Touro Speaker Working to Change Educational System

By Sarah Rohrs, Vallejo Times-Herald Staff Writer
Posted: 02/09/2012 01:04:18 AM PST

"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel" -- Socrates. (Quote on Roger Schank's "Engines for Education" website).

In today's schools students become proficient in taking notes and passing tests -- and not with skills and knowledge they need to be successful adults in the real world.

Education visionary and author Roger Schank delivered that message Tuesday night in a 90- minute spirited talk at Touro University's Lander Hall.

"We need to change the very nature of education," Schank said.

Essentially, Schank advocates education based on learning through experience, practice and doing.

And rather than memorize facts and figures to pass tests, students should be paired with mentors who help them learn through mistakes.

Schank's talk was part of Touro University's speaker series. Several hundred people attended including Vallejo City Unified School District Ramona Bishop, who later said the district is already using many of the changes Schank advocates.

For more than two decades, Schank has worked to change how people think of schools while  also encouraging people to demand reforms.

The author of many books, Schank delved into the education world after he became convinced his children were not learning anything valuable in school.

He left his teaching position, and founded the Institution for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University where he is a professor of computer science, education and psychology.

His ideas include: closure of high schools, making learning fun, allowing students to choose what they want to learn, and stop preparing students for college.

The last suggestion -- stop preparing students for college -- is needed as the process consists mainly of preparing students to pass tests, Schank said.

Further, Schank called all testing "total nonsense," citing teachers who have had their pay docked if their students fail to score high enough.

Likewise, most colleges today are based on long-outdated models to prepare elite members of society to be scholars, he said.

"The fact that we try to turn everyone into scholars is insane," he said.

High schools should be abolished because students aren't learning anything relevant or of value, he said. Rather than classes on subjects like algebra and history Schank advocates new a pproaches focused on things people need to do well at work and in real life. Classes or  programs might be on how to repair a car, farming, or opening up their own businesses, he said.

But Schank said meaningful educational reforms can't happen until big business gets out of the educational realm. Schools are controlled by textbook companies and a complicit government narrowly focused on test scores, he added.

Vallejo Superintendent Bishop said Schank's talk was somewhat negative and did not acknowledge reforms already underway.

In Vallejo, high school academies already use project-based learning in which students learn through experience while also learning math, science and traditional subjects, she said.

"We know that we have to give students a reason to come to school and they have to see the relevance of it. That's what this is all about," Bishop said.

In the Apache Engineering Academy students design robots while Hospitality and Tourism Academy students develop and sell products and also run a mock company.

At Touro, Schank's message seemed to fall on mostly welcome ears. College of Education Dean Jim O'Connor said aspiring teachers must secure hands-on experience. He added the school is rolling out a new masters degree program on "innovative learning" which uses many of Schank's ideas.

To continue his efforts at transforming today's education, Schank is working with Wall Street investors to gain capital for an online master's program embodying his ideas. He said it is already in place at La Salle University.

Schank's most recent book is "Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools." He also runs two companies designing curricula and providing learning solutions for companies, the government and colleges.

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Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at or (707) 553- 6832.