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The story-centered curriculum

By Roger C. Schank / April 2007

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School has to change. The world has changed radically in the last 100 years while academia has stayed the same. This state of affairs must end or students will be learning increasingly irrelevant material taught using ever-more-outdated methods.

Professors talk. Students take notes. Then there is a test. Subjects are taught independently of each other in a strange smorgasbord approach that means graduates can barely remember what they learned the year before. At the university this state of affairs persists because professors have no interest in making anything change. They much prefer thinking about research to thinking how real learning takes place.

In high school, this state of affairs is even stranger. In the "subject-centered" curriculum model in place at most schools, students move from subject to subject, spending 45 minutes a day at each. The subjects they are taught were decided upon by a curriculum committee in 1892 who were certainly not interested in, nor capable of, imagining the world we live in today. The school experience they created in no way mirrors what student lives will be like after graduation, nor does it take into account any modern theory of how students learn best. The experience is passive, fragmented, unmotivated, and generally dull. And, not surprisingly, it usually does not work. Drop out rates in high school are astoundingly high.

In contrast to a passive, subject-oriented curriculum, a Story-Centered Curriculum (SCC) can be viewed as a carefully designed apprenticeship-style learning experience in which the student encounters a planned sequence of real-world situations constructed to motivate the development and application of knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion. A realistic story, at the core of each SCC, provides a meaningful, motivating role for the student, designed to ensure that the student faces exactly the right progression of challenges to stretch and build his or her abilities. While the "characters" that a student encounters in a traditional apprenticeship are primarily concerned with their own-life goals, the characters in a Story-Centered Curriculum are specifically constructed to further the student's education by providing appropriate challenges. Mentors play the expert role, providing one-on-one coaching, help, and feedback to the student, while encouraging self-directed learning. Through these mechanisms, the SCC provides accelerated experiential learning.

Although realistic projects are crucial to a successful SCC, a curriculum is not just a random collection of projects. Rather, it is a carefully crafted sequence in which each project builds on and extends the knowledge and skills of previous projects, while remaining in the same overarching story context. This progression of projects is the heart of any SCC. A rich and realistic context promotes the acquisition of knowledge to be used, while extended interaction within a single story leverages the story context, reducing the need for "non-value-added learning" unrelated to targeted knowledge and skills (e.g., learning the particulars of a fictional client company).

Because real-world problems are often large, multifaceted, and complex, students in a SCC are taught to work through very large challenges in a principled and incremental way, building systematically on previously acquired skills and knowledge. This helps students understand how to break down problems into manageable sub-problems, put together a sensible work plan for accomplishing all the required tasks, and not be daunted when facing similarly large problems in the world around them.

The normal high school situation pits individual students in competition with one another for grades, and only rarely teams students in a serious way. The SCC often teams students because the stories underlying them require multiple roles, and because learning to work as team—and, perhaps, as even as a virtual distributed team—is an important aspect of many modern-world careers. The team-based nature of many SCC projects means that students can learn from each other, and it also means that students must learn additional skills, such as dividing work equitably and dealing with relationship and work-style issues.

SCCs are not inherently computer-based, and much of the activity that students perform as they complete an SCC typically takes place offline. This can include meeting with teammates, researching a local issue, building a robot, or drawing an architectural sketch, depending on the particular story that the student is participating in. However, the computer is typically used to deliver an SCC. Students enrolled in a curriculum are typically "employed" by a fictional organization (such as the webzine company, or the robotics company, again, depending on the story), and each project is typically laid out for the student in the form of a simulated web-delivered email from a fictional manager or other superior in the organization. The emails explain what needs to be done, and other pages on the website provide help about how to proceed, including tips and traps, pointers about books that may be helpful, and so forth. In addition, if the student is getting help from a distant mentor supplied by us, then they use the site to find out how to ask questions of the mentor, and how to submit deliverables to the mentor for evaluation and feedback.

An SCC drastically alters the place of instruction in the curriculum. Whereas instructors are center-stage in the traditional curriculum, the SCC places the student and his or her role within the story at center stage. Instruction is relegated to a reduced but still important support role, providing help, advice, and feedback just in time as the student works. We use the word "mentor" rather than "instructor" to highlight the changed role of the teacher.

The SCC calls for two types of mentors: learning coaches and subject-matter experts. A learning coach will motivate and channel the student in productive directions, helping the student to formulate strategies for assigned tasks and to identify opportunities for self-directed learning during the performance of a task.

We have already built numerous online learn-by-doing education offerings. We have done this on both the K-12 level and the university level, as well as for numerous major corporations.

In early 2002 we created a new type of master's program for Carnegie Mellon's new West Coast Campus in Mountain View, California. The programs replaced traditional lectures with project-based learning by SCC. Students work in teams on realistic projects with authentic deliverables, receive coaching from faculty and mentors, and have the opportunity to experience in simulation the realities of a career they might pursue upon graduation.

The programs are identical whether students take them on campus or online, the only difference being whether they collaborate with their teammates and mentors in person or via the Web or phone. Each student team consists of around five or six students. The teams set their own meeting times and schedule their own sessions with mentors. In this way, the students have maximum flexibility and find that they can more easily balance their schoolwork with other commitments they have.

These masters' degrees have been offered by Carnegie Mellon for more than four years now. The response by students has been very positive, they are clamoring to be admitted.

Now we have begun the great experiment by creating an alternative that challenges existing high schools. This alternative, the first of which we have named the Virtual International Science and Technology Academy (VISTA), consists of one curriculum per year. At this writing, we have completed half of one year—a curriculum in Health Sciences. In this curriculum, students work in a fictional nutrition clinic, sports medicine clinic, and organ bank, among other challenging environments, dealing with biological issues, medical diagnosis, ethical issues, basic scientific reasoning, and so on. In February of this year, we began to test a segment of the Health Sciences curriculum, Superworm, which is a one-week intensive experience in attempting to re-design the common earthworm in order to improve its role in agriculture and make better crop-yields. Obviously these kinds of issues are new to high-school-age students and they must learn a great deal about new subjects if they are to produce the required deliverable. Students present their theories on what kinds of changes could actually be made to an earthworm that would be helpful to agriculture without killing the worm. They propose hypotheses to mentors along the way and get help in making choices.

Our tests were a great success. Most of the students loved the experience. Those who did not like it complained that it was too much work and that it was much easier to sit quietly and pass tests. Teachers enjoyed mentoring students in this way. One group of students asked to work some more days because they knew the presentations they had made weren't very good.

But, by far the most interesting results were in the questions the students asked of mentors. They were fundamentally questions about evolution. How can an animal survive under certain conditions and would it survive under different conditions?

Oh, I forgot to mention. All of initial tests were done with students in Kansas. We hadn't gone into this intending to teach evolution in Kansas, but that's how it worked out.

As we get more funding we will build more curricula. We hope to build 100 or so in every field in which students might be challenged to think and also be potentially employed. If we really want to prepare students for the world in which we live, a good way is by having them practice in a fictional version of that world. They come out more curious about the issues in that field and empowered by new skills they have acquired in the natural course of the experience.


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