Roger Schank: How to Fix Education

Reading time: 7 minutes

I’ve written a lot of book reviews, but I recently realized that I have a model in my head of what a “book review” should be, and that the model doesn’t make much sense.

I’m a fan of fancy book reviews that are more about life in general (or the reviewer’s ideas) than the book itself. David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith do those very well.

But most people seem to read book reviews to answer some of the following questions:

  • Should I read this entire book?
  • What is this book about?
  • If this book isn’t worth reading, which bits are worth knowing anyway?
  • If the author has an opinion, why might they be wrong?
  • Where can I find out more about the book’s ideas?

These questions provide helpful structure, and structure means I can review more books! Huzzah!

This particular review is about the book Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own, by Roger Schank. Awful title aside, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (If it weren’t, this review would be much shorter, or bundled with other reviews.)


Should I read this entire book?

Yes, if you like thinking about education. Double yes, if you are a teacher, principal, graduate student, or someone else getting their hands dirty in the school system.

No, if you’re too busy to read books. But seriously, this is a good one.

There are better books on personal self-education, but good systematic education books are hard to find, and this is the best of those that I have read, beating out Nutureshock and How Children Succeed, among others. The arguments in Making Minds have significantly altered my mental model of what a “good education” should look like.


What is this book about?

According to Schank, children are often forced to learn things that aren’t especially fun or useful, which often leads them to dislike school and wastes a lot of time for everybody involved.

This doesn’t sound very new so far, but Schank is unique in how far he’s willing to take an extremely important question:

How will the student use this knowledge? No, really—how?

I was in a classics program my first year at Yale, and regard it as a poor educational decision, so I could be biased. But Schank seems right when he argues that we have a nonsensical habit of treating all students as though they are bound for graduate school, while ignoring skills that are essential to various popular careers:

  • Why do all high-school students learn chemistry, when few will have any use for it in college, let alone life?
  • Why do colleges require English Literature classes but not pre-law classes, even though there are more lawyers than English professors, laws affect everyone, and we often make mistakes when we deal with the law?
  • Why do we tend to assume that only humanities classes can “teach us what it means to be human”? Why don’t we just teach classes on communication and relationships?

Schank believes that most 4-year colleges ignore the fact—perhaps unfortunate, but still a fact—that almost all of their graduates will need to get jobs and support families after they leave school. This attitude, in turn, has a significant negative impact on the quality of life for millions of indebted college graduates, and leaves society bereft of people with important skills. (Like welders.)


Similar problems arise even before high school. How has learning about Abraham Lincoln—not his ideas, not his rhetoric, just the factual history—ever helped anyone solve a problem? Why do fifth-graders spend so much time on Greek mythology? For that matter, when was the last time you needed to find the cosine of something?

Adding insult to injury, school curricula tend to be ridiculously complicated collections of facts and very narrow “reasoning skills”. Students rarely get to apply these skills to anything but tests and homework.

From here, Schank gives the following advice:

1. If you ever want to teach a child something, first ask yourself two questions: 

Do many adults need to know this thing?

Can the child be persuaded to care about this thing? 

If either answer is “no”, think twice. If both answers are “no”, you’re toast. Children tend not to remember things they learn unless they enjoy the process or find use for the knowledge later.

2. The best way to teach is with “project-based” or “story-centered” curricula, where every piece of knowledge a student acquires can be put into practice.

This is how we teach driver’s ed, for example—a class we take seriously because we know students are going to drive on the same roads we do. The “project” is driving in the real world. The “story” is “here are the rules of an actual system; following them is convenient; breaking them is dangerous”.

The book ends with a collection of extremely helpful case studies: Schank actually used a story-centered curriculum to teach students at a Florida school called Grandview Prep, with excellent results. (One project: Students built their own “news websites” about the Everglades, learning about HTML and research and writing and the environment as a result.)


Which random interesting bits of the book are worth hearing?

The Committee of Ten, a sinister group of elite college and prep-school teachers, is responsible for much of today’s education system. They proposed a standardized collection of subjects that would prepare all students to attend elite colleges, whether or not the students had any intention of doing so.

Some parts of the Committee had more power than others, and that’s one of the major reasons we take twelve years of math and zero years of law. It’s also why we learn chemistry before physics, why foreign languages start so late, and why basic computer science still struggles to find a place next to the periodic table and the life cycle of a cell.

Did I mention that the Committee convened in the year 1892? 

That, to me, was the most surprising takeaway: What kids learn in high school now is very close to Harvard’s requirements at a time when most Harvard students were expected to go home and run Dad’s business after graduating.


University “breadth” requirements are mostly based on the power of various academic departments rather than the utility of the subjects involved.

Yale, for example, isn’t about to get rid of its language requirement; many language professors depend on mandatory classes to keep their jobs.  (This is my observation: Schank uses case studies from many different universities to make his points.


Quote from Roger Schank’s daughter, to Roger Schank, as he helped her with a preschool project: “I’ll be back when I need you again.” This is another good way to think about teaching children: Leave them alone until they need you.


Why might Schank be wrong?

Schank relies mostly on anecdote and common sense, and I couldn’t find any holes in his reasoning. I also can’t match his field experience. But the curriculum he details hasn’t been tested very widely, and Grandview Prep seems to have scaled back the Schank-ness of its program, so it may not have worked out in the long run.

On the other hand, I haven’t seen much evidence that any non-story-centered curriculum leads to consistently strong student results. (That is, without forcing kids to spend nine hours a day in school.) And what Schank describes is the education I wish I’d had before college. (Again, I will admit to being biased in this area.)


Where can I learn more?

Lots of places!

Roger Schank’s website

Case study from a school using Schank’s curriculum

Carnegie Mellon business program Schank helped design

White paper on story-centered curricula

Why algebra shouldn’t be mandatory for high-school graduates

3 thoughts on “Roger Schank: How to Fix Education

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