Poor Quality Discourse: Schank on Hirsch and Willingham

I was in the education section of a bookshop today, and was scanning along the books. Literally adjacent to Daniel Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like Schools?” (which I’ve recently blogged on here and here) was a book called “Teaching Minds” by Roger Schank. I flicked through it and found a section ripping into Willingham’s work. This provides an interesting case study in trying to judge two opposing viewpoints without expert knowledge — as I’ll explain below.

Willingham vs Schank

Willingham seems to be in vogue in the UK recently, as does Daisy Christodoulou and her “Seven Myths about Education” book which is along similar lines. Their area of education is not my background, so I can’t judge their viability directly. Schank clearly opposes them, which leaves it up to me, as an amateur reader, to judge whose view is correct.

Here is an excerpt of the two pages I skimmed in the bookshop. You can see the full couple of pages on Google books here, but here’s some key bits from pages 78–80 of Teaching Minds. It’s a bit long, but bear with me:

Cognitive science has been used of late to justify a great deal of what is wrong in education. E.D. Hirsch, and English professor at the University of Virginia, made a career of making lists of stuff every kid should know. When cognitive scientists trashed this work as nonsense*, he cited the idea that one needs background knowledge in order to read, which is both true and a product of various works in cognitive science*.

Hirsch was made to look like a fool so often that he resorted to hiring a cognitive science professor at Virginia, who has written a book justifying the same nonsense with more cognitive science facts.

There is plenty of work in cognitive science that shows that background knowledge helps people interpret the world around them*…

Hirsch and Willingham know nothing about cognitive processes. They only know, and talk about, how best to acquire more facts… There is no evidence that accumulation of facts and background knowledge are the same thing. In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary*. Facts learned out of context, and apart from actual real-world experience that is repeated over and over, are not retained*.

Why don’t kids like school? Because we teach them knowledge that they know they won’t need…. There is plenty of evidence that shows that teaching math within a real and meaningful context works a whole lot better than shoving it down their throats*.

Schank clearly has a beef with Hirsch and Willingham (he almost refuses to name the latter!), but such things are hardly rare in academia. Schank marauds around, using the phrase “plenty of evidence” three times in one page. But here’s the thing: the only citation in the whole block above is for Willingham’s book, which he is arguing against.

All those asterisks in the above text? They are where I would expect a citation — but there are no citations. The discourse is not up to scratch. I’m happy to read a structured, reasoned argument without citations, but you can’t use the phrase “plenty of evidence” or make other evidence-related claims, then leave them unreferenced. At best it’s a disrespectful laziness on the part of the author, and at worst it’s just empty handwaving. It also doesn’t seem to be a problem limited to my excerpt: the entire book references three books that are not also by Schank, and two academic papers.


Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that Schank is necessarily wrong. Willingham doesn’t automatically become right because his book has a lot more references than Schank. But as a non-expert reader, I at least have a reasonable chance to check Willingham’s sources, whereas Schank provides no sources. It’s clear which book is more verifiable. I’d like to read a good counter-argument to Willingham, but I walked away without buying Schank’s book, as it doesn’t seem worthwhile. Anyone got any better suggestions for a counter-argument to Willingham?

6 thoughts on “Poor Quality Discourse: Schank on Hirsch and Willingham

  1. This is a pretty serious misrepresentation of my position, given that I explicitly wrote that learning lists of facts is not what I meant and would be a bad idea: “Teachers should not take the importance of knowledge to mean that they should create lists of facts–whether shallow or detailed–for students to learn.”

    1. Dan — thanks for your reply. It seems like a pretty disappointing passage all round. For all the issues with peer review, this seems like a case where an academic is using a book to say things that would be picked up on in a peer reviewed publication.

  2. But Schank is not an academic (now). His own twitter description is “Former Professor at Stanford, Yale, and Northwestern. Now full time education revolutionary.” The conventions of debate for an agitator are not those of citations and nuance, and it isn’t reasonable to expect them.

    1. I don’t agree with this. Conventions like citing evidence are not part of the rules for some exclusive club of academics, they are simply correct practice, no matter who you are. You can’t just say “I’m an agitator, so it’s ok to claim there’s lots of evidence about X without producing the evidence.” If you’re making evidence-based claims like Schank clearly is, you must cite your evidence.

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