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2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists

Roger Schank

Please describe the work that you are doing that you consider to be the most innovative and of the greatest likely long-term significance.

My most significant work was creating a model of learning, originally intended to help computers learn from experience. For the last 15 years I have been trying to find ways to use what we know about learning to affect the schools. I believe that the time has come to build entirely new high school curricula based on the idea that students learn from experience not from memorization. We have shown how this would work when elaborate computer simulations of experience are built. Now it is time to apply what we have learned to transforming the high school.

I am trying to build on line curricula that will allow students in these to learn from mentored experience, not from direct instruction presented out of context. Fictional situations are set up in which students must play a role. They need to produce documents, software, plans, presentations and such within a story describing the situation. Deliverables produced by the student are evaluated by team members and by mentors. The virtual experiential curricula are story centered. Students choose the stories they want to live. Contexts are chosen to motivate and give coherence to the learning experiences, but are not the point of the learning experience. Inside a context, basic skills from reading and writing and arithmetic to critical thinking and the planning and construction of complex systems, are the order of the day. Students play roles in situations. The roles correspond to real world roles. The task of the student is to perform well and to accomplish certain tasks. Performance is judged so that it can be improved upon.

Story-Centered Curricula are carefully designed apprenticeship-style learning experiences in which the student encounters a planned sequence of real-world situations constructed to motivate the development and application of knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion. A realistic story, at the core of each SCC, provides a meaningful, motivating role for the student, designed to ensure that the student faces exactly the right progression of challenges to stretch and build his or her abilities. Mentors play the expert role, providing one-on-one coaching, help, and feedback to the student, while encouraging self-directed learning. Realistic projects are crucial to a successful Story-Centered Curriculum, a curriculum is not just a random collection of projects.

I am working on creating a Virtual High School initially targeted at home-schooled students that would provide an alternative to the 1892 curriculum now in place. Students would choose four curricula representing four year long intense experiences in a simulated world. Traditional subjects, when they were deemed relevant would be taught just in time within the context of those curricula. Eventually I hope to see this model offer a serious challenge to the educational model now in use.

Brief Biography

Roger Schank achieved worldwide fame in the early 70ís (while an Assistant Professor at Stanford) when he was the first to get computers to be able to process typewritten everyday English language sentences. To do this he developed a model for representing knowledge and the relationships between concepts that enabled his programs to predict what concepts might be coming next in a sentence, known as Conceptual Dependency Theory. After moving to Yale in 1974 he worked on getting computers to read newspaper stories. He built the first newspaper story reading program in 1976. Yale promoted to him to Full Professor just prior to his thirtieth birthday. He was made Chairman of Computer Science at Yale when he was 35.

In order to get computers to know enough about the world in order to tie sentences together, Schank (working with Abelson) came up with the notion of a script. Scripts were needed to keep the inferences that computers made from exploding exponentially. He began to turn his attention to learning. He created the theory of Case Based Reasoning to deal with how people learn and reason from experience. In order to get computers to learn, Schank realized, they would have to have expectations derived from previous cases and they would have to know when new events failed to meet those expectations. They would then have to explain the expectation failures and modify their expectations.

While Schank believed that new abilities were the hallmark of learning and these could only be acquired by trying things and failing at them, the schools believed that listening and repeating back what you were told was the essence of the learning process. Schank was appalled by this (although he of course recognized it from his own schooling.)

In 1989 he moved to Northwestern where he was given a chaired professorship and established the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS). The premise of what ILS built was based on learning through simulation supported by just in time story telling in a goal-based scenario. The software that was built allowed a student to play a role in a simulated world. For Andersen this might mean managing fictional employees (played in video by actors). For the EPA this meant running a public meeting and dealing with an angry populace. For the Army this meant convincing fellow officers of your plan of attack. For children he built programs that allowed them to travel the country in search of places where movie events took place (to learn geography) or to play the role of anchor and writer on the evening news (to learn about modern history.) ILS built hundreds of these kinds of simulation. World experts on every topic were videotaped and when a student ran into trouble in trying to accomplish something they listened to advice from the best on brightest about what they had done in similar situations.

But by the time universities were ready to try out on line degree programs that could instantiate Schankís ideas in a real school, there was little money available. So, Schank developed a much less costly version of his educational model which he called the Story Centered Curriculum (SCC). In an SCC students inhabit a fictional world which is analogous to one which they hope to enter in real life. At Carnegie Mellonís new West Coast Campus, which Schank agreed to run in 2001, masters degrees are offered in computer science. In those programs there are no classes, no lectures, and no tests. In fact there are no courses. The curriculum consists entirely of projects. Students work in teams, on one project at a time, mentored by experts. He now runs Socratic Arts, a company dedicated to helping schools and companies build meaningful curricula on line.

He is the author of 22 books, the most recent of which is Making Minds Less Well Educated than Our Own. The most famous are Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding, Dynamic Memory, Tell Me a Story, Engines for Education, and Designing World Class E-Learning. He was the recognized for his Distinguished Contributions to Workplace Learning by the ASTD in 2000.