Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Government by groupthink

The more I read Roger Schank, the more I agree with him:
I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake.
. . .
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.
You can click through to read his reviews of high school Chemistry, History, Biology, Economics, Physics, and French. Here he is on English:
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.
He concludes:
So here’s my advice: Learn what matters to you. If you want to graduate from high school, go ahead and memorize a lot of nonsense but don’t expect it to matter a bit when high school is over.
Even if you disagree with him, isn’t it true that inertia—“we’ve always done it that way”—explains about ninety-nine percent of the high school curriculum? That inertia is increasingly worse as a result of the devotion to standardization and uniformity: we have to teach Algebra because it’s on the SAT, and we have to teach Chemistry because it’s in the Common Core, and every state has to follow the same standards, so the only way you can meaningfully change the curriculum at your local school is if you get the entire country to change its curriculum, too.

Why not let a school district pursue Schank’s program if it wants to? Is he so obviously wrong that not a single community in America should be permitted to adopt any of his proposed policies? When did we trade in “laboratories of democracy” for “government by groupthink”?

(Thanks to Sheila Stewart for the link.)


KD said...

I don't think chemistry, physics economics, or a foreign language are currently required classes in most school districts. So a kid taking those classes is taking them because he is interested, he was encouraged by his parents or sees them as necessary to some future goal, like applying to engineering school.

I actually liked some of those high school classes that he criticizes. I loved biology and chemistry.

I thought that the criticism of taking foreign languages was a bit elitist. He doesn't outright say you must have the money to travel to another country in order to learn a foreign language, but that was my take away message. At the very least teaching foreign language in junior high or high school is a starting point to learning about other cultures.

Where do institutions like the University of Iowa fall into this process? Some programs require these types of classes for admission. At the very least I think high schools should be required to give a very clear message that if you aren't taking these classes in high school, you might be extending the amount of time it takes to get through college. I'm missing something, but how can you change the high school process much if you aren't going to change the college admissions process.

That being said, if one is not interested in pursuing a traditional college education, I think high schools should make an effort to offer other sorts of programs.

Doris said...

Hmmm. You are saying you are inclined to agree with him, and you aren't joking? The piece just reads like a knee-jerk parody to me to me.

It's kind of odd that he works in AI since he seems to think in a very binaristic kind of way: teaching writing good/teaching literature bad, foreign language immersion good/foreign language classes bad, learning by doing good/learning by studying bad . . . .

Chris said...

KD -- Glad to hear from you! I don't know whether those classes are required in high school, but I do think they are virtually required for college-bound students, and that a lot of students take them not so much out of choice as because they are funneled into them.

I don't hear Schank saying that those subjects should not be taught -- only that students should take them only if they're genuinely interested.

I do think Schank would argue that the college admissions process needs to change accordingly.

Chris said...

Doris -- I confess, I do agree with a lot of it. I think he's right that we should worry more about developing cognitive skills that students can use in whatever area they choose to study, and less about requiring everyone to study particular subject matter. And I agree that students could better develop those skills if they got to study what interested them. I also think he's right to point out the long-term uselessness of much of the specific subject matter that high schools students take. And don't even get me started on foreign language requirements . . .

FedUpMom said...

If Schenk's message is "there's no point in learning stuff", then I don't agree with him.

On the other hand, if the message is that most high school classes are poorly taught, I agree absolutely. I agree so much that I will probably home-school my highschooler next year.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- I certainly don't hear him to be saying that there's no point in learning, but nor do I think he's just saying that high school courses are taught badly. I think he's saying that there's little point in making kids learn what we currently insist they learn, unless the kids are genuinely interested in those subjects.

Big news about the homeschooling! I become more and more envious of homeschoolers every day. I think the case for it grows, if anything, stronger as the kids get further along into school. Can't wait to hear how it goes.

FedUpMom said...

Thanks, Chris! I'm a reluctant homeschooler -- it isn't my first choice, but I just don't see a better way. I don't want to watch my daughter suffer through another 3 years of alienation and boredom. Surely we can do better than this.

Doris said...

Hi, Chris--The main thing I'm not so convinced I buy into is the idea that you can separate out the teaching of cognitive skills from the content-specific study of a particular field. Or, maybe more precisely, I'm not so convinced that the cognitive skills you develop when studying a particular area are so readily extract-able and generalizable to other areas.

Btw, the way you frame your argument veers in the direction of the justifications we've been given for the ridiculous amount of focus on behavior control in local schools at the elementary and junior high level: The kids will supposedly learn behavioral skills they can eventually use in actual academic classes.

OK: go ahead and fire away! I know I'll be looking at a rebuttal next time I log back on.

Chris said...

Doris -- I don't understand Schank to be arguing that you can learn cognitive skills in the absence of content, only that you're more likely to learn them if you're given more latitude in deciding what content to employ.

That basic idea doesn't free us from having to decide what cognitive skills we want to value and promote. But I certainly don't hear him to be advocating for an emphasis on obedience and compliance.

Are you arguing that the classes that he's criticizing are important to require in and of themselves, or just that there needs to be some set of commonly-required classes for students to sharpen their cognitive skills on? Or some other position?

Doris said...

Hi, Chris--I don't think anything I wrote rose to the level of deserving the label "argument"! There must be some better way to frame what I'm trying to get at. All I can think of is to invoke "deconstruction": to my mind cognitive skills and content are inextricable, and so thinking about what cognitive skills we want to promote necessitates thinking about what content we want to promote, and vice versa.

No, I didn't at all think that Schank was arguing for more behavior control. My point there was that I find it potentially just as problematic for schools to say that they want to teach cognitive skills in the abstract as to say that they want to teach behavior skills in the abstract--as a foundation for later learning of content, that is. (Here I was probably misreading your response to me, actually.) Both approaches make it easy to defer the hard work of talking about what substantive information and ideas we think children should be exposed to, and when.

As for the content of the education I would promote, I guess if I look at how I'm voting with my feet (i.e., at how we are educating our two children), I'm looking to find some reasonable middle ground between freedom and standardization. I would probably get behind a system designed in a way such that children needed to spend maybe three hours a day studying from a somewhat established curriculum designed to introduce them to classic children's literature, geography, American and world history, math, various branches of science (including history of science, not just isolated experiments), one or more foreign languages, art, music, food preparation, sewing, working with tools, etc. I would like the system to allow for a fairly individualized rate of progression (for instance through the use of mixed-age groups--K-6 all together, with children flexibly subdividing) and a realistic recognition that children will have different areas of strength and weakness. Then beyond that I would want children to have plenty of free time and opportunities available to explore in greater depth areas of individual interest.

Basically I'm just never quite sure what is involved whenever you refer to the idea of letting students study what interests them. What, in practical terms, does that mean? Does an adult carefully hide away his or her computer screen so that the child in the household won't be influenced by what the adult is looking at? Does the parent recommend books to read? Do you see what I mean? How do you distinguish between what's going on when a kid follows her own interests and when she becomes interested in something simply because she has been exposed to it but not something else?

Btw, have you been on Schenk's website? He promotes free software he has designed that grandparents can use to help them talk to their grandchildren from a distance so as to maximize the educational value of the conversation for the child. Something like that. He says that he wants to make sure his grandchildren are taught things the right way before the school system can get in there and ruin their minds. Doesn't sound very laissez faire to me.