A new approach to learning

by Eric Smith

According to Roger Schank, education systems are failing our children. Not only are students not learning, but they are graduating from high school discouraged and bored with learning.

Few would probably argue with this statement, especially here in Quebec where drop-out statistics continue to confound education authorities. But Schank believes he knows why schools are failing, and better yet, he thinks he has a solution.

This year's Beatty Memorial Lecture speaker told a McGill audience that there is a natural way human beings learn. Prior to school, Schank says, children are almost universally successful at acquiring complex skills like speaking and walking. He argues that the method by which these skills are learned is very different from the methods children will later encounter in the school system.

According to Schank, the way to learn is through one-on-one interaction, where attempts to grasp a skill can meet with repeated failure in a safe environment. In his model, the child formulates questions each time she fails. The answers to these questions lead her step by step through the learning process. According to Schank, providing the answers before the student has formulated the question necessarily means they will fall on deaf ears.

He argues that the current education system is based on what he calls "the evaluation question: 'What should students know?'" Inevitably, Schank says, this leads to the development of a canonical curriculum based on memorization. Success is then determined by how much of the material memorized can be reproduced by the student in a test.

But the test, he says, gives a false account of what the student has learned. Schank asked the audience how many people could pass a high school biology test that evening. Predictably, few people raised a hand. Schank added, "The Department of Motor Vehicles has two tests: 'Can you drive the car?' and 'Can you answer the multiple choice test?' The school system has eliminated one of the tests."

But his proposed solution of one-on-one interaction, in which the student sets the pace and direction of learning by formulating questions based on failure, sounds like a prohibitively expensive way to organize an educational system. So to make it cost-effective, Schank suggests replacing one of the participants with a computer.

His Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) at Northwestern University is developing software that asks students to participate in an interactive simulation to solve a problem and gives them the opportunity to ask for expert advice whenever they run into a difficulty.

ILS software uses hours of videotaped responses to cover every question the developer can conceive of a student having while using the simulation. The result is intended to provide a pretty good reenactment of a real life situation. One piece of software Schank demonstrated at his talk is designed to train customer service representatives for a British water utility.

Students using the software type answers in plain English to simulated phone queries by a customer concerned about his water quality. If the answers provoke panic in the customer, students can call up a videotaped expert who will tell a story about a similar situation.

Most of the work currently being produced by ILS fulfills training contracts for business and the military. Schank says there is very little interest so far on the part of governments to invest similar resources in education. But in an interview with the Reporter, Schank said he is using the income derived from his institute's current contracts to drive down the price of software production and to be able to produce approximately 1,000 titles of interest to schools that would eventually sell, he hopes, for $5 to $10.

And he says schools which are investing a lot of money in computer hardware need new educational software.

"If I go to any school system in the world and say I have a better biology program, they'll laugh at me," he says. "But if I say it's on a computer they might just take it."