In Memoriam: Roger Schank (March 12, 1946 – Jan. 29, 2023)

In Memoriam: Roger Schank (March 12, 1946 – Jan. 29, 2023)

Headshot of Roger SchankRoger Schank, who work gave birth to the field of learning sciences, died on Jan. 29 in Shelburne, Vt.Roger Schank, an outspoken theorist and researcher in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, founded the interdisciplinary Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) at Northwestern University in 1989. His vision gave birth to an entirely new interdisciplinary field of academic research: Learning Sciences.

Schank’s pioneering Institute led to the nation’s first doctoral program in learning sciences at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. That program, founded and directed by former Dean Roy Pea, has since been replicated nationwide and is offered by 65 universities around the world.

The School of Education and Social Policy, meanwhile, became the first school in the nation to offer learning sciences at the undergraduate level in 2016.

“Roger was an intellectual giant, however disputatious he was,” said Pea, who was recruited to Northwestern by Schank in 1991 and is now the David Jacks Professor of Education and Learning Sciences at Stanford University. “He has been a key figure in the history of cognitive sciences from the time he was in his 20’s. He was brilliantly creative.”

Schank, professor emeritus of computer science at Northwestern Engineering, joined Northwestern in 1989 as the John Evans Professor of Computer Science, Education, and Psychology to establish ILS through a 10-year, $30 million grant from Andersen Consulting.

The ILS included a full-time staff of programmers, graphic artists, and content specialists in addition to faculty and graduate students from the School of Education and Social Policy, the McCormick School of Engineering and the Department of Psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The team — 200 members strong at its height — brought together people who studied cognitive science and who were also intrigued by learning and education, which at the time were considered separate disciplines. “His core emphasis was bringing cognition and computing together,” Pea said. “We added cultural context as the third keystone emphasis of the Learning Sciences doctoral program."

Schank was known for visionary and provocative views – his blog was aptly titled “Education Outrage.” In his book “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools,” he argued that cognitive abilities are more important than subjects like algebra and chemistry.

“We need to begin teaching people to reason well enough to make sensible political and life choices,” he wrote in 2012. “This is a very important idea in a democracy.”

His work has remained relevant over the decades, even cutting edge. His 1995 book Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence was cited by Forbes this year as one of the top three “Obscure Business Storytelling Books” that leaders should read for its “insights into human relationships, interaction, and collective intelligence.”

A prolific writer, Schank authored more than 125 academic articles and 30 books. He was a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and cofounded the academic journal Cognitive Science in 1977. Two years later, he founded the Cognitive Science Society.

“He was an enormously influential figure - it's not an exaggeration to say that the arc of my entire professional career was set under his influence,” said Jon Revelos, who earned his master’s in computer science at the ILS in 1994 and is now principal owner of Knowledge Narratives.

“He was always a presence as I considered learning design ideas and weighed the hype of the latest AI evolvement, such as ChatGPT,” Revelos said. “He'll be missed by many. I was lucky to have spent some time with him firsthand.”

Prior to joining Northwestern, Schank was a professor at Stanford from 1968 to 1973, and at Yale University from 1974 to 1989. At Yale, he co-created the Yale Cognitive Science program where SESP's Brian Reiser, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Learning Sciences, received his PhD from in 1983.

Schank founded multiple learning technologies companies, including Socratic Arts, Cognitive Arts, Cognitive Systems. Inc., and CompuTeach, Inc. He was also the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Engines for Education.

One of his gifts, said Pea, was a supernatural ability to actively listen and deeply engage with one’s ideas. “Everyone – professors and students alike–learned something important in every conversation we had with Roger because he was a lightning mind,” said Pea, the director of the Learning Sciences and Technology Design doctoral program at Stanford. “He would listen very carefully, think about what you were saying and seek to make a model or figure out the big picture. If he agreed with it, he would ask questions to expand on it.”

And if he didn’t agree?

“He would pop your balloons for things that you thought and give you evidence for why you should think otherwise,” Pea said.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/13/23