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Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools | Roger Schank

Teaching Minds: How cognitive science can save our schools

The response to my last outrage has been enormous. But I see that people can't get over the idea of teaching subjects let alone think that some particular subject we teach in high school matters.

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But why?

It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially not easy when the very source of all our concerns in education can be easily traced to this one decision: to organize school around academic subjects. How else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around cognitive processes. In 1892, when the American high school was designed, we didn’t know much about cognition. Now we do. It is time to re-think school.

School, at every age, needs to be designed around these processes, since it is through these processes that everyone learns. Academic subjects are irrelevant to real learning. They are not irrelevant to the education of academics of course. But, how many people really want to need to become experts in the academic fields?

Here is a list of twelve critical thinking processes. These processes are as old as the human race itself. The better one is at doing them the better one survives:

Twelve cognitive processes that underlie all learning:

Conscious Processes

  1. Prediction: determining what will happen next
  2. Modeling: figuring out how things work
  3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
  4. Values: deciding between things you care about

Analytic Processes

  1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
  2. Planning: determining a course of action
  3. Causation: understanding why something happened
  4. Judgment: deciding between choices

Social Processes

  1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do
  2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal
  3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
  4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others


All of these processes are part of a small child’s life as well as a high functioning adult’s life. Education should mean helping people get more sophisticated about doing these things through the acquisition of a case base of experience. Teaching should mean helping people think about their experiences and how to think more clearly about them. Unfortunately, education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today's world.

Creating an exciting and enjoyable educational experience for students is important at all levels of schooling. Lecturing and learning by the accumulation of facts cannot possibly be of educational value.

©2024 Roger Schank