offer.)

As a computer science professor for over 35 years, I was always astonished at the extent to which computer science is taught as a series of subspecialties that in the end do not produce skilled professions who can be readily employed the real world.

Why is this the case? In my recent book “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools” I quoted a very well known computer science professor who did not want his name mentioned:

Every faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at my University thinks that their small insignificant area is important enough that all undergraduates must take a course in it. When you add all those courses up there is simply no time for a student to do anything other than take crazy courses in sub-disciplines represented by the faculty in the department. Everybody’s course is a sacred cow. If you tried to put something new in, something would have to come out, and no faculty member wants his course to be eliminated.

At a big state university, which one would think has an obligation to supply training to the students of that state in a major field in which students can readily find employment, the faculty could care less about that and they only want to do graduate teaching. We teach courses that are modeled after courses in the professor training schools like Harvard and MIT. But how many professors do we need?

There are roughly 60 faculty members in Computer Science. They cover all the traditional areas of Computer Science. Ironically, Software Engineering, which is what 90% of the undergraduates do when they graduate, is not covered.  It is not considered an intellectual or academic discipline. It is considered too practical. There is only one software engineering course and it is taught by an adjunct because no one really cares about it.

There are hundreds of computer science majors here.   The faculty doesn’t feel it needs to change because there are students clamoring for what is now offered. 98% of them want to be programmers. Almost none of them want PhDs.

I cannot go to a faculty meeting any more. I get into a fight at every faculty meeting. I argue about teaching and education and they think they know because they are professors. I cannot subject myself anymore to their abuse.

We are trying to remedy all that. Not just in computer science, but that is where we have started because we are experts in that field. We are ready to work with experts in other fields to start making on line education something worthwhile, useful, practical, and enjoyable. And, we want to start a revolution in teaching and learning. Students deserve better.

Check with Socratic Arts and Engines for Education (our not for profit for high schools) for updates:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ban guns? Maybe we should also ban school!

In the wake of the recent school shooting, I can add my voice to the millions who think that easy ownership of hand guns and assault weapons is absurd, but there is another point to be made. Can’t we at least start to debate whether having schools is such a good idea? 

Below are some of the questions typed into google in the last week that landed the searcher on one of my outrage columns. They paint a picture in the aggregate of students who are very unhappy in school.  Were these searches made by just some odd kids? Or is it possible that most children find school difficult, threatening, and uncomfortable?

children should learn more useful subjects at school

public school teach you to conform

why should i go to school

math curriculum completely useless stupid

i hate high school what can i do

why school is bad for children

why i hate year eleven secondary school

students don't need certain subjects

hate high school will college be better

useless classes in high school

hating history class

If the school forced students to learn they are not interested in the course

why does a high schooler start thinking they are not that smart

hating a subject

high school is pointless

textbooks suck

commonly hated high school rules

how to get high school students to like you

Maybe you were one of the ones who loved school. I wasn’t. My kids weren’t. And I am pretty sure that any kid who is made to feel different, lonely, stupid, or miserable in school will come out angry. They may not all decide to shoot other kids or teachers, of course. But, some will. 

We need to re-think the very idea of school and we need to do it soon. They are other ways to teach kids the skills they need in life besides shutting them up with 30 or 100 other kids all day, many of whom also hate being there. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Education on Demand

I thought by now there would be no movie theaters. I have nice TVs and sound systems at home, subscriptions to various movie services and if I want it, video on demand that I can pay for. I never have to leave the house or put up with annoying people sitting next to me.

Still people (even I) go to the movies. They do it to get out of the house, to see an even bigger screen with better sounds and to keep current with the latest offerings that are being talked about in their circle of friends.

You get the feeling that movie theaters still won’t be around much longer anyway. But people who run the movie business are fighting this in every way they can.

61% of adults said that they rarely or never go out to the movies.  Of those who do go to the movies,  55%  said that they go see films less often now than they did before. 73% prefer watching movies at home. Many in the industry are scared to death of DVDS being released at the same time as the movie itself.  “The theater industry is facing something of a crisis. Theater owners don’t quite get that going to the movies is a social experience, and that they need to make that social experience a lot more enjoyable.”

Well, of course, I am not worried about the movie industry. I am just an observer who takes note that when something is available on demand at home or in your favorite place for social experience with others, its appeal in the standard bricks and mortar public format will go away.

Of course I am talking about education. Why would anyone go to school or put up with the annoyance of school regulations, certifications, classroom situations, and being told what you must learn when, if they didn’t have to? Schools were designed for poor people. The rich had private tutors who came to them, or failing that an elite upper class venue where they were treated respectfully. (Do Oxford students still have personal butlers?)

Today school is a miserable mass experience for everyone. Yes, it fun to go to Yale, but there are plenty of lost, bored, and angry kids at Yale too. (They all seemed to find their way to me when I was there.)

If we had education on demand, wouldn’t this be as threatening as movies on demand to the existing system?

So, in that spirit, I am announcing “Education on Demand.” We will offer, and by "we" I mean my team of respected computer science professors (XTOL, on line short courses that can be taken on demand (more or less, they will have start dates so students can work in small teams with mentors.)

Below is a list of short courses we will offer starting in January 2013. These courses run about two week full time and four weeks part time. More are coming. They are open to anyone who wants to take them. They are meant to teach people to do things that might need to do. We will issue a certificate to hang on your wall if you like signed by the relevant faculty. Students succeed by actually doing things. No lectures. No tests. Just producing. Open to anyone, anyone at all. Just do the work.

Introduction to Website Development
Web Application Development    
Mobile Web Application Development  
Native Mobile Application Development for Web Programmers
Sensor-based Mobile Applications Introduction to ecommerce
Search Engine Optimization
eCommerce Data Analytics 
Big Data Software and System Requirements
Managing Software Professionals 
Setting Software Projects Up for Success 
Team-Based Agile Software Development 
We are building more of these every day. There will be short courses in other areas than computer science soon (starting with learning sciences.) We are in discussions with industry on building other short courses that industry feels it needs. Feel free to contact us about courses we should build.
In summary:

Learning by doing
Deliverables that prove you can do something you couldn’t do before
Working in teams
Enhancing your employable skills
On line, no need to go anywhere
Education when you want it
The beginning of the end of brick and mortar education
The beginning of the end of rules about what you must do before you do what you want to do
If you can do the work, then sign up

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Learning Hasn’t Changed; social learning and facebook don't really add much

A few years ago I was asked for my annual prediction my e-learning magazine and I predicted the death of m-learning. I was attacked by everyone. Funny we don’t hear so much about m-learning any more.
Learning is a field that is very trendy.  There is always the latest greatest that everyone must do. Today this is “social learning” and “on the job learning.”

There is one problem with this. None of this stuff is ever new in any way. Learning hasn't changed in a million years. Did I say a million? Too conservative. How do chimp babies learn? Socially? Of course. They copy what their mothers do and what their playmates do. (Amazingly they do this without Facebook.) 

Do they learn on the job? Apart from the fact that chimps don’t actually have jobs, that is the only way they learn. In the process of doing something they either fail and try again or someone helps them out.

Mentoring. Another learning innovation, Except there has always been mentoring, Parents,  big brothers, helpful neighbors, all there to help you when you are in trouble. None of this is new.

But suddenly big companies have discovered it. Good for them. Better than classrooms and books (which are very new, if you think about it, cavemen didn’t have either.)

I play softball regularly. When I first started playing in this league I noticed a guy who was the best hitter I ever saw. I asked him questions. He gave me tips. I asked for criticism. He gave it to me. The other day I was hitting really well. I was congratulated by my team. I told them I owed it all to him. They didn’t know what I meant. I said I had appointed him my personal coach ten years ago.

What confuses me is why this has to be institutionalized in big companies. It is not that complicated. Tell everyone they need to spend an hour a week mentoring and an hour a week being mentored. Let them say officially whom they have chosen. Create a culture where mentoring is the norm. It is the norm in sports. My mentor has never has asked for anything back. I am sure people mentored him over the years.

On the job learning is more complicated. Why? Because the right tools might not be available to do it. What are the right tools:

  1. someone to ask who can give just in time help
  2. a short course that one can take just in time and that one is allowed to take when it is needed
  3. a group that is available for discussion

I will explain each.

Just in time help has always been available to most of us. It is called mom or dad. Even today I get “help” calls from my grown children. They know I will stop my day and help them. I always have. 

How do we institutionalize this in the modern world? By recording all the help type stories that an expert has and making them available to anyone just in time. It sounds complicated and it is. We have built such a system. It is called EXTRA (experts telling relevant advice.) Every organization needs one. Experts move on and their expertise goes with them. Capture it and learn how to deliver it just in time in short bits that last less than 2 minutes.

Stories from experts matter. Not in the form of long lectures but in the form of a conversation that happens when there is an interest in hearing the story.

To put this another way, mentoring is not driven by the mentor. As a professor of PhD students for 35 years I served the role of mentor to a lot of people. They showed up in my office once a week because I told them they had to. After that I told them nothing. Instead I listened. Maybe I asked a few questions to get them to talk if they were shy. But learning happens when someone wants to learn not when someone wants to teach.

I did the same when I taught classes. I set up questions and listened. I encouraged students to argue with each other. I chimed in at the end when they were ready to listen.

Apprenticeship is the other side of mentoring. An apprentice takes on jobs assigned to him. A good mentor lets the apprentice drive every now and then. Surgeons let interns make the first cut after they have watched the process many times.  

In the end there is always a story. In the modern era we can deliver stories when a someone needs one. (When they ask or search or we simply know what they are doing and what would help them do it.) But, the old method still works. Talking.

The problem with big companies is that they set up training sessions that last for a week instead of mentoring sessions that last for an hour. Once a week everyone should meet with their mentor for an hour and talk. Just talk. Maybe a beer would help.

And what do they talk about? A good mentor knows that the mentee drives the conversation. Maybe the mentor saw the mentee make a mistake and could comment on it, but younger people know when they are struggling and are always ready to learn if they respect the person who is helping them.

Formal training really has never been a good idea. The army does it for new recruits but they do it because they are trying to create soldiers who don’t think and just follow orders. At the higher level of army training, at the Army War College for example, officers sit around and talk.

There do not have to be mentors in such situations. People who work together should have the opportunity to exchange “war stories.” This should just happen late at night in bars. It is the most important training there is. But there has to be time made for it. And no it doesn’t require Twitter or Facebook. Social learning has always been how we learn. It is in fashion again and that is nice but it is nothing new. The elders have always gathered around the campfire to discuss the day’s events.

Do we need to teach people how to mentor and how to discuss? Yes and no. Excessive talking, lecturing and such, has never been a good idea and is never tolerated in societies that are truly cooperative. The key is learning to listen. 

Listening, oddly enough, does need to be taught, Most people don’t really know how to do it. They learn the hard way that listening works as they get older. Should we teach it? Yes. How?

We need to put people in situations where listening is demanded of them and where they are likely to fail to do it. (Training is one such place where people tune out. That is why that is why there are tests, but tests usually don’t test anything important.)

Having to perform is the best test.

Summarizing: Short courses delivered just in time are better than training sessions. Gathering a company’s expertise and delivering it via tools like EXTRA matters a great deal. 

But most of all, learning to listen and advise well is what separates winning teams from from losing ones. To listen and advise an organization must formally make time for it, otherwise it won’t happen. Do it on twitter if you like.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are universities so afraid of on line education?

A climate of fear is enveloping our major universities. One after the other they are signing up for being part of well capitalized venture financed operations that are offering free on line courses. The companies are paying the universities so, of course, the universities are taking the money. What do they have to lose?

New offerers appear regularly, the latest being one that wants students to attend classes remotely and pay full tuition for the privilege of doing this.

Something important is going on, but it is not quite obvious what. Well, it is to me.

The universities are desperately afraid. Of what?

The university that started all this was MIT when it announced over a decade ago that they would put all their course materials on line, free for all to use. The press made quite a fuss about this, but I said at the time that they just wanted to appear to be doing something, when MIT well knew that the course materials that professors prepare constitute a very unimportant part of what it means to receive an MIT education. (What is important at MIT? Working with faculty and students to create new ideas and new projects.)

I was asked if I wanted to head up that operation and told MIT that I would make real course offerings to create a world wide MIT on line delivery system. I was never called back.

I built a series of on line masters degrees for Carnegie Mellon University a decade ago and was not only not praised for doing this but was immediately fired.

I was explicitly told that Carnegie Mellon didn’t want to sully its brand by having too many Carnegie Mellon degrees out there. They want to be an elite brand name, as do all the major universities.

But, suddenly it seems the game had changed. Every university wants to go on line. But, this is not really the case.

To understand this, you have to think for a moment about courses and what they are all about. Most students take four or five courses at a time as full time students at a university. While they are doing this they play football or work for the student newspaper, or maybe even hold down a real job. Plus there a great many social events to attend, in addition to the constant action of dormitory life.

In the life of your average college student, a lecture course is something to be barely paid attention to at best, or slept through at worst. The fact that a friend can make a video recording of them for you means you can skip them all together.

And this, of course, is the origin of on line courses. As long as someone is making his recording of the lecture available to his friends why shouldn't the university do that and say that that was they wanted to do in the first place. Add a quiz or two, and no one ever has to show up. Voila! Coursera!

But why do the universities agree to this? The answer, as always, seems to be money.

But really the answer is fear. The issue is understanding what they are afraid of exactly.

Here are four things universities are deathly afraid of:

  1. What if the model that “everyone must go to college” stops being pushed by employers and governments?
  2. What if they simply can no longer charge large tuition fees to students?
  3. What if professors, who at top universities are primarily researchers, were actually made to have teaching be their primary activity?
  4. What if the students stop showing up on campus?

The money issue is a big one. Tuition amounts have risen way ahead of inflation supported by readily available student loan programs and by the belief that anyone who doesn’t go to college is more or less useless. We fail to observe how many successful people have never graduated college, including Bill Gates, who never stops promoting school standards, teacher evaluations, and now on line courses. Mr Obama wants to everyone to go college as do the authorities in the U.K. Why exactly? Because the universities are afraid and are lobbying hard for this. When you need a PhD to work in McDonalds however, the model will fall apart, and we are headed in that direction.

All that tuition revenue, and donations from alumni who fondly remember the great football teams and parties, help sustain what is actually an absurd model and every university knows and fears the downfall of that model.

The model is what I like to call the “superstar system.” Top universities compete for superstars in the same way that baseball teams and movie producers do. There are only so many big names and the university that has the most wins. If Harvard has more Nobel Prize winners than Yale, Yale is thinking about this all the time. (I say this as someone who was on the Yale faculty for fifteen years.)

Research universities want to sustain the model that has made them great places to live and work. I loved working at them for 35 years. But the students were, and are, being cheated. Some professors care about the undergraduates at an Ivy League school I am sure. I certainly didn’t.

I was once yelled at by an undergraduate who said he paid big tuition to Yale and I should meet with him at times other then my few and far between office hours. Of course he was right. But the incentives at the research universities are all about publishing and international fame, not about happy undergraduates. 

(I did meet with him by the way and he eventually became a researcher at a major university where the undergraduates find him to be very hard to find.) 

Just the other day, Northwestern University where I ran the Institute for the Learning Sciences for many years announced proudly that they would let people attend classes remotely if they met admission standards and paid full tuition. They should be ashamed of themselves. There are still plenty of people at Northwestern who know how to do on line education correctly. We pretty much invented it there.

But, what we invented was using the computer as a learn by doing device, eliminating lectures and classrooms, and replacing them by projects one could do on the computer with the help of faculty and other students.

I am slowly finding universities who want to use this model on line but the faculty always object to it. No lectures? No theories? Just learning by doing? Oh, the horror. The faculty might have to teach.

So, don’t be too impressed by MOOCs non-MOOCs and any other nonsense that keeps courses with a teacher talking still the staple of university education. Students put up with that because they get degrees they can brag about, not because of all the wonderful stuff they learned. It is not any more wonderful if you are at home in your pajamas.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dear Mr Obama: please change your education policies

Dear Mr Obama:

I realize there is no point in writing to you about education. Your mind is made up. Evaluate teachers; everyone should go to college; school is a big competition and there have to be winners; the 1892 curriculum cannot be changed in any way because Bill Gates and all the book publishers want it that way. 

But I will ask anyway. Please do the following.

  1. fire Arne Duncan
  2. abandon Common Core standards
  3. let teachers teach and by that I do not mean test prep and I do not mean lecturing
  4. let students learn what it interests them to learn
  5. build thousands of on line curricula, so that anyone can learn whatever they want to learn
  6. make sure that these on line students are learning to do something and not to memorize and pass tests
  7. allow students the option to get out of all the mandated standards
  8. stop pushing college, which as any professor knows is simply a four year party for most students
  9. get rid of courses (including MOOCs); replace them by experiences in which real skills are learned
  10. re-train teachers to be mentors, to help students achieve their own goals, not ones that the school has established for them

Yes, I know its hopeless. But I thought I’d ask. 

Just as a suggestion, take a look at the new computer science short courses we are now offering. Open to anyone, but not free (we spent a lot of money building them, something the government should be doing.


Roger Schank

Emeritus Professor

Sunday, November 4, 2012

practical education for everyone; enough with MOOCs and enough with college

Sometimes, I despair that anyone really cares about educating students apart from the people who actually need them to be educated. Colleges simply have never cared about educating students. I was reminded of this yet again when I received this in an email referring to the problems software companies are having when they hire recent college graduates:

What the guy is saying is that they (and others) hire a bunch of bright young CS and ECE graduates whose educations have left them completely unprepared for real-world professional software development. Helping graduates through the school to work transition is a critical problem. (Some people have said that new grads aren't useful to a company for the first year.) 

Really? No Computer Science graduate is prepared to go to work? Isn’t software one of the few thriving businesses we have left in this country? How could this be?

That is an easy question to answer for a former Computer Science professor and really for any professor. Professors do not consider it their job to prepare students for work. They like teaching theories and their latest research.

What is interesting in this context is all the noise about MOOCs. These are just lectures on line interrupted by quizzes and discussion groups for the most part. There are no actual teachers and there is no one to help you get better at something. (A lot like an actual college course, in fact.)

Students taking MOOCs (apart from those who are really just trying to seeing what these things are) have eschewed the notion of education as a credential, which is actually an important change whose time is coming. But, and this is the big unspoken “but,” the real issue is that the companies offering these MOOCs see themselves as a kind of employment agency. They will give the names of successful students to possible employers and make money in that way. But what will the students know how to do? Not much, or at least not much more than you could ever learn from lectures and exercises. So, for computer science at least, not much will have changed with the exception that employers in the US can now find the names of people in other countries who will work cheaply.

Actually educating students to do something that will get them to be useful in the real world is still an odd notion to professors and school systems.

In the meantime, my team and I have been building practical computer science masters degree programs that are being piloted now and will launch in January.

Of course not everyone needs a degree. Some people just need how to learn how to do something useful. They may already have a degree or two or they may have none. They might just want to learn. To that end my company is also about to offer a series of short courses, all learn by doing, all experiential, and all on line, with mentors, in the following broad areas:

  1. New graduate to software professional
  2. Experienced developer to technical lead
  3. Senior developer to architect
  4. Senior developer to manager
  5. Various job roles to product manager

In addition we will be offering short courses in data analytics, search engine optimization, requirements analysis, user experience, mobile development, big data essentials, web and network security, web page authoring and many others.

We will be launching some of these in the next weeks. It is time to change education from a meaningless credential to a practical experience. Enough with the domination of theories and research.

Anyone interested in any of these can simply write to me for more information.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

everyone must go to college (does anyone ever ask why?)

I wrote last week about why high school is a waste of time. College is not exactly a waste of time. Some people can make very good use of college and for many it is a lot of fun. But, the idea that everyone must go to college is simply wrong. The idea is reinforced by politicians constantly and as long as employers insist on hiring only college graduates they may be right. But, the general public has many illusions about what goes on at college.

Top ten good things about going to college:

  1. when you graduate employers will think you are now more employable with a degree
  2. there will be lots of very good parties
  3. you will make some life long friends there
  4. there is a world of knowledge to which you will be exposed  
  5. there are some very smart professors who you may meet and who may have some time for you
  6. there will be great conversations long into the night with your dorm mates
  7. if you attend college away from home, living on your own will make you grow up
  8. you may learn how to talk like an intellectual
  9. you will have fun
  10. you will try things (some not so wise) that you never tried before

You may notice that I failed to mention much about education in this list.

Top illusions about college
  1. there will be great courses. 

Well, not so many really. Most courses meet three hours a week, and most are lecture courses. You really can’t learn much in 3 hours a weak and it almost impossible to remember a lecture you heard a week after you heard it. Why do courses meet 3 hours a week? It is very convenient for professors. That way they do not have to teach too much. At our top research universities (where I worked for 35 years) research is much more important than teaching ever is, and a division of 3 hours of teaching and 37 hours of research seems about right to professors. I assure it you it seemed just fine to me. I brought in research money and I didn’t have to teach much. That is the deal at the top universities. It is a good deal for everyone except the undergraduates.  

  1. I will major in something I love

The idea of majors was not put in place for the benefit of undergraduates. Majors serve a purpose for research-oriented faculty. They make students concentrate in an area so they can more quickly be herded into the advanced research courses that are the only courses research-driven professors actually want to teach. They also enable departments to require courses that no student would ever want to take. These are typically courses that are very unattractive to students but very important for faculty, because otherwise no one would sign up for them and those faculty would have to teach introductory courses,  which no one ever wants to teach. 

  1. I will be employable with my college degree

Not if you major in English, history, political science, linguistics, mathematics, physics etc. The reason is that employers know that undergraduates have simply taken a smorgasbord of courses and have very rarely
learned anything much at all. Big companies hire college graduates and immediately start training them to do what that company does. No one expects undergraduates to actually know anything at all. It is an unwritten bargain: if you want to work in a big company, just get good grades, then we will know you will do what you are told.  The companies will figure out what to teach you to do after you finish college. 

  1. I will be better off at an Ivy League School

This country has maybe 25 or 50 top research universities.  The Ivy League has eight of them and there many others. The students are smart there, they work hard for the most part, and they take life seriously. But Yale (just an example because it is the school I know best) has a mission that its students don’t know about. It is trying to train professors. Every research-driven professor (and that is whom Yale tries very hard to hire) wants to steer their undergraduates into their line of research. This is certainly what I did and it is what every faculty member wants to do.  So, if you want to have a research career, Yale is the place for you. But what if you don’t care about research?  Why spend all that money? There are plenty of other colleges.

  1. There are hundreds of good colleges in the United States

Well, maybe not. The schools that are not in the top 50 want desperately to make it into the top 50. So even those ranked in bottom thousands want very much to be research universities and brag on their web sites about the great research going on there. Why an undergraduate would care about research unless he or she wants to be a researcher is beyond me. But, the people who run universities don’t actually care about that. You never hear a university advertising “come here and we will get you a job.”

There is no easy answer to all this. Universities will not change any time soon. They have no reason to. But they are afraid of on line education which, although it is has not been done well, has the possibility of providing an alternative, learning by doing lecture-free job-oriented approach to education.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

exposure, cultural literacy and other myths of modern schooling: a response

I have received many responses to my recent column on high school. I will attempt to answer them all by answering just one:

Dear Mr. Schank,  

I found your recent Op-ed in the Washington Post ("Why kids hate school — subject by subject") spot-on.  Your comments about foreign language instruction, in particular, were quite lucid, and as an ESL teacher (and someone who only learned Spanish by moving to Spain, despite five years of Spanish class in grade school), I can attest to the frequency with which students arrive having studied grammar for years in their home countries  without being able to manage a simple conversation, or being able at best to string together a series of formulaic, overly-practiced sounding responses that native speakers rarely use.  

And so on with your discussion of the other subjects.  I'm curious, though, to learn what you think about students' more general cultural education – their knowledge base about the world.  Do you feel that students should come out of the educational system with some sort of fluency in the various subjects?  How would something like this be accomplished?  It seems like there's something to be said for having familiarity with major historical events, some canonical works of literature, some understanding of how plants work.

Also, how do you see arts education as fitting into this?  

Thanks again for publishing and spreading your ideas.  Hopefully my questions don't come off as too uninformed – were I somebody with more free time, I'd while away the day looking into your blog and published writings further.  Let's call it a long-term project.  

Take care,
Kevin Laba

Dear Mr. Laba:

Thank you for your question.

Of course one can make a legitimate argument for the idea that every person should know everything that matters or might matter. Works of literature? Why not? What harm could Dickens do really?  Everyone should know about World War II. How could one be a citizen of the world and not know about that?

The problem is that once you accept that idea two things happen and both are bad. The first is that you implicitly accept that telling (or reading) are the means by which students will “know” about these things. But that model doesn’t work. We don’t remember what we are told for very long by and large. And if we do recall some information, in order to have a deep understanding of something one needs to care about it, use it, do something meaningful with it, and that just isn’t how school works.

School doesn’t work that way, in part, because of the second bad thing. Once we think there is important stuff to know, someone is going to make a list of exactly what that is and you get books like “what every second grader must know” which if I remember correctly includes Eskimo folk tales because of it is “cultural knowledge.” The list is long and so in the end someone decides what matters most and that is how we have the curriculum we have.

We don’t need to do that any more. It is possible to build thousands of curricula and because they can be offered anywhere once they are built, students could learn what they are interested in learning. “One size fits all” is a very old idea for education and one that is very convenient for governments, book publishers and test makers.

I for one, never wanted to know how plants work. I never cared. But then, a couple of years ago I did because of some AI work I was doing. So I called a plant biologist I know and asked. Now I realize that not everyone has the luxury of doing that, but in the age of the web one can pretty much find out what one wants to know.

The real issue is: can you understand the answer? School’s job, and teacher’s jobs, need to be to cause students to think hard about things they care about. Thinking is thinking. If you learn to think hard about human memory and learning, you can understand a biologist when he speaks clearly.

As for arts education, I have, of course, the same point of view. Those who love it should do it. Those who would like to having a passing knowledge of it should be encouraged to do just that. We can’t force people to listen to lectures about paintings or listen to music that doesn’t interest them. Well, we can, but it never works.

The key word, the one I have heard again and again in counter arguments to my ideas, is the word “expose.” Some very intelligent people have asked the question about how one would know if one wanted to be a chemist without being exposed to high school chemistry.

I find it an odd question. Prior to the age of 16,  a child does a lot of living and has plenty of time to express his or her interests to parents, friends, and teachers (or the web). Someone who might be interested in chemistry would be asking questions about how the world worked long before being forced to balance chemical equations.

School is the wrong venue for “exposure.” In school there is very limited exposure actually. We expose students to what was intellectually fashionable in 1892. We don’t expose them to business, law, medicine, engineering, psychology, and hundreds of other subjects because they didn’t teach them at Harvard in 1892.

We need to teach thinking and get away from the idea of “important subjects.” There aren’t any really.