Engagement, Teaching

Think to Learn

A review of Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank, Teachers College Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8077-5266-1

North Americans worry that their education systems are failing. They fret that kids’ math and science scores do not measure up internationally. Politicians (and test makers) argue that standardized tests hold teachers and school systems accountable. Teacher unions argue that burgeoning class sizes are a barrier to quality teaching.

Initially, what makes Roger Schank’s book, Teaching Minds, so compelling is that he critiques the critics who focus on class size and test scores. He won me over with the argument that schools fail because teachers teach subjects instead of teaching students to think. Thinking is a process common to all humans, and learning is an innate, goal-directed social process. Meeting a goal defines much of our informal learning throughout our lives. To communicate, we cry, we make sounds, and eventually we speak; to get from here to there, we roll, we sit up, we crawl, and eventually, we walk.

Unlike early and informal learning experiences, schools are about meeting goals set by other people. Schools are locked into subjects deemed important for every student, regardless of the learner’s interests or goals. Schank lobs bombs at a one-size-fits-all curriculum because one size does not fit all. So far, so good.

Good teachers know that teaching is not telling and that tests fail to adequately measure what kids really know and can do. Drilling to fill kids’ heads with facts may prepare them for a test, or for the next course, but it does not inspire meaningful learning. Still, the unholy trinity of lectures, textbooks, and tests persists in most schools and universities.

Schank is outraged by the subject-based design in universities and schools that is antithetical to how learning really works, and he offers a provocative design solution from cognitive science. He outlines twelve conceptual, analytic, and social cognitive processes that underlie effective learning and, he argues, should be mastered by all students. He builds upon these cognitive processes in chapters on designing case-based learning experiences, differentiating between content and problem-based education, and developing new curricula for new approaches to teaching.

In chapters on restructuring the university, Schank pulls back the curtain on major problems in the Ivy League – from “rewarding” top research professors with light teaching loads, to the institutional battle and competition for prestige and dollars, to the recruitment and retention of faculty stars at the expense of quality undergraduate learning experiences, and to professors who only want to teach specialized courses focused on narrowly defined research and aimed at producing more professors. He links these failures of higher education to the failure of high schools; instead of teaching students to think, high school teachers have devolved to university prep coaches.

Throughout the book’s 14 chapters, Schank draws readers in with his own storytelling, hits them over the head with cognitive sciences research, and presents a frank assessment of the type of cognitively based learning experiences we need to design and offer if our goal is to teach students to think.

Since people learn best when they are interested or when they have a goal they want to achieve, Schank proposes the radical idea that universities and schools ditch subject-based curriculum and introduce story and problem-based curricular designs that reflect the thinking required in particular jobs. I chuckled at Schank’s description of faculty who only want to teach about their own boutique research area to the smartest and most prepared students – a few of my own colleagues would be out of a job if their esoteric courses were not required.

With stark honesty and a sharp focus on research, Schank has written a provocative, convincing, and useful book about the design of cognitively based learning experiences that can be applied to real contexts. Can cognitive science save our schools and universities? That may be going too far. Schank admits that the education problem is complex and a design solution depends on the efforts of many unlikely stakeholders, all of whom would need to understand the problems with education and work together to change the system.

But Teaching Minds can undoubtedly help individual teachers, professors, leaders, and curriculum design teams to transform learning experiences for students at all levels. Educators who already see their role as designing meaningful, problem-based learning experiences that challenge learners to diagnose, plan, and experiment in teams, to make predictions and good judgments, and to negotiate solutions that have real world value, will appreciate this book and leverage its good advice. High school teachers and university faculty who cleave to content delivery methods and testing for memorization could find that reading this book changes they way they understand and contribute to student learning.

Interested readers can visit Dr. Schank’s website at www.rogerschank.com and read his blog: educationoutrage.blogspot.com

Meet the Expert(s)

Michele Jacobsen

Dr. Michele Jacobsen

Professor, Werklund School of Education | Teaching Scholar, University of Calgary

Dr. Michele Jacobsen is a Professor in the Learning Sciences in the Werklund School of Education. Michele uses design-based and action research approaches to study blended, online and technology-enabled learning in K-12 school and campus classrooms and to evaluate the use of participatory pedagogies to sponsor knowledge building, intellectual engagement and authentic assessments.

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