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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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaching Minds: How cognitive science can save our schools






The response to my last outrage has been enormous. But I see that people can't get over the idea of teaching subjects let alone think that some particular subject we teach in high school matters.

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But why? 

It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially not easy when the very source of all our concerns in education can be easily traced to this one decision: to organize school around academic subjects. How else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around cognitive processes. In 1892, when the American high school was designed, we didn’t know much about cognition. Now we do. It is time to re-think school.

School, at every age, needs to be designed around these processes, since it is through these processes that everyone learns. Academic subjects are irrelevant to real learning. They are not irrelevant to the education of academics of course. But, how many people really want to need to become experts in the academic fields?

Here is a list of twelve critical thinking processes. These processes are as old as the human race itself. The better one is at doing them the better one survives:

Twelve cognitive processes that underlie all learning are:

Conscious Processes


1. Prediction: determining what will happen next 
2. Modeling: figuring out how things work
3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
4. Values: deciding between things you care about 



Analytic Processes

1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened
4. Judgment: deciding between choices

Social Processes


1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do 
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal 
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others 


All of these processes are part of a small child’s life as well as a high functioning adult’s life. Education should mean helping people get more sophisticated about doing these things through the acquisition of a case base of experience. Teaching should mean helping people think about their experiences and how to think more clearly about them. Unfortunately, education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world.

Creating an exciting and enjoyable educational experience for students is important at all levels of schooling.  Lecturing and learning by the accumulation of facts cannot possibly be of educational value.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it



The other day an article written by me appeared in the Washington Post saying that algebra was useless and shouldn’t be taught in high school. 






The hate mail that followed (written mostly by math teachers) was unbelievable. Mostly accusing me of being irrational and incapable of thought, and stating that math teaches people to think. This is pretty funny because if math is supposed to teach one to think, as they argue, they might have looked me up and discovered that not only was I a math major in college, but I was also a professor of computer science.

Of course, it is not only high school math I am against. I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake. What I write here will infuriate teachers, but teachers are not my enemy. It isn’t their fault. They are cogs in a system over which they have no control. I believe there are many great teachers, and I believe that teaching and teachers are very important.  

That having been said, in honor of the coming school year, I have decided to give students some ammunition. Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.

Chemistry:  a complete waste of time. Why? Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table? The formula for salt? How to balance a chemical equation? Ridiculous. Most of the people who take chemistry in college by the way intend to be doctors and while there is chemistry a doctor should know, they don’t typically teach it in college. Why should you take chemistry? Because someone is making you. Otherwise don’t bother. You won’t remember a thing (except NaCl.)

History: yes yes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I guess no US president ever took history because they have all forgotten the lessons of the Viet Nam war, the history of Iraq and the history of foreign incursions into Afghanistan. I once attended a class for Army officers at the Army War College in which the lesson being taught was that every single fight with Muslim inspired troops has ended badly. This is history that is worth knowing, but that, of course, is not taught in high school. You will learn untrue facts about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War 2 all meant to teach that the US is the best country in the world. Oh, and we didn’t murder all the Indians either. And slavery wasn’t so bad as well. Forget what they teach you in history. Read about it on your own if it interests you.

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don't mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Biology. Now here is a subject worth knowing about. Too bad they won’t teach you anything that matters. Plant phyla? Amoebas? Cutting up frogs? It can’t get any sillier. What should you be learning? About your own health and your own body and how to take care of it. But they don't teach that in biology. They teach some nonsense part of it in health class which is usually about the official reason that you shouldn't have sex, whatever it happens to be this year.

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don't really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

Physics. Another useless subject, that could in fact be quite important if the right things were taught. To hit or throw a baseball a knowledge of physics is required. Ooops. I meant the mind has to have an unconscious knowledge of physics. The formulas they teach in high school physics won’t help. To drive a car one needs  knowledge of physics. Same deal. Nothing they teach in a physics course will help. But it really does matter that you understand why tires skid in the rain or how a brake  works or why looking at your target will help you throw a ball more accurately. We use physics every day of our lives, but the formulas they make you memorize and facts about that the earth’s rotation, and names of planets? Not so much. The Wright Brothers did not have any theory of flight by the way. They simply tinkered with stuff until their plane flew. That is called engineering. Trying stuff to see what works. The physicists came later and explained it. It didn't help the Wright Brothers. Why don't they teach engineering in high school? Because engineering wasn’t a subject at Harvard in 1892. (You could look it up.)

French. Another complete waste of time. Why? Two reasons. The first is that you cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it and talking and listening and talking. In school they teach grammar rules and nonsense to memorize so that they can give you a test. My daughter could not get an A in English when we lived in France despite the fact that she was the only kid in the class who spoke English. Why? Because she didn’t know the grammar rules of English. The same thing happened when we came back to the U.S. She could speak perfect French (a year in France will do that) but still couldn’t get an A in French. Grammar is like physics formulas, nice in theory but useless in practice, because the practical knowledge we use is not conscious knowledge.

The second reason is more subtle. School happens not to teach the French that people actually speak. No one says “comment allez-vous?” in France. They say “ca va?” But we don’t teach speaking so who cares how people actually speak? The same is true in the opposite direction as well. The French learn to say “good-bye” which no one actually says in English. We say “bye,” “see you,” and a million other things but rarely say goodbye (except maybe on the phone.)

If you want to learn a language, immersion is the only way.

A couple of days ago an interview with me was published in a Barcelona newspaper.



I say in this interview that the only way we can learn is by doing and to do that we must practice constantly. Schools rarely teach doing, mostly teaching abstract theories that will never matter to 99% of the population.

There was no outcry about this in Spain. Quite the opposite. The public seems to be genuinely sick of school in Spain. Sorry that is not the case in the U.S.

So, my advice. Know what matters to you. Learn that. Temporarily memorize nonsense if you want to graduate but have a proper perspective on it. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.