Thinking is no help in making the grade

April 28, 2006

The academy's influence on the high school curriculum has been helping to stifle original thought in students, argues Roger Schank.

"I am always willing to learn, however I do not always like to be taught." Winston Churchill

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." Oscar Wilde

It would be difficult for an American to say that the British do not get it about education. There have been some very wise Britons who more than get it. It is just that no one has listened to them. As a result, the school system pays little attention to what real learning is really like.

From time to time, high school students send me stories about their experiences, which I post at Let me quote Eddy Legg, a pupil in the UK whose AS-level philosophy and ethics coursework includes a look at abortion: "I decided to... use arguments from an existentialist viewpoint to argue the need for abortion to be outlawed. (But the) national syllabus basically doesn't accept existentialism! That's education at its best, selecting views and learning to satisfy the examiner!"J The UK Government, like that of every country, knows what is the right stuff to learn and does not suffer students who will not play by the rules.

The key issue for governments is grades and standards. Eddy Legg again:

"I've always been amazed at the grading system, how horrible and demeaning it is... Why categorise people?"

Of course, we know why it is important to categorise people. The school system is a filter meant to pass the right students through to Oxford or Harvard universities. And as governments get more involved in education, they create artificial standards that students and teachers must focus on to make sure that the state is getting its money's worth and that everything is in order.

But everything is not in order. If all students were suddenly capable of perfect scores in mathematics, say, would the UK somehow be better off? Apart from university physics professors rejoicing because they could again focus their courses more on physics, how would this matter? All it would do is prompt the creation of new standards to ensure that the filtration system was still of use.

I ask the audiences that I address to tell me the quadratic formula.

Despite their being college educated, less than 1 per cent ever know the equation. They all learnt it in high school. But why? They certainly do not know. They have never used it, so they promptly forgot after the last test that asked about it. Most of what is taught in every high school in the world is meaningless information meant to be memorised temporarily. All students know that.

When high school graduates move on to the next level of education, universities are faced with students whose idea of academic success is getting good grades and avoiding intellectual risks, who have never been asked to reason from evidence or to think for themselves, who consider a degree a ticket to a job. While we hope to produce students who can think for themselves, the Eddy Leggs of the world, who really want to, are stifled at every turn and beaten by those who understand high school for what it is: a competition to be won by following the rules.

The academy bears some responsibility for this situation. Schools are the way they are less because of government interference than because of university interference. The US high school curriculum was designed by the president of Harvard (in 1892) to make life easier for his faculty. The goal was to ensure that students would already be (somewhat) prepared in the subjects to be examined at Harvard.

But the effect has not been to make university life easier. The continued insistence by universities everywhere that secondary schools conform to their view of what subjects should be taken and what grades should be achieved has been a disaster. In order for students to see learning as an exciting adventure, universities need to stop dictating what high schools should teach. In effect, universities need to stop forcing schools to do the hard work of making their admission decisions for them.

So what should high school students learn? Reasoning, human relations and communication are my favourites. But these should not be taught as subjects. They should be learnt within a project-driven curriculum in practical contexts, such as health, entrepreneurship, new media, engineering and law - things that interest children and are part of the real world. The questions we need to ask of high school graduates should be performance questions. What can you do and how well can you do it? Right now, the only thing we can count on high school graduates to be good at is test taking.

Roger C. Schank is chief learning officer at Trump University and professor emeritus in cognitive science at Northwestern University in the US.

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