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A 'Novel' Approach to Education

By Roger C. Schank / June 2010

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A 'Novel' Approach to Education

June 29, 2010

I was running the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, when the university set up a review of the Institute to be handled by three professors, which was normal procedure every five years or so. The chair of the review committee was a professor of Russian literature, which I found rather humorous, since I have a general contempt for literature professors and saw no way that one could actually understand what we were doing at the Institute.

I was dead wrong. The man understood what we were doing very well and was himself an interesting guy. So, having become friendly with him, I asked him about why anyone would want to study Russian literature in college, much less teach it. His reply was most interesting. He said he wasn't really teaching literature so much as he was teaching life skills. He used Tolstoy and others as a backdrop for addressing life issues that students would be confronted with as they grew into adults. He discussed how they might make a similar decisions to those made by the characters in the book and how to plan out your life in general. He said students loved his courses, and I believed him.

Many years later, I was asked for the umpteenth time to teach integrity and compliance issues at a large corporation (for more, see "Things that Can't be Taught"). You can't expect people to learn about complex issues that are not about truth but about right and wrong without truly considering multiple options. Putting students through a simulation to teach ethics makes no sense. Ethical issues are more complex than any situation you could create in a simulation. Of course, saying this did not seal the deal for me, but I didn't expect that it would. However, I did begin to think about the right way to teach such issues.

And then I thought of my Russian literature professor friend. I also thought of a person I knew who liked to write novels. I had an idea that I could hire this man to write a novel that covered the areas we wanted to teach. And then I could ask my friend to help figure out how to teach these things online.

The original client was long gone by this time, but I was now building an online MBA program, and we had been asked to include ethics, corporate governance issues, and problems arising from dealing with other cultures in a business situation. I imagined a novel that covered all these issues that caused its readers to think about complex issues in a passionate way. If the novel was any good, it would get the reader involved in the choices the characters had to make and spark a discussion about how to make such choices. It would provide a better learning experience than simply being told the right way to make ethical decisions or the right way to deal with another culture. There may well be novels that already deal with such issues some of the time, but they would be unlikely to cover exactly what we needed and only what we needed.

I chose the pharmaceutical industry as the background for the novel since it faces ethical issues all the time. I hired my friend the professor, as well as someone who had worked for a big pharmaceutical company for many years and had recently left, as well as another friend of mine who had moved to Japan 10 years ago to do business there.

These people became the advisors to my novelist. They told him what to read to learn about the issues, and they criticized what he wrote.

In the following excerpt from this novel, an R&D executive with a large pharmaceutical company is attempting to convince his CEO to initiate a drug trial in Tanzania. The drug has the potential to cure an illness for which many are being persecuted.

"Have you heard about what's going on in Tanzania?" Scoon said, marching right up to the edge of Howe's desk.

Howe shook his head.

"They're murdering albinos by the score," Scoon said. Scoon looked very excited. In fact, he looked as if he might start pounding his fist on the desk. Howe sincerely hoped he wouldn't.

"That's terrible, of course," Howe said.

"We should do the Phase IIb trials for Quidpro in Tanzania," Scoon said.

"Oh, Peter," Howe responded, pushing back his chair and crossing his legs. "I understand the sentiment, but you know as well as I do that third-world drug trials are just a minefield of problems. It's one thing if there's no other way to get a large enough sample anywhere else, but come on. The logistics are ridiculous. The opportunities for legal problems, even scandal for God's sake. The press is all over these things. Consent issues. Dealing with corrupt government. No, Peter. No way."

"Oh come on, Gordon," Scoon pleaded. "We could literally save these people's lives."

"We save people's lives every day," Howe said.

"Yes, I know that. Of course. But here's an opportunity to have an immediate, tangible effect on people's well-being virtually overnight. We would be saving them from murderers. You can't say that about cholesterol medication, can you?"

"Again, Peter, I'm not belittling the situation, and I respect your sense of moral outrage. Once the drug has been approved, we can investigate low-cost ways of distributing it to those in mortal danger. If Quidpro works out as we hope it will, we'll be in a very good position to do just that. But a drug trial is not the best venue for playing hero."

"But you know how long that will take. These people are literally in hiding. They are in danger now, today. Don't we have a moral responsibility to do something?"

"We have a moral responsibility to do what is prudent for this company in the name of our shareholders," Howe retorted and, growing tired of Scoon, he added, "We are not the Peace Corps."

"I realize that, Gordon, but here's an opportunity to do something directly beneficial, and it's totally in line with our business goals."

"Not if the trial turns into a circus," Howe said. "No. Peter, no. How would you even find these people if they're hiding all over the country?"

"The government set up a safe haven at a primary school in the north. We can do the whole thing at the school."

Scoon looked at Howe to see if this would make a dent in Howe's impassive gaze. It didn't. Scoon started pacing in front of the desk.

"Gordon, think of this as a public relations opportunity. My God, it'll make us look like saints! It'll do for us what river blindness did for Merck. And you know the industry needs a better face. I mean, people are really starting to hate us."

"Only the morons hate us," Howe retorted.

"The morons have become the majority, Gordon," Scoon said.

"Then they're still morons, no matter how many of them there are," Howe said, frowning. He rose heavily from his chair and turned to the window. "They're like little children."

All of this ill-will toward the pharmaceutical industry pained Howe. He couldn't understand it, and he raged impotently against it, like a schoolchild attempting to explain to the schoolyard bully that might did not make right. The public wanted cheap, safe, innovative pharmaceuticals last Tuesday. Well, they couldn't have it all. Rush a drug to market and you satisfied their thirst for speed, then they slammed you for safety issues. Thoroughly test a drug and they complained about the wait. Invest in broad research and development plans and they complained about the cost. Reduce your R&D operations and they complained that you weren't making the right drugs for the right ailments. What they didn't understand was that it all costed money. Lots of it. They took aim at the marketing budget, claimed it was too large. But just how were they supposed to inform doctors about their products such that they could get those products to the people who need them if they didn't spend money on doing just that? They weren't operating in a vacuum. It was a competitive environment. The public wanted what it wanted and it wanted it now. They were the children, not him. His was a business after all. A business had to make money in order to sustain its operations and attract the requisite talent to operate it effectively such that it could stay in business to produce more products. They wanted something for nothing, and they didn't want to wait. Well, it was the business of the executive to be the grownup in the room.


The intent of the novel is to inspire readers to wrestle with the problems of the characters they have come to care about. The reading is a starting point for the kind of active contemplation and discussion that truly makes people able to think more deeply about an issue.

This approach to education about issues where there may be no right answer can be useful in a variety of venues. No existing novel necessarily touches all the issues one would like people to think deeply about in a corporation. The idea of a specially written novel offers the possibility of being able to learn by thinking and talking about ideas and anticipating one's own reaction to possible situations. If the people with whom you work have different reactions to what you all have been reading, one can begin to see the complexity of the situations.

Naturally, one might wonder if a special novel has to be written in order to do this. Certainly the "great books" have been used in seminars for years to discuss a variety of issues. And, of course, literature teachers may well find much of relevance to corporations in War and Peace or Rising Sun. But these books just happen to have important business themes in them as well as a whole range of themes that are not at all relevant to the issues a corporation faces. It's better to create a new special purpose novel that addresses specific issues that have no real right answer that a company would like its people to have thought deeply about.

About the Author
Roger C. Schank is one of the world's leading researchers in AI, learning theory, cognitive science, and the building of virtual learning environments. He is president and CEO of Socratic Arts, a company whose goal is to design and implement low-cost story-based learning by doing curricula in schools, universities, and corporations.


  • Mon, 26 Jul 2010
    Post by Online IT Training Courses

    Teach student's point of view rather yours(experts view point). Student must enjoy your class. Sometimes it has been seen that during the class students are frequently follow their watches rather concentrating on lesson it seems that they are in prison and want to leave it as early as possible.

  • Sat, 17 Jul 2010
    Post by Larry

    I have often thought that teaching through a semi-factual novel would be very interesting experience.

    At the time that I was in manufacturing, Eli Goldratt & Jeff Cox came out with The Goal (ISBN-10:0884271781.) Here was a realistic story that included all facets of life, home and corporate management.

    I purchased several copies and gave them to my employees to read then we had discussions on primarily the manufacturing aspect. I did ask if they thought The Goal was a novel or manufacturing text and most thought it was a novel.

  • Mon, 12 Jul 2010
    Post by Rick Walker

    The use of storytelling in teaching should begin with many fairy tales, as described by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. Then progress to the great novels, then to philosophy, and then to the dramatization of business and science case studies. Some dramatization takes place with authors such as John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You, and David Armstrong, Managing By Storying Around. I earned a master's in literature partly in order to better understand the personal dynamics of the workplace. Since then I've read mostly nonfiction, and have been working recently to meld the two worlds in my work and for clients. Students crave discussions, so written dialogue helps to satisfy that craving. Rick Walker

  • Wed, 07 Jul 2010
    Post by Hayley Goldsmith

    A very interesting article and of course teaching through stories is the basis for the case method within management education. The 'story' is the business situation within the case and is generally written in an engaging style. The learners then discuss the case within the classroom and the professor helps guide the discussion to reach the teaching objective(s). Very often the case discussions are lively, interactive, informative and allow the learners to understand and deal with different points of view, cultural & ethical issues as well as business and management topics. Many cases are based on real stories which makes it even more exciting!

  • Mon, 05 Jul 2010
    Post by Jessica McCann

    What a great article and a great idea. One thing my children often complain about when required to read novels in school is that they "don't get it." "What are they supposed to be learning?" Writing an engaging novel that specifically meets the objectives of a class is the perfect solution. Not only would it teach the subject matter, but I suspect it would also help with reading comprehension and create a better understanding of how fiction can expand the mind and enrich real-life conversations. And it might prompt a student, when picking up a classic, to ask himself "What am I supposed to be learning?" and be eager to find the answer.

    Jessica McCann