Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Genius on Education: Roger Schank

I have quoted Roger Schank several times regarding the dismal state of the education curriculum in the US. Mr. Schank's background and biography are so complex and profound that my quick take is that he is an expert--possibly THE expert--on how people learn.

Actually, he is an expert on how learning happens, because his initial studies over 35 years ago were not about people, but about how to develop computers that could learn. Schank thinks so far outside the box, it's hard to describe briefly what his field is.

How'd I know about Roger Schank and his amazing research? My dad played in a softball league with him in Florida. As they became friends, my dad told me about Mr. Shank's work, because my dad knew of my interest in the issue of US education--or at least of it's failings. I didn't know of Mr. Schank's work--I received a Master's Degree in film production from Boston University, so what did that have to do with education?

I have now read enough of Schank's work and his anecdotal quotes to know that if he offers advice, you're always better off following it. I am referring to particular advice in terms of how our US publi school system.

It seems to me that most parents take for granted that their children will attend schools grouped by grades, divided by year chronologically, and that they will be taught separate subjects like math, history, English literature etc. The buildings used for classrooms are usually divided into rooms lining a hallway. The rooms may or may not have windows, and children line up a lot to move from room to room, or lunch cafeteria.

On the whole in this country, prisons and school buildings are indistinguishable from each other. Who questions this structure? We've all gone through it. Surprisingly, not all parents swallow this route for their children's education hook, line and sinker.

These people, motivated and stimulated by publicized alternatives to US public school education, have found state-sanctioned recourses such as Montessori, or the new charter schools which are not wholly obligated to the local school district's curriculum.

Some parents even teach their children themselves--home school--although sometimes the reasons for this are not due as much to the education deficiencies in the school district as much as to the religious preferences of how evolution or the bible is taught.

Children also get more homework these days--unless you're a teenage parent, most of us had less homework than our kids do now. In many situations, the heavy homework burden is because "we, the people," decided our "children
doesn't read" as well as they should, or know enough about 'rithmatic, or whatever.

So we fixed it where the powers that be--Bush & Co. "No Child Left Behind," would see to it that these kids'll get the practice they need. And if that means
30 repetitive math homework problems to do every night--instead of dance class, or a singing or piano lesson, or baseball or just plain old playing with your friends...buck up and take your medicine before the Chinese overcome
you and communism rules the world.

Well, maybe that's a little "over the top" as the drama critic says--not every parent who wants his child to succeed, and thinks homework helps, is afraid of the overrunning "Asian hoard"...But Schank isn't the only one who thinks the
"system" is broken, or that kids are inundated with homework

What if you, as a student or former student, or parent, closed your eyes for a moment, and thought about something you once learned while travelling, or watching a movie, or the History channel? What if you thought about how
much an adult uses advanced algebra equations, who isn't working on sending rockets into outer space, and what if you thought about just sitting around with your friends discussing something that interests everyone?

Some enlightened experts in learning, including Mr. Schank, have asked the question, "why do children have to learn by subject category." Maybe there shouldn't be a demarcation between history, English, Math etc. In fact, why teach math at all, unless a certain student enjoys math and wants to learn more about it--there are some who do!

Here are the core issues: immediately urgent is that kids spend six-eight hours in school every day. Why should their family life be ruined by two to five additional hours of homework?

And ultimately, the entire curriculum and set-up of our school system needs to be re-evaluated and revolutionized to conform with how a human being actually learns. One thing is for sure--people do not learn by being lectured to and repeating by rote what they can remember from the lecture on a test. Yet that's exactly how the public school system is set up to teach our children.

Which brings me to the interesting portion of this post -- my conversation about all the above with the principal of my daughter's middle school in Sherman Oaks, CA.

If you want to speak with your child's school principal, you make a phone call, then leave a message, and eventually you may speak to him or her. In my case, the principal called me! We had a nice talk, and we were in total agreement.

He is unhappy that the system is geared towards "teaching for tests," in other words, making sure students get high test scores so the money keeps funding in from the state and federal coffers to the local school. He agrees with me
about too much homework intruding in family life--especially repetitive math problems. And he says his hands are tied as much as mine to make changes.

I initially thought the principal's phone call would revolve around his explanation of why the schools are set up as they are, and how this was good for children. I was gratified that his end of the conversation was the exact opposite--he agreed that kids are set up to fail, average achievers are discouraged from creatively branching out, and a high percentage of teachers and parents--both sides of whom are ignorant about the subject--think a lot of homework is better for the student. He told me of every 3 parents like me who complain about too much homework, 2 parents think it's just fine as is or that there isn't enough homework!

My daughter still has too much homework, she gets all A's (I personally don't care about grades or tests, but she likes the A's), and she still wants to stay in school. She's as tough as the system itself!

Why did the principal phone me in the first place? He called me because of a letter I wrote to the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The LAUSD serves around 700,000 students, has around 45,000
teachers, 38,000 other employees, and a budge of roughly $13.6 billion.

Here's the letter I wrote to Ray Cortines,
Superintendent of LAUSD (the vitriol is self-explanatory):

January 30, 2010

Mr. Superintendent:

Once again my dinner was unnecessarily interrupted by an annoying recorded phone call from you to report about a report card regarding school's performance. Who cares!

It isn't enough my daughter attends Millikan for 7 hours a day, and then has an average of 3 to 5 hours homework per night, and at least 12 hours over each weekend--that's AVERAGE!--but you or someone in the school also send out recorded messages which are either not urgent,nor meaningful, to my daughter's education.

Today is a beautiful Saturday on which my daughter should be outdoors, playing with friends, or having some recreation not involved with indoor school paperwork homework. Instead, she is doing repetitive math problems, a science report she already did in December but has to add to, and other busy-work homework.

If I have to quote you the studies done through the years which prove that the amount of homework a student does is NOT commensurate with his or her achievement in school, or career, then you have a huge gap in your back ground as an educator.

The lack of social interaction due to homework assignments; the immense pressure exerted on students because teachers act more like prison guards than educators, putting utter fear into each student about turning in homework assignments on time; teacher and administration accent on standardized tests which score how a school compares in terms of test scores with other schools; the "tone" of collusion of the LAUSD that all of this is better for our students--these aspects of my daughter's experience in school show a tremendous failing on the part of administrators, and teachers, in understanding of how children learn.

I don't believe this one letter will change any of the amazing damage the policies regarding homework is doing to students.

But I do know that my daughter is an exceptional, better-than average, bright student who is inundated with unimportant busy work homework. So how does a student who doesn't have my daughter's capabilities and acumen even keep up?

No wonder I see so many youngsters throwing up their hands, giving up, and dropping out. Maybe it's time you reassessed this homework barrage. It's wrecking social and family lives.

David Goldenberg

ps: I just got another recorded phone call at 6:30 PM Thursday,Feb 4. 2010, informing me that tomorrow is a minimum day and that Monday is a regular day. this was an wasted phone call and a waste of my time. The school and your district has notified parents already of this information. These phone calls are intrusive.

BUT--if I choose not to receive these phone calls, I have been informed that some of your information is ONLY delivered by phone. So I must continue to be a victim of LAUSD intrusion and incompetence.

After this venting, I didn't care who contacted me or not, because I don't believe in this circumstance one voice can make a difference--which goes against everything I ever say or teach about speaking out against injustice and

So I did receive a response:

Dear Mr. Goldenberg,

I apologize for interrupting your dinner. I am trying to be transparent and communicate with parents. I receive complaints that I do not communicate enough with parents, and your complaint is that I communicate too much with parents.

Nevertheless, I do believe that there should be time for play and enjoyment for young people. I have shared your email with the principal and local district superintendent and I have asked them to get in contact with you directly
regarding the homework policy.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to communicate with me.

Ray Cortines

Nicole Elam-Ellis
on behalf of Ramon C. Cortines
Office of the Superintendent

Two items come to my mind upon reading this email from Mr. Cortines:

1 - when someone in authority complains that whatever he or she says or does always pleases some people and rankles others, it's time to get another job. I
knew about this when I hit puberty and don't need the head of my child's school district to remind me.

2 - How does Cortines know I have a busy schedule? That's a huge assumption, and a smear against me being bothered by his intrusive phone calls. Busy or not, I don't like having my time wasted for anything, especially when it's done on purpose.

Nevertheless, that letter lead to the the principal's phone call. And despite the positive tone and discussion between the principal and me, my now assured assumption is that nothing will come from my letter or phone call to change the rotten public school system in this country. I didn't expect it to anyway, but I always like to add one more "weight" to the side of the scale in favor of rationality, in case it could matter.

And in case I wasn't sure about my hopeless assumption, here's an email exchange between me and Roger Schank about the school system, homework, and correspondence from the school district (and my trust and admiration is on the side of Mr. Schank, along with hope after all!) :

Dear Mr. Schank --

I really just want to say you are a tremendous inspiration for me, as someone who has been educated (might as well read tortured...) and has many untutored reservations about how our children are being treated in school.

I have a daughter who is inundated with homework,is one of the top students of her class (out of 650) in 7th grade, and can't see daylight because she fears the system. She also gets all A's (as if that matters to me!!!--only to her) but they've got her, if you know what I mean--they've got her right by the cinder blocks that make up her schools walls.!!

Anyway--I am not an expert in education, and when her principal called me the other day subsequent to the letter I wrote (Not very diplomatic--I was pissed can you tell?) to the LAUSD superintendent who is on the "take" as board member of a company that sells textbooks to the's a mess...[Cortines has since gotten out of this conflict of interest]

The principal agreed with me (essentially you--since I only have your quotes and studies as a back ground to me) and said it was because of "No child left behind."

Anyway you know all about this.


David Goldenberg

Roger Schank's Response:

The system is very hard to fight and getting worse every day; my advice is get her out of school; how to do that is another question; we will be offering a new virtual high school from a school here in Florida open to students anywhere if you want to try that option


So there it is--good advice, hard to take. Public school structure needs a revolution in the US. Our legacy is at stake.

There are examples of what really works. Parents have to take note and become informed--unlike most of my children's friends' parents who shrug their shoulders and talk about how much homework they had when they went to school, or how math is good for the brain. My accountant can't even do math.

Maybe if I drank the fluoridated water supply like everyone else, I wouldn't mind so much either...

...At the head of this post--The top photo is a prison, the brick building is a school.


  1. Dear David,

    It surprises me that I'm the first to comment on your fantastic post, and I can only imagine its because your network has yet go pick it up. I'd like to thank you for your determination, transparency and committment to our children, wherever they may study.

    I live in Germany, but originate from the UK, and I can tell you that in the most part the tyranny is no different in either country. It pains me to see how children are treated, how their passions are ignored in place of meeting the bizarre expectations of an outdated self fulfilling egotistical money driven education machine. Unfortunately we do not have the option of home-schooling here, so it leaves me no option but to use jedi mind tricks and gorilla tactics, which I'm more than capable of doing.

    It was Roger who sent me the link to your post after I posted out on Twitter this evening my annoyance with the abnormal amounts of maths homework my nine year old daughter gets. My business is collaboration, informal and social learning, and I intend over the coming years to change this ludicrous archaic system, and I'm developing a plan on exactly how to do that, its called collective collaborative intelligence.

    Just as you are seeing uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, there will be also uprisings in education. Moronic, outdated, money grabbing political factions have had their time, revolution is coming and it is way overdue. The likes of Roger, Ken Livingstone and Jay Cross are among many who are taking this fight to the very heart of where it came from, political factions.

    How are we going to move this mountain? In the same way rotten governments are over thrown, social media and social uprising. Not only is it important to change the old system, but we must present a clearly defined plan and new vision on how it should look.

    This week began a project on the net called 'What is the purpose of Education', I urge you to get involved, leave comments and repost content and articles to your network. You will be able to find more details via the #purposed hashtag on Twitter.

    It's getting late and I have to get up early 6:30, to get my daughter ready for her 8am school start, so better sign off now. Thanks again for sharing your experience and thanks to Roger Schank and many others for doing their best to bring attention to the atrocities known as the schooling system.

    With kind regards,
    Paul Simbeck-Hampson.

  2. It is only ideas, and it may not help, but I recently was involved in producing a newspaper called Agile Learning Unplugged, which incorporated a section on Home Schooling, and other thoughts on Learning in a time of change.


Comments signed Anonymous will not be published.