Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness

  1. I did an interview in Spain about 5 years ago which has been tweeted all over the Spanish speaking world the last two weeks.
So I thought I would post it in English. (To do that I had to edit Google Translate's output and try to guess what I was saying.

Anyhow I thought this would be fun to post.

The Spanish web site that posted it is:


"In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness," Roger Schank

“We spent half our lives memorizing things we are unable to remember shortly after.” Roger Schank 

That is a waste of time and brain power. And he knows of what he speaks. He has spent 35 years working as a teacher in three of the most prestigious universities in the world. Now he is determined to create new schools that train citizens and not intellectuals, in which students are happy and learn to understand the world in which they live. He offers alternative learning systems from his company Socratic Arts and his nonprofit organization, Engines for Education .

It makes no sense. You know that, right?


The current education system! It is based on many  bad assumptions. One is that memorizing like a parrot is something useful. But it’s not!

For small children this works.

The real reason we are taught to learn by rote is because the school concept was invented at the time of the industrial revolution and at that time the only thing they cared about was training workers for the factories. They were training people to get used to doing the same thing over and over again for many hours a day. They wanted school to be boring and repetitive. They began to teach little kids dull things over and over to ensure getting compliant workers. And that's why we memorize things in school.

But what about multiplication tables?

The only useful thing to memorize are the multiplication tables. Right. Because when you're buying something you might want to know what 8 times 6 is. Now, tell me another thing that it matters to memorize.

The rivers, the capitals of the countries …


Because it is useful.
Oh, no! You believe in the system! [We laugh out loud] Come on! There is not possible reason why you have to learn the names of rivers. Or the capitals. Or the names of kings. Or the names of wars.

We can look at Google

Forget Google. Let's talk about how we would learn such things without school. When I travel somewhere and look at a map. For example, if you go to New York you will have to figure out where it is, how far it is, what things one can do there. Once you have gone, you will remember the trip. You might remember the name of the river, however because it is not relevant to your trip. You can memorize a lot of information about the city, but it is meaningless unless you experience those things. Memories are linked to emotions and experiences. School is the almost the opposite of real education, because real education comes through real experience. Rather than teach the names of the rivers and cities, why not have students take a trip and visit the cities and learn at the actual site?
And what about history?

History is the most useless subject ever created! Let me explain why, because every time I say people get very angry. In America, we say it is very important to know about George Washington. When I ask why, no one knows, but we all know that it is very important. But when you read about George Washington you find that he had 300 slaves, he married a rich woman for her money, and maybe he wasn’t all that heroic. So what are we talking about when we talk about history? Should we skip the real stuff and just stick with “he was the father of our country?”
Many people quote to me the words of George Santayana: "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it". Nice sentence, but nonsense. Consider wars: World War I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan ... still? At school we studied these conflicts. George Bush studied them too, and instead, he took maybe a minute to think about it when he decided to invade Iraq. That worked out real well.   Teaching history in school usually spreads propaganda, typically about how great one’s country is.

And so? What do we have history books in school?

Because it is the way for the government to tell you things that make them look like the good guys. Surely, in Spain you teach that the conquest of South America was positive. Try asking how the Indians in Peru feel about it! In America we are taught, for example, we have never started a war, we have always been good, we've always done best for everyone ... Oh yeah ?!

Now that does not mean I don’t think history is interesting. I think it is. And I think some people should be experts on history, and citizens should know something about their history. But its not all for everybody. It is for people who are intellectuals with deep knowledge, who are able to discern two sides of an issue. Do we really need to understand the role of ancient Rome? Sure it's interesting to many, but if we force all students to learn about them what exactly does that accomplish?

So if we do not teach mathematics, nor history, nor geography ... what do children learn at school?

You want to know what kids could learn at school and how it would be useful?

How to educate children. 

This is a very important issue in yet it seems that nobody really knows what to do or how to do it.  Not so long ago,  kids spent the day with their grandparents, and learned about life from them, but now that doesn’t happen so much. Kids don’t learn about everyday life. Instead of learning about medicine they learn about plant and animal taxonomy. Instead of learning about how drugs work for example, we learn how to balance  chemical equations. Have you learned them in school?

I loved it!

Wonderful! And it served some purpose in your life? Chemistry could help us understand what happens when we take a medication, how our bodies functions. Or business. We learn economic theory in school, not business. And yet, we live in a world ruled by business So why, instead of teaching math, language, literature, history, children, don’t we give teach them about psychological issues, such as how to get along with others; how to raise a child; or how to handle daily economic issues, not the theory, but how to run a business, for example; or how to find a job …

First things first. What should a child learn at 4 or 5 years of age?  

At the moment, I am creating a school for my four year old grandson. And for this, the first thing I did was ask him what he likes to do. I often talk to him on Skype and we do things together, like playing, drawing. So I know that he loves trains and what is interesting is that I can teach reading and writing through them. I can take advantage of any interest of the child to help him learn. So in my school, the kids that age would learn things from trucks, airplanes, cars. They will play with them, draw them, write about them, and read about them, Also I have a granddaughter, but she is still too young to go to school. But when she is old enough, I would also design one for her. First, I would need to find out what she likes.

You will need 30 teachers in each class, one for each child.

We can create interest groups. My grandson could be in a group of 12 children with a teacher. All these children would have agreed that they like trucks for example. Not only will play with trucks, but they can also do other things that interest them, make some music, play football, anything. In another room, there will be another group with other interests and so on. The idea is that not everyone has to do the same stuff, we should be allowed to choose to learn what we want to learn. For example, why isn’t there a course in fashion design in elementary school ? I'm sure the girls would love it. I am proposing offer it, not forcing it on anyone. What children really need to learn when they are young is to get along with peers, to communicate well, to think things through, to read, and to write. And all that we can teach in any context. There is no need to bore children.

Teaching them through practical things will motivate them.
Of course, this is what parents do, for example, when they teach their kids to speak. Parents don’t teach the theory of subjunctive case or tell them that this is an adjective or a verb. They just talk to them, and correct them. When children don’t know a word, they ask what the word means. That's real education. And this is how school should work as well. The current idea of school is outdated, outmoded.

What about general education? There is so much to know. How can school just teach about what we want to know and nothing else?

But what we are doing now does not work. In Spain there is a 30% dropout rate. In the United States, in some places it is as high as 75% !! You cannot get to discuss general education when you have people who can neither read nor write. The first thing is to make school fun. Make them want to go to school. Learning is fun when you are 5 years old, why must learning become boring?

The transmission of culture is one of the things that the government uses asa way of controlling content. I recently spoke with the minister of education in Italy and he told me that Dante must be part of the school curriculum, which is important for the Italians. But is it really? Here in Spain they say you have to read Cervantes. But you have no idea why. The world will go on without him. If you want to read Cervantes, then  do it. Nobody is stopping you. But why does it have to be part of the school curriculum?   WE should try to create interest in reading. But, we cannot force everyone to read the same things. The culture of a country is the culture of a country is a kind of made up anyway. Countries are mixed up places and culture is different for each person. Surely, your vision of Spanish culture is different from another person’s in this country. So it is not important to teach Spanish culture through reading.

You mean to revolutionize the whole system!

From kindergarten through college. The United States has 3,000 universities; I have taught in three of them, the best, supposedly. The problem is that they create people with PhDs who become professors at other universities, who create other PhDs who become professors at other universities and so on. The 3000 universities are teaching exactly the same curriculum. For example, all have copied the curriculum of the Faculty of Mathematics at Yale. The problem is ... who wants a PhD from the University of Utah in Math?  Someone who teach the same curriculum in Montana. Many universities are teaching without purpose. Instead of everyone copying Yale’s math curriculum, different schools could something radical like not require mathematics.  The could teach other things, like how to get a good job. But all schools around the world insist on mathematics. No one remember why. This should stop.  The goal of students should not be grades, but the happiness that comes from an exciting life, incorporating job skills, thinking skills, personal skills, without learning mathematical formulas or literary works that are considered sacred in different cultures. We must teach what matters today and stop teaching things that are useless in the real world. My son in law, for example, got a doctorate in Russian literature. He was at one of the best universities in the country and was an excellent student. But when he said he was going to get a PhD in Russian literature, I thought he was pulling my leg.


What was that going to do for him? Was he going to be able get a job? The only thing you could choose is to be teacher and this isn’t exactly a growing field. He, of course, did not agree with me.  Now he develops online courses for me. He's a smart guy, but the degree was of no value to him.

What did you do in Barcelona?

I collaborated with the University of La Salle. We built an  online MBA program consisting of seven parts, each of a month or six weeks. One of those parts have to do with business ethics, culture. I went to university professors in the US and asked them if they could help us design the ethics course. But they were just going to teach the usual classroom stuff. And we will not do that. Then I remembered I once met a professor of Russian literature.   I knew he was an excellent teacher, so I asked him why he taught Russian literature. Then he told me that he did not teach his students about novels. They read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, to learn about life. The circumstances in which the characters live, human relationships, how they faced problems, love, heartbreak. And this is what he was teaching in class. I suggested to my son-in-law that he write a novel that was on ethical issues in business, in which the characters are faced with ethical dilemmas and the reader has to move in one direction or another.

As in those Follow your adventure book?

That's how you understand ethical dilemmas, by dealing with them.  Humans communicate and learn through stories. At a party, for example, everyone continually exchanges stories. And you can learn a lot each other by exchanging stories.  

It's about learning from experience, yours and others shared at the right time. We must all follow our own adventure. Good luck!


  1. Benoit Mandelbrot, the famous mathematician, never memorized his multiplication tables. Neither did I...

    Why do you assume that it is useful to have memorized what 6 times 8 is? When I need to figure out, it takes me a second to do 5 times 8 + 8. And 5 times 8 is 40, obvious!

    By teaching kids to memorize mathematical facts or routines, we rob them of the pleasure of finding out the answers on their own.

    If you discourage them from computing 6 times 8 in their head... why do you assume that they will work out more challenging problems later on?

    I have two young boys who do well in school in mathematics, and neither of them have memorized their multiplication tables. Except for the speed multiplication tests, there is not a single instance where the lack of rote memorization has held them back.

    And let us be critical... why memorize 8 times 6 and not 18 times 36? I mean... where do you draw the line? In North America, we seem to go up to 12 by 12. Why not 36 times 36 or 128 times 128?

    As you know, computer scientists have memorized the powers of two. Because it is very useful to them, why don't we have all kids memorize it too?

    Again, where do you stop?


    The mathematics we teach our kids…

  2. its true i am competly agree with you

    pec result