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Roger Schank and the Tyranny of Grades

I purposely put off writing an entry about Roger Schank’s visit to BYU (which spanned Monday and Tuesday of this week) because I wanted to mull things over for a couple of days. Sometimes big ideas (and Schank offered up several) take some time to digest. (Kimberly McCollum, one of my former graduate students, has provided an excellent summary of his talks on her blog.)

Well, I’ve thought about my conversations with Schank and the lectures I heard him give and I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. I spent the better part of two days with Roger during his visit, sharing meals, listening to his prepared lectures and sitting in on informal conversations with faculty and administrators. Today what stands out most to me from all of this is Roger’s unabashed commitment to learning. He really cares about it. He wants people–everyone, everywhere–to learn. I know that sounds trite, but when you meet a larger-than-life scholar (Roger’s the only person I’ve met who has written 25 books) you aren’t quite sure what to think of them. In my estimation, Schank is motivated by a deep-in-the-bones belief and desire that all people should have more and better opportunities to learn than they do today. Not only is he a revolutionary, but he’s a true believer.
  1. The key to Schank’s argument is that learning begins and ends with motivation. While every teacher would love to teach classrooms full of intentional learners, the vast majority of students are not motivated to learn for learning’s sake. Schank posits that learning is fundamentally about wanting something. Unfortunately, the reward structure of the educational status quo requires students to please teachers to get favorable grades. Schank calls this arrangement the “tyranny of grades.” Schank estimates that high school and college students are motivated almost exclusively by grades in 90% of their courses, and not by some greater desire to do something.

Citing his recent experience teaching his grandson to crawl by putting a green squeaky frog just out of his reach, Schank reinforced the value of providing students with real-world learning situations. Deriding “required courses” (and plain “courses” for that matter), Schank argues for a story-based curriculum in which students are required to solve the kinds of practical problems they are likely to face in real life. His new science-based high school curriculum, for example, requires students to (among other things) file a report about a crime scene, create an exercise and nutrition plan for a client, and identify and eradicate a mysterious fungus destroying farmer’s crops. As students work toward these goals, they are provided with the facts, information, theories, formulas, etc. they need to succeed. Story-based, goal-driven curriculum doesn’t require artificial, external motivation for students. The motivation is intrinsic in the learning activities themselves.

  1. While institutional inertia works against change in higher education (hence Schank’s efforts to reform high school education instead), change is possible and should be pursued by those who care about and work in higher education. Schank’s litany of problems with higher education is familiar:
    • University faculty members want to (and are rewarded to) pursue their specialized research agendas.
    • Students want to acquire meaningful skills that will help them succeed after college. Less altruistically, they want good grades that will help them get good jobs.
    • Since faculty members are rewarded for excellent research and merely adequate teaching, they have no incentive to significantly improve their teaching or student learning.
    • Faculty offer courses that are easy to teach and to grade, not necessarily courses that will substantially prepare students to be successful citizens, family members and employees.
    • Faculty and students collude with each other in a perverse system of rewards by agreeing not to tell on each other–”You don’t tell on me for not really teaching, I won’t tell anyone I’m giving you easy As and Bs.”
    • Universities produce students who frequently need to be “re-trained” by their employers.

So how can administrators, teachers and support staff hope to change such an entrenched system? For starters, we can personally contribute to a culture of learning by refusing to support the status quo. Change, as the aphorism goes, happens one step at a time. In higher ed, change must begin and continue one instructor, one classroom at a time.

We can also pursue systemic change by taking the accreditation focus on learning outcomes seriously. By focusing on what students should be able to DO when they complete degree programs, we can start changing the way we think about curriculum, learning activities and assessment. There are some shining examples of this sort of paradigm shift at BYU and at other institutions across the nation.

Finally, administrators need to begin changing incentive structures to reward faculty activities that are focused on student learning and not just their own research. One very promising avenue is to bring research and teaching together through mentored student research programs (such as the one at BYU).

  1. Schank’s ideal model for teachers is the coach or mentor, providing help and motivation for students when they aren’t ready for it or maybe don’t even want it. Although unlooked for, such assistance will almost always be favorably received if the learning context is authentic and the students is, therefore, motivated to accomplish the goals it requires. The role of the teacher is to “put the squeaky green frog in the right place and then make reaching it increasingly difficult” as the student’s capabilities increase.

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Schank is the kind of thinker who challenges our assumptions and questions the status quo. While he can be (by his own admission) hyperbolic at times, extreme rhetoric is sometimes necessary to wake people up out of complacency. My hope is that his visit to BYU has accomplished just that by reminding us that our primary duty is to help students learn and that we ought to be exploring better ways to do that, even if doing so causes some personal or intellectual discomfort.

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