I was talking with someone about education and its problems earlier this week, and I realized I had several old blog posts that were apropos. I thought I’d run them again as the start of a new series on education. This first one is from about a year ago, when I first discovered Roger Schank and his efforts to improve education.

Just discovered this blog by Roger Schank – he’s a former professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and a few other schools, now retired. I suggest taking a quick look if you want to get mad fast about the state of education in America, especially if you have doubts about “testing our way to quality.” (Anyone in software should know that’s never going to work – you can’t “test quality in.”)

His big hobby horse right now is reforming education in the U.S. because he thinks it’s pretty stupid right now, especially with all this testing. He points out that the current high school curriculum is basically from 1892, developed by the then-president of Harvard to suit the needs of a university dedicated to turning out scholars. Schank notes that scholars are typically not doers, and doers is more of what we need in our economy at this point. In fact, we have a surfeit of scholars – a lot more qualified people apply for professorships in academe than there are professorships to fill. And he also points out that the curriculum is full of stuff that is not very useful to us – a lot of stuff that gets memorized by rote in order to pass a test in high school, and a lot of stuff that’s of no use to your future when you’re in college.

I hire American workers. I particularly like to hire American Ph.D.’s (in Russian Literature, History of Medicine and Archeology to name three recent hires of mine.) I like to hire people like that because they are very smart individuals who have bought the stuff that colleges sell and wound up unemployable because of it. I like how smart they are. I have no use for what they learned in their PhD programs however.

So he’s proposing a radical new curriculum, based on teaching people to do things that are useful and productive in society, and letting students – to some degree at any rate – choose what they learn. This will help address in particular one of the biggest issues in schools today. What’s the number one word that students in high school and elementary school use to describe what they are studying? “Boring.” Why are we teaching kids, who are fascinated by so much useful and interesting and mind-bending stuff, to be bored in school? Schank doesn’t think it’s a good idea, and I tend to agree with him.

Back in February Obama gave a speech about education and asked CEOs to recommend changes in education. As the CEO of his own education foundation, Schank responded, and I wanted to feature some of his answer – you can read the rest on his blog.

I support the American economy by building learning by doing project-based courses and degree programs that teach people how to do things rather than listen and memorize things. Oh wait. That was the Spanish economy since I built those courses for Spain (and for Peru and soon for some other developing countries.) Why don’t I build them for the U.S.? I did initially, but our universities think that what matters most is the brand name of their degree and not the quality of the education entailed in that degree. The best universities in the U.S. are controlled by very conservative faculty who have no incentive to change the system in any way.

What do you think? Is this the kind of change the education needs in this country? My take is that if we changed education along the lines that Schank is suggesting, the U.S. could regain our economic lead in the world despite our aging population. And if we *don’t* do this, some other country or countries are going to figure it out and leapfrog us. That will not be a good era for the U.S., in my opinion.

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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