Schankism—Roger Schank’s plan to take over the world…of education

Having read a few of his writings and having just listened to Roger Schank’s views on how to save schools (during a webcast with Steve Hargadon on February 28th) I will attempt to nutshell who Roger Schank is and what his purpose is here on earth.

Image of Roger Schank

What is Roger Schank all about?

  • Roger Schank is anti-establishment.  I feel this is a safe assumption based on the number of times he has villainized the dogmatic, holier-than-thou attitudes of both religious and governmental institutions.  Schank also observes that, for some absurd reason, schools and businesses alike have adopted this same “knowledge-comes-from-the-top-down” ideology.  Teachers and executives mistakenly imagine themselves as the gatekeepers of all knowledge and that the only way that knowledge can be accessed is by trickling it down to learners.
  • Schools give grades. Mentors facilitate learning.
  • If schools are intended to help students learn, then almost everything about the current U.S. school system is wrong—because they don’t.  School and learning are not currently synonymous.
  • The only worthy teaching method is the socratic method. (This involves one-on-one mentoring from an expert.)
  • Anyone who believes differently is deluding themselves. (Roger is REALLY good at telling people they are wrong and citing some brilliant, but vague, concept of  ideal teaching. )
  • Here’s a video I found that illustrates Schank’s philosophy on teaching vs. learning:

Schank’s intent to take over the Education world is no secret.  His books and blogs passionately represent his ideas on why the current education system is broken and how it ought to be restructured in a learner-relevant and contextually-meaningful way.  In Hargadon’s webcast, Schank referenced a 4-year curriculum that he has already built and is just waiting for someone to implement. Here’s an example of an engineering curriculum he made for 6-9 years old future architects.  Schank has a solid history of being invited into prestigious universities and organizations to develop curricula focused on experiential learning mixed with e-learning components. (e.g., Carnegie Mellon in 2002, Trump University in 2005, and an MBA program in Spain in 2008.  Wikipedia.)

So Schank’s a great project starter.  But how is he going to scale what he has begun at these institutions?  The way I understand Schank’s approach, he is not interested in reform; what he wants is a revolution!  On his blog, Schank declares, “I gave up being part of the Education system so I could begin to change it.”  Schank hopes that through the combined attention given to his provocative blog and his brilliant ID products ( like Sickle Cell Counselor, which speak for themselves) decision makers will direct their instructional designers to start to populate the world with more and more socratic learning opportunities.  As these alternative learning opportunities become more prevalent  Schank hopes that education consumers will abandon traditional learning conventions in favor of a more reasonable, less-Alice-in-Wonderland-logic driven education system, which we all currently subscribe to as a nation.  If the snowball effect takes off, everyone will be cheering—”Stick it to the man! Learn what you love! Become the best at what you enjoy doing, all under the tutelage of an expert, and along with other like-minded individuals.”

Creating an education system based on the socratic method is an attractive, yet overwhelming concept.  Deep down, I don’t think single Schank critic could honestly say that Schank’s vision isn’t better that what we currently have—the challenge is getting there.  Hoards of  disgruntled school teachers, administrators, and social scientists have already joined Roger’s Revolution.  Their battle cry: “Schools curriculums are backwards and broken! Grades are mere symbols that approximate arbitrary cut scores! Learning is king!”

Unmotivated Learner Meme

Before I join Schank’s ranks however, I’m concerned that that some problems may arise as the ball starts rolling.  (Let’s get hypothetical.)  If there were a gradual, but immediate, restructuring of what and how content is taught in schools, it would leave unmotivated learners…unmotivated. Although bringing learning into real-life learning situations may play a role in promoting learner engagement (in a causal way), I believe that students’ minds must first be changed before parents start abandoning the USS Public Education steamboat (—yes, that was a symbol.)  If parents abandon the current public school culture too soon, we’ll end up with a bunch of “ship captains” that just want to sunbathe on the deck all day, waiting for their crew to ask for direction.  There must be some event that causes a cultural shift that acts as scaffolding.  The seed of belief must be planted in learners’ minds to get them to believe that they actually have a degree of freedom over their own learning.  Jerry Michalski gave a great TED TALK entitled, What if we trusted you.  In it he imagines what it would look like if we gave learning control back to learners and what it might take to get there.

So let’s imagine that we trusted learners, and learners believed in themselves.  Then 20 years down the road, how does a “graduate”, who underachieved in the School of Socratics Arts, market him or herself?  Stellar students will have been developing business relationships that will lead them to a career path starting when they were six years old.  However, what about the student who is a charismatic, talented person, but never really found anything they loved, and failed to deeply develop any real-world skills during their period of eduction.  Is problem-solving enough?  Is that just life—people who don’t become, don’t get the jobs? Although that doesn’t seem “fair” to underachievers, it may just be the most fair system I’ve ever heard of.

If Roger has already addressed the following questions somewhere, please just point me towards the answers and I’ll read them there.  Otherwise, I’d love to hear his/your thoughts in response to the following questions:

  • Roger, you believe that humans are innately curious and are always interested in learning something.  Assuming that is true, is the instructor/mentor responsible to help the learner match his or her learner interests with real-world fields of study? (e.g. your son’s fascination with trains which led to his future career in the field of public transportation.)
  • You think certifications are bologna.  Is tracking progress even necessary in your ideal, Socratic world of Education? If so, how is learner progress measured?   Is it even important for anyone to know how smart you are?  Why, or why not?
  • From a broader perspective, Is measuring and assessing learning even important?
  • Without certifications, how will employers know if a potential employee will bring value to their organization?  Roger, you mentioned in Steve’s webcast that the time-honored way of knowing someone’s worth is to to have a face-to-face sit d0wn with them, and figure out what they know.  But what if meeting potential employees is an impossibility in our age of globalization? In all seriousness, would you just have to do what you can from a distance?


Roger, it has been an honor dialoging about experiential learning. Writing these posts have been a way for me to process the amazing things I’m learning from you.  I hope you see your part in this discussion as an investment in a convert who will never forget the moments you spent with a lowly grad student.


About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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