For masochists who can only learn from their own mistakes, this book provides the best way to teach them. Roger Schank's methods create temporary results that can help people react well in a situation but can limit a persons ability to think ahead avoid problems and communicate issues and solutions appropriately.
Schank's "Sink or Swim" approach of leading the learner to failure encourages educators to be clever and sneaky about the way they craft their training. He warns against telegraphing your punches to the learner. His methods manipulate peoples fears to get them to do what he wants them to do. The golden rule of education is to respect the pupil and Schank unfortunately treats learners with more contempt than he claims traditional methods produce.
The good news is there is plenty of useful insight and examples that aren't covered in other books that I know of. I have mixed feelings because I like so much of what he points out that is wrong with most training and education today. I am also in agreement on how he stresses the importance of good stories and examples and I'm in the car with him right up until he locks the doors, floors the gas and steers the car off a cliff.
Like many alchemists, Schank really believes in his methods to turn base metals into gold and is unyielding in his opinion that all other methods are worthless. He uses only the worst case examples of traditional training methods to reject the educational establishment while using the most idealistic examples to promote why he is the only one who can teach people anything. Thank god, he was there to help Enron communicate issues better to their employees. See the case study on page 44 "e-learning at Enron".
Schank's basic philosophy is that people can only learn from their own failures. He states, "Real thinking never starts until the learner fails." This is a serious flaw. Not many of us would survive if it were true. Learning from our own mistakes is how we keep from falling behind but learning from others mistakes is how we move ahead. And this is what traditional education methods can accomplish, if they are done correctly.
Schank states that "Small children are failure machines, failing hundreds of thousands of times before they learn." He seems to think this is okay and that's the way it should always work. But, most children don't need to be run over by a car to learn not to play in the street. Most children don't need to poke an eye out to learn not to run with scissors.
Schank continually refers to flight simulator training as the ultimate way to educate because pilots are immersed in a completely realistic three dimensional environment. But flight simulator training is just one part of a larger effort that pilots go through. If he would bother to follow up on this a little more, he would find that the FAA and the major airlines discovered a big problem, some time ago, with too much reliance on simulator training.
The problem is that people don't like being set up to fail. When this happens they begin to blame the computer training and don't take responsibility for the failure. The significant changes that have been made include providing more preparation of presentational information and guided practice before pilots enter the flight simulators.
Schank brags throughout the book about how people get through his training courses and graduate classes without learning anything new but that they know how to do something. Well, that just doesn't fly in most of the world. The reason you teach people a certain process and test for knowledge instead of just how to do something is because people tend to take short cuts that may seem productive in the short term but can get other people killed or in trouble. Schank's programs teach people to figure their own way to accomplish a goal. Who cares how they get there? Well sometimes, the Justice and Treasury Department care how you get there, often the news media care how you get there and usually your co-workers care. Ask the ex-employees of Enron whether they care.
Schank couldn't find any psychological research to support his theories, so he made up his own and refers to his own books for support. If you read a broader selection of books than what he recommends, you'll find that most research supports that people consider motivation to be a personal responsibility while they perceive de-motivation to be the responsibility of the system or person they work for or learn from. This means you can pump people up or scare them for a short period of time but ultimately people motivate themselves. However, they are quick to blame the system if you trip them up.
Schank's entire methodology is based on artificially imposing failure on people, to motivate them to learn. When you set someone up to fail, you may teach them not to repeat a mistake but they will become increasingly resistant to this form of training and will begin to blame the system for their failures.
Schank's psychology and methods are at odds with human nature but while Schank rejects all traditional methods of training and education, like multiple-choice tests and Instructional System Design (ISD), I can't reject all of his experience. Overall, he is too extreme and dangerous for me, but like all good agitators, he provides a unique perspective and makes some good points because he has so passionately pursued how to educate people.
Reading this book has been good for me if only to provide a backdrop and comparison to what I am currently doing. Writing this review has helped me deal with the snow storm that people like Schank stir up. There is actually a great deal of valuable information (knowledge) in this book on real corporate case studies, using stories, examples and gathering content that you won't find elsewhere. I just recommend being very careful how you apply it.