Schank, Roger, C (1992) Goal-Based Scenarios

Goal-Based Scenarios

Roger C. Schank
The Institute for the Learning Sciences
Northwestern University
1890 Maple Avenue
Evanston, Illinois 60201
Technical Report #36 December 1992

Every aspect of human behavior involves the pursuit of goals. Sometimes these goals are rather simple, like brushing your teeth to prevent decay. Sometimes they are quite unconscious, like having your mind search for similar experiences when you encounter some new experience. And, sometimes they are are quite complex, like trying to build high quality software to effect change in the school system.

When goals are simple, we really don't think about them much. When they are unconscious we don't think about them at all. And, when they are complex, we may think about them, but find the going so rough that we hone in on the simplest ones and lose the forest for the trees.

But understanding how people pursue goals is a critical aspect of understanding cognition. For computers to really understand human stories, they would need a complete model of the goals that people pursue, the plans, the use, and the complexities that arise. The issue is this. If goals underlie human behavior to the extent that we cannot understand a story or what someone says, or what someone wants, without a clear assessment of the underlying goals and the interaction of those goals, then it follows that goals are at the root of human learning. Why would anyone learn anything if not to help in the pursuit of a goal? Why would anyone try to understand anything if not because they had the goal of learning new information from what they were trying to understand? The desire to change one's knowledge base, to comprehend what is going on about you, and to learn from experience, are all pretty much different ways of saying the same thing. And, all of these are goal-directed.

Natural Learning

If goals are at the base of the human thought process, then it follows that learning must be a goal-dominated arena as well. This is certainly true of the learning processes of small children, who are quite goal-oriented. One-year-olds want to learn to walk because there are places they want to go, because others around them walk, and for a variety of other reasons. Their learning to walk follows the goal of walking (which may well be in service of some other goal).

A two-year-old learns to speak a language because he wants to communicate. Four-year-olds can find any room in their home; they know the neighborhood in which they live; and in general they understand and can plan in their own environment because these plans are in the service of goals.

Children have natural learning mechanisms, ways in which they progress from babies with innate abilities and no actual knowledge to children with a great deal of knowledge about the physical, social, and mental worlds in which they live. And, these mechanisms, like the understanding mechanisms of adults, are goal-dominated.

Small children do not have motivation problems. They are excited by learning, eager to try new things, and in no way self-conscious about failure. In short, they are examples of goal-based learners. Consequently, we never see a two-year-old who is depressed about how his talking progress is going and so has decided to quit trying to improve. We never see a two-year-old who has decided that learning to walk was too difficult and thus has decided only to crawl.

The natural learning mechanism that children employ is not very much more sophisticated than trial and error. Children learn by experimentation, by failing, and by being told or copying some new behavior that has better results. Inherent in this model is the idea that children are trying to learn to do something, rather than to know something. Failure is not frustrating in this context; in a deep sense, learning, until age six, depends upon failure.

But at six, all this changes. Children try to avoid having to learn, they fear failure, their educational goals are to please authorty or do less work, and the instruction they receive is more like thirty-on-one than one-on-one, including tremendous ridicule and social difficulties caused by their peer group. What has happened? The six-year-old has started school.

The goals that are the basis of understanding and of learning ought to be at the basis of schooling as well, but they are not. In school, natural learning goals are replaced by artificial ones. Instead of trying to learn something because one wants to to be able to do something, like get places, or communicate or utilize objects, children learn in order to please the teacher, in order to avoid ridicule, in order to get good grades, or in order get into a good college. In other words, natural learning goals that have to do with increased understanding or increasing one's power to operate successfully in various endeavors get replaced by artificial learning goals that have to do with acceptance, approval, and socialization.

It follows then, that the main problem in the schools is the curriculum. Learning in school rarely looks like learning in the real world. While learners in the real world struggle to learn in order to achieve goals that they want to achieve, learners in school struggle to learn material that their teachers insist that they know in order to achieve the goals of getting good grades, credit for courses and degrees.

Simply put, students are learning the wrong stuff. Why? Because our entire concept of what constitutes an education has been guided by the need for assesment. We don't teach students what they want to know, we don't pander to their real educational goals at all. Rather, we pander to the goals of the system, which usually means finding out who is the best, who can get into Yale, get the top job, and so on. To make these assessments we test what is easily testable, which often means vocabulary items on multiple choice tests, and rarely means controversial issues for which there is no clear answer. We decide that every student must know some particular body of knowledge, which sounds fine in principle, but forces one to find ways to make sure that everyone has learned this body of knowledge, which brings us back to simplistic tests. A further consequence of deciding what everyone should know is that we implicitly eliminate other subjects that might genuinely interest a child. There is no time for extra stuff, precisely the sort of stuff that might relate to a child's real goals.

In order to re-organize the schools then, a theory of what constitutes a reasonable curriculum is necessary. Such a theory ought to be independent of any particular subject matter, dealing instead with principles by which knowledge is acquired and utilized in real life and relating those principles to the schoolroom. Since the assumption that education ought to goal-directed carries with it the idea that education should be self-directed (who knows better what a child's goals and interests are than the child?) rather than imposed by state mandates of what every child should know, we come to the conclusion that the very idea of curriculum is wrong. The whole idea of curriculum has built in it the idea of "lock-step," each child proceeding on the same course at more or less the same pace. Since natural learning proceeds at its own pace, and since there is no absolutely right set of things that everyone needs to know, this cannot be the right way to proceed.

Nevertheless, there are times to bend to reality and this is one of them. School reform requires clear alternatives; in this paper I propose a new method for the construction of courses. Courses are important entities in the real world of school and of business training. If we are to have courses, and it seems that they will be with us for the near term at least, then maybe we can have good, high quality, fun, and goal-directed courses. I will show how we can redesign courses using what we know about natural learning and what we understand about the primacy of goals in understanding and learning.

When I am asked to redesign training for a business by taking their existing training method and putting it into software, a curious question emerges: How long should the course take? Businesses have answers to this question that are based entirely on economics. This should not be surprising. Perhaps more surprising is that universities' answers to this question are also based on economics.

Businesses will ask for a course that provides forty hours of instruction. Why? Because trainees are being flown into training centers, to which they travel on weekends, the work week is forty hours long, and airfare is the same if you stay for five days or three. Universities can only get professors and students to put up with classes that meet three hours a week for ten or twelve weeks. Anything else is heresy and will not be tolerated by anybody, students, professors, graduate schools, or employers.

Nevertheless, we still maintain that a course should be the length necessary to teach students to do what the teacher wants them to know how to do. We know this will continue to be a problem, but we must find ways around it.

Course Redesign Principles

Now we can begin to discuss what characteristics a course, any course, implemented in any way, should have. The first thing we must realize is that an interest is a terrible thing to waste. Human beings, especially children, come with real interests, things they have a genuine desire to pursue, that, left to their own devices, they would learn more about. Unfortunately, schools, and training courses in business, assume that they know what the student should know and that what the student wants to know is of little relevance in this regard. Two important points need to be made here. First, most any interest of a student can be utilized so that it relates in some way to the subjects that the school wishes to teach. Doing this would certainly capture and maintain the student's attention. Second, what the school wants to teach may not be so well thought out in the first place. Perhaps, standard courses should be seriously re-examined to see if they accomplish the things that the school intends to accomplish.

Courses need to be created within a context that enables students to pursue their own interests as long as they want to without disallowing the possibility of switching interests at any time. This means that the concept of a curriculum must include an understanding of how materials pertain to specific interests and how they convey general issues independent of a specific context. Once a student selects an interest, accomplishable goals, in terms of visible projects will be pursued. Much of the kind of knowledge that is now taught explicitly in school will be taught implicitly, within the context of helping the student achieve the goals of the course he has selected for himself. Teaching will occur as the student discovers his need to know in order to accomplish whatever his current task is. The idea is to understand and utilize the differences between skills, cases, facts, subjects, domains, processes, and what we call goal-based scenarios, well enough to teach them differently and properly. First let's define some of these terms:

A skill is something you know how to do. If the sentence "John knows how to X" makes sense for a given X then X is a skill. In general, skills are attained by practice. Reading, addition, driving, doing cost accounting, and plugging in formulas are all skills. Skills have many components, including the strategies that are employed to best utilize a skill. People who are very skilled at something often employ complex strategies that they have learned over time in the course of exercising their skill.

A case is a story about one or more events that comprise a whole. The case may either illustrate a point or serve as a basic reference point. The point that is illustrated by a case is usually of some larger significance, that is generalizable to other situations. Some cases are simply reference points that are part of the common culture. Thus, the Battle of Gettysburg is a case. It can illustrate one or more military points, or it might tell us something about history, or it might simply be something that all Americans know about. It is a case, and it may be used to make large numbers of possible points.

A fact is piece of information that is often derived from or serves to summarize a case. (For example, the fact that the North won the Battle of Gettysburg is actually a summary of the entire case.) A fact may simply be a description of a state of affairs that is true apart from any case. (For example, Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania.) Often facts are taught apart from the cases they summarize and tested in such a way as to indicate knowledge of a case that may not be there. For example, we can get students to tell us that the Gettysburg Address was given by Lincoln in 1863, but to what extent would this mean that they understood the issues of the Civil War? The argument here is, of course, that the Civil War is really rather unimportant to know about. Far more important to understand is the effectiveness of war as a means of resolving disputes both between countries and within a country. Teaching facts directly tends to parody the teaching of cases (it just looks like Johnny knows something about the Civil War when he recites what he knows about The Gettysburg Address), and it is very difficult either to remember or to ascertain the significance of facts learned that way.

Subjects are collections of skills and cases that have been grouped together under the same banner for many years. For example, physics is a subject, and like all subjects it is made up of both skills and cases. There are things to learn to do when one learns physics and there are well known cases in physics that are worth learning about. Often these two aspects of a subject are confused so that the skills are taught apart from the cases. This tends to confuse students and kills off their motivation for learning the skill. Sometimes cases are taught independent of skills. This also is a bad idea since it is easy to forget the relevance of any case without a task that embeds it. The best sentence to help identify subjects is "John knows something about how X works" for a given X. It is easy to confuse skills with subjects since they are often quite related. For example, programming is a skill--one can learn to do it--but computer science is a subject. It helps to know how to program to do work in computer science, but it actually is not necessary.

A domain is an area of interest that can be used as background for the acquisition of skills and cases while doing tasks that teach processes that are used within a subject area. Domains of interest are different from subjects in that they tend to define specialty areas that, apart from various superficial differences are quite like most other domains. For example, for children, trucks or animals might be a domain of interest. Either of these can be used as means by which subjects such as physics, biology, or history could be taught.

A process is somewhat harder to define. When schools try to teach skills and processes, they usually wind up teaching facts instead. For example, reasoning is a process. Since it is difficult to teach abstract reasoning directly, rules for making abstractions or generalizations are often taught as if knowing those rules will help one actually reason better. Similarly, understanding is a process. But, since understanding is difficult to teach or to assess, we often settle for teaching it within the guise of comprehension tests administered after reading a paragraph. Since understanding is highly idiosyncratic, this method is actually a parody of the understanding process and is precisely the opposite of memory-based comprehension. Processes are best taught by actually engaging in them, which can often mean, for mental processes, active discussions.

Reconsidering Curriculum

A key factor in education is motivation. To the extent that a student feels that he has selected what he is going to learn, he can be expected to feel empowered by that selection and more active about learning. It is important that a student select courses and curricula that are based upon his own interests. The student's subject matter choices are really irrelevant from the instructor's point of view. For example, if we want to teach reading it hardly matters what material is being read. The more interesting the material is to the student, the more likely he is to want to read it. Similarly, in business, it really doesn't matter what industry a student chooses to study when he studies cost accounting. What does matter is that whatever a student studies must be grounded in some context. As much as possible, students should be using real cases and real situations, and should avoid abstractions. It is important to appreciate the lesson of case based teaching: real stories, real contexts, told by real people, at the right time. The more the situations being studied relate to the student's area of interest, the more likely it is that the student will want to know more.

The premise here is that one can learn almost anything within any context. So, at this point it is important to consider that loaded question: what should students learn? This is a very tough question, one prone to the creation of endless lists of arbitrary facts. We must consider this question, not from the perspective of facts, but from the perspective of skills and processes.

We have to recognize that just because we choose the American Revolution as a case about revolution, another teacher (or student) might find a different case on revolution to be more enlightening. If we want to teach the American Revolution with respect to common heritage and culture issues, then it should be taught within the context of issues of the governance of our society rather than history that we need to learn from.

The question then for a course designer who for his own reasons wants to teach American history, is "What skills would a student have that would be enhanced by knowing this case?" Put this way, courses can be designed around favorite cases while remaining meaningful to a student.

Before we talk about how to do this, we need to realize that apart from any specific skills that we may wish to impart to a student, all students, in virtually all contexts, need to be able to engage in certain processes, no matter what their particular lives are like. If there is a sine qua non of education it must be these universal processes, not a set of particular facts. These three processes are:

human relations

Every student, indeed every adult member of society, needs to be constantly learning how to communicate, how to get along with and understand others, and how to think. These processes are learned quite naturally when students are members of teams attempting to accomplish goals. Group skills, communication skills, and reasoning skills are learned naturally when one is in a group working together on a problem. It follows therefore, that no matter what else a course is intended to teach, if it has a format that includes group problem solving, it will teach these three processes, and how to engage in them, by the very best method of all: by having students experience the processes for themselves.

Human relations issues come up quite naturally in group settings, and must be faced by members of any group working cooperatively. Communications would be part of working within the group as well as part of communicating the work of the group to outsiders. Any scenario would have to have enough unsolved problems in it that reasoning would need to take place on a regular basis. The idea is never to explicitly teach these processes within a course, but simply to engage in them during the course of action included in the scenario. However, explicit instruction by experts ought to be available, from specialists, when difficulties arise, handled on an as-needed basis.

Although these processes are critical for any learning situation and are also critical to learn in and of themselves, it is imperative that they not be taught directly. For some processes this is not a problem since they have never been taught directly, thus there is no existing bad stuff to undo. With other processes we are not so lucky. It is common enough for students to be taught principles and theories as a substitute for actually engaging in a process. We see this with the Pythagorean theorem, for example. It is taught simply because it is a principle of mathematics, a mathematical generalization, that students can easily grasp. It is not taught to enable students to do anything. Similarly, students learn facts about language, as opposed to improving how they use language. These ideas are of great importance to schools, since they are much easier to test than the more subjective issue of how well a student engages in a process.

Unfortunately, most principles, like the Pythagorean theorem and the proper use of gerunds, are not worth knowing. Even when they are worth knowing, they are extremely difficult to learn without having been discovered by the person, on his own. As we learn we generalize from our experiences. Only when these generalizations (or principles) are grounded in actual cases will our memory of a bad or good result reinforce what has been learned.

This same problem relates to learning theory. Schools love to teach theories. However, they often fail to recognize why they are teaching them and thus fail to teach what matters most about them. So we learn about the theories of Copernicus or Ptolemy or Einstein because we imagine that students need to learn about planetary motion and the cosmos. But while learning about the cosmos may be fine for adults who have expressed an interest in this subject, it may not be appropriate for children. Children like to wonder. They hear about the planets and they wonder how to get there and what it's like there, and how this all happened. We don't know all that much about that stuff, so we teach them some equations that describe planetary motion instead. Children want to create their own theories and talk about what they are imagining and how to find out what is reasonable, but we don't let them discover this; instead we teach them about somebody else's theory and make them memorize some names and dates.

Teaching reasoning by allowing children to reason about stuff that interests them is a problem, since all the children in a class may not want to reason about the same stuff at the same time. So instead we bore them with facts, principles, and theories, all of which they forget as adults. But, especially with children, the goal must be to teach reasoning, creativity, argument, and such. "Official" theories should only be taught indirectly, after students have created their own theories and need additional information to make these better. This allows the student's own thinking to motivate his learning. The "official" theories can then become objects of learning in themselves.

Now, what about adults? Don't we want to teach theory to them? Here again, I would say no. A business theory is just that, a theory, usually unproven, probably wrong. If one wants to teach how to make theories of business, then of course, looking at existing theories is quite relevant. But if one wants to train practitioners in business, then the aim is to allow students to play with cases, to form their own hypotheses, to learn to reason about business and to learn to generalize from one's experiences. Even for adults, theories have only a limited place in the curriculum.

Learning to communicate, function with others, and reason are thus the most important parts of any curriculum. Although it is our view that these subjects should not be taught directly, this does not indicate their lack of importance. Everything we design must have these properties.

When we begin to teach various subjects in various domains, it is important to realize that a school might decide to have each domain have a classroom and a teacher devoted to it. This makes sense but there would have to be other classrooms as well.

For example, let us imagine something I refer to as the "truck curriculum." A child could specialize in trucks, learning to read by reading about trucks, learning about economics by examining the trucking industry, learning physics by smashing trucks and so on. To enable this, there might be a truck classroom in schools with a truck teacher.

The same pattern could be seen within a business training context. Specialists in a variety of industries would be available so that, for instance, those who wished to learn about the utility industry might have a utility classroom and a utility teacher available to them. Each specialty line would have a specialist teacher. Similarly, each skill that is independent of a domain (for example, using certain repair tools or doing cost accounting) might have a teacher (or a computer program acting as teacher) devoted to it which could be consulted as needed. Each process would also have a place where it could be worked on. Thus we would expect a human relations consultant (a psychologist perhaps) to be available. Communications and reasoning would be handled by having specific teachers who would deal with particular problems in these areas.

Students would work in groups when that is feasible or alone, whichever was better at any given time. Group disputes in joint projects would be adjudicated by the human relations subject teacher and used as a lesson in that subject. Reports would be worked on with the communications teacher and used as lessons in that subject. The subject matter teachers would teach only in response to issues raised in pursuit of a goal in the curriculum.

The primary point here is this: apart from deciding what to teach (which skills, which cases), and apart from deciding which goals best package those skills and cases, we must understand that the three processes above are the backbone of any educational experience and that they must be taught within the context of every and any goal we choose to work on.

Why Have Training at All?

Most adults because they are products of our current educational system, are used to learning theories by lecture and demonstrating that knowledge by multiple choice tests. But it is a bad idea to delude ourselves that this constitutes actual learning. The real learning that takes place in business takes place on the job. The more experience an employee has with a given situation, the more effective he is in that situation. It follows therefore that the best way to teach an employee is to let them work on a job that requires the skills we are trying to teach, and eventually they will pick them up. What then, is the role of training? Why not teach adults by letting them loose on the job and having them learn by doing?

People learn best by doing, so, in theory, we should simply let them perform. In practice however, there are some very good reasons not to make all training on-the-job learning by doing:

1. Learning by doing can be dangerous. The best method for learning to defuse bombs, or fly jet fighters, is certainly learn by doing. But it is imperative that trainees practice in an environment where failure, which is a key element in learning by doing, doesn't mean death or serious injury.

2. Learning by doing can be expensive. Not all trainees are best used in their intended capacity right away. Even if using an inexperienced employee in a real job is the best way to train that employee, and even if no physical or grievous financial danger could be caused by the poor performance of the trainee, there is still a very good chance that the trainee will fail to be very useful while he is learning. In cases where it takes a long time to gather the relevant knowledge on the job or where employees tend to not stay in the job for long, the whole idea of prolonged training is absurd. When failures cost money, either by damaging an expensive piece of equipment or by losing business by behaving inappropriately, it is best to allow failures to occur in practice sessions.

3. Learning by doing can fail to provide relevant cases. Training on the job may keep an employee from ever experiencing all that he needs to learn. Real learning by doing can occur randomly in a varied environment. In general, a breadth of experience may not occur in an actual job environment in spite of everyone's desire that it happen.

4. Learn by doing may be inappropriate for children. Children may not be able to do things they would like to do later on in life simply because they are children. Also they may be unprepared to spend the large amount of time necessary to learn a skill they may have no use for in later life.

The conclusion from all this is simple. The goal of effective training must be to repeat as well as possible the breadth of experience an employee needs in as intense, danger-free, inexpensive, and timely fashion as possible. Training should look and feel more like the job that one is being trained for than the job itself. Education for children, while not specifically job-oriented, ought to relate to real world skills. Children should not be learning things for which they could not possibly find a use in adult life.

Defining Curriculum

A curriculum is really no more than a domain of interest. When students major in biology in college, they do so (presumably) because they are interested in biology. Just as interests drive choices in college they should do so in elementary school and for adults who find themselves in business training courses. Students should be give many curriculum choices upon entering school, any school. These choices should correspond to the interests a student already has, prior to the school situation, and should build upon those interests. But any course, on any level, should be constituted as goal-based scenarios (GBS).

Goal-based scenarios allow students to pursue well-defined goals and encourage the learning of both skills and cases in service of achieving those goals. Goal-based scenarios may be quite artificial in the sense that they may ask students to do something that they never would do in real life as a way of getting them to understand something. It helps if the scenario is something that someone actually does however. For example, one could teach history by asking a student to play the role of the President of the United States at a particular period and present him with decisions that need to be made. Accomplishing this goal would cause the student to need to know certain cases, learn certain skills, and understand certain processes.

The heart of our thesis is that all courses should be constructed in the form of goal-based scenarios. Students should know what the goal of the course is. The course designer must construct a course that causes the student to accomplish that goal. As long as the goal is of inherent interest to a student, and the skills that are needed in any attempt to accomplish that goal are those that the course designer wants students to have, we have a match, and thus, a workable goal-based scenario.

We can see how this works within the "truck curriculum" mentioned earlier. This is a subject that could easily appeal to a typical five-year-old. But the first reaction of many people to this is, "what is a truck curriculum?" Children aren't sent to school to study trucks. Of course, that is quite right. But remember that all curriculum should be is a guise under which goal-based scenarios are grouped. In the truck curriculum, the guise of trucks is used to create GBSs that will be of interest to students who profess an interest in trucks.

What would happen if a "truck" student wanted to switch curricula? If we have been clever in our design of various curricula, this ought to be easy to do, since the "truck" issue is one of background, rather than one of substance. A student working in the truck curriculum is actually learning to read (about trucks), to understand physics (through simulated truck worlds), to make computations (to help his trucking company do business in simulated truck world), and so on. These same things happen within a curriculum having a different subject matter. The curriculum itself remains a ruse, an artifice, although an important one, because it provides motivation. When students are motivated they learn, so the idea is simply to get natural motivations to drive learning within any sort of curriculum.

This idea works for adults as well, although the curricula for adults need not be play-oriented in the way it could be for a small child. When adults are asked to learn something they want to know why they should do so. Any adult curriculum should make the "why" clear right from the beginning. The primary role of the goal orientation in the goal based scenarios is to answer the question "why?" The goal must be realistic for adults and exciting for children (although both is nice for both groups). When a student knows where he is going it helps him focus on learning the skills that will help him get there. In this way, a student might find himself eager to learn a particular area of mathematics that will help him perform a particular calculation in order to accomplish his goal--even mathematics that he might otherwise have found boring or difficult. In this way his goal serves as a motivator for learning.

Put this way, the concept of curriculum can be seen as an organizer of GBSs. That is, the truck curriculum would contain many GBSs, each of which would be driven by a goal that was intrinsically motivating to a child. Some of these might be: learning to drive a truck; learning to repair a truck; learning to design a truck; learning to operate a trucking company; learning to be a lobbyist for the trucking industry. Any of these might appeal to children of different ages. The job of the designer of a GBS is to take any of these or similar goals and package within them a set of skills that would comprise the steps that would lead to success in the GBS. Depending upon the goal in question, there are one of two ways in which this can be done.

There are two kinds of GBSs, natural and artificial. A natural GBS is something like learning to drive a truck. While there are many ways to teach this skill, they don't vary all that much. On the other hand, in an artificial GBS, one constructs a fictional goal and uses it to package a skill set. The GBSs listed above are natural GBSs. Here are some artificial GBSs for the trucking curriculum: increase fuel efficiency on your truck so as to win a simulated truck race; design a truck that can fly if necessary; make a television special about the history of vehicles.

In an artificial GBS, the skill set drives the design of the GBS as opposed to having the GBS drive the skill set. That is, if a student wants to accomplish a goal, there are skills he will need to learn. And if there are specific skills we want to teach, the designer of the GBS must create a goal that packages those particular skills.

A curriculum can consist of either natural or artificial GBSs. It follows however, that as we often want to teach a set of skills related to a non-naturally occurring goal, creating an artificial GBS is necessary most of the time. This would be true both in school (where designing a rocketship that could get to Mars and then flying it there might be a great way to teach physics) and in industry (where designing a course that taught proposal writing might be a valuable way of packaging skills but might not be the job for which any one person was being trained).

Thus, the "truck curriculum" might have many aspects to it, especially if it were intended to last for years. A student would begin to study trucks in a variety of ways. The goal of the truck teacher would be to get the student to accomplish as many GBSs as possible within the truck curriculum. Some of these GBSs may take years to accomplish, some would be much simpler. All would involve learning things that really have nothing to do with trucks per se but which are necessary to understanding trucks.

For example, at the furthest levels of the truck curriculum one might have to propose legislation that would help the trucking industry, be able to run a trucking company, or be able to design a new, more fuel efficient engine for a truck. These GBSs would take some time to accomplish and would be for students who had gotten quite far in the truck curriculum. At intermediate stages, a student might learn how to drive a truck (or a simulated truck), repair a faulty engine, propose changes in the highway system, write a brochure about a trucking company, or make a speech to a truckers' convention. At more elementary stages, a child might learn about the physics of truck collisions, about how to be a dispatcher, or how to efficiently load a truck. A young child might learn about fuel, and combustion; he might read about trucks and do arithmetic motivated by trucking issues. He might learn about the life of workers in the truck industry and report on this to students in other curricula. He might apprentice to an older child while he learns to fix an engine and he might spend time riding in trucks and spending time at a trucking company.

The key idea here is to embed instruction inside a student-developed need-to-know. When students want to know something to help them in a task they will be determined to learn what they need to know if their motivation to accomplish the task is strong enough in the first place.

We would want to teach skill sets that are normally packaged under titles such as the following:


Remember that we want to teach the skills that are needed within these subjects, not the subjects themselves. But because all of these are worthy subjects, the skills they comprise ought to be part of the course designer's skill set and included within one or more GBSs within a curriculum. So for biology, for instance, the questions are what skills ought a biologist to have, what GBS could package these skills, and what curricula could this naturally fit into?

It is possible to learn skills pertaining to each of the above subjects in a variety of ways within the context of the truck curriculum. The same child who might hate learning division might get very interested in learning math skills in order to learn how to increase fuel efficiency so that his truck can win in the truck contest. He might indeed learn some biology as he tried to invent a new fuel for his truck. The same child who hates reading Moby Dick might love reading a novel that involves trucks. The same child who doesn't care about American history might become fascinated by the use of trucks in the bootlegging industry in the 1920s. Telling the class about what he has learned about trucks so far might seem a lot more interesting to him than talking about a book report he had to do on Martha Washington.

Curriculum in the sense that we are using it is no more than a package of GBSs that all pertain to the same theme. The theme would be derived, for children, on the basis of the usual interests of children. For adults, the theme would pertain to the reason they are in school; "training to be a consultant" would thus be one kind of adult curriculum.

In school, curricula ought to correspond to the interests of children of different ages. As a start, and merely as point of departure for discussion, I propose the following potential curricula based upon my own perception of some of the interests of six-year-old children. It is my contention that any of these curricula could be made to encompass a variety of goal-based scenarios, covering skills encompassed by the subjects and the three processes named above. Here are my favorites:


Any of these can teach all of the above. Many other curricula could be devised that would do the same. The issue is finding out what children want to know about and using those natural interests as a springboard to teach skills, engage in processes, and kindle new interest.

Practical Implementation

Below is a depiction of what we have been discussing. I have outlined two subjects (business for adults, physics for children) and have shown some parts of what instruction might look like using the ideas we have proposed.

First, skills to focus on must be selected. I have selected cost accounting for business and calculating impacts for physics. For each skill one must teach the aspects of that skill that are independent of context. This might mean teaching how to do cost accounting, or teaching F=MA and other relevant formulas.

Next, one teaches how to use that skill in the domain selected by the student. In these cases, one might teach cost accounting in the utility industry with respect to various government regulations. For the truck domain, one might teach how to calculate the impact of a truck that was crashing because of a skid.

While this is going on, constant reference would be made to two types of case libraries: generic cases that are domain independent and cases that are domain dependent. For business, we might discuss the particulars of the XYZ Company and how they did cost accounting and problems they ran into as a result. For physics, we might discuss the inclined plane and friction and how that would affect a truck going down hill.

Last, we would consult a domain dependent case library that would contain good stories about real situations, for example, the famous case of how PG&E ran afoul of government regulations because of how they did cost accounting, or the crash of 1982 on the Ohio Turnpike that was caused by a truck skidding.

Neither cases, nor skills, would be taught without being grounded in a context of their own, namely the goal based scenario. For business, cost accounting would be one of many skills that would have to be to learned within the context of the scenario. This might be something like running a simulated utility company over the course of a simulated year. For physics one might have a simulated truck race over complex conditions where needing to know how to assess the impact of your truck in a skid might be critical to winning. A scenario would utilize many skills and would thus serve as the context and motivation for learning them in the attempt to achieve the goal.

The goal can be real or fictional. It is only important in its ability to motivate the individual learner to be a functioning member of the team and to make sure that he learns all the appropriate skills. Not every team member need learn every skill. There might be situations in which the instructional intent is to make sure people learn a set of skills and learn about how to interact with others who have different skills. This method of instruction could be used on an individual basis as well, but the human relations part would play a lesser role in that case.

Goal-based scenarios can be constructed by examining all the skills deemed important and putting them into some natural situation around which a scenario can be constructed. The scenarios can take as long as the instructors want them to, from a day to a year. They can be built in software or partially instructor led, or completely paper-based. Case libraries can also be in software, in video, or on paper. Skills ought to be taught by the most appropriate method. Human experts ought to be available for the teaching of processes on an as needed basis.

How to Do It: Determining Skills

The curriculum redesign process begins with an understanding of what skills are to be learned. Assessing what is and what is not a skill is critical to this process. Above we said that: A skill is something you know how to do. If the sentence "John knows how to X" makes sense for a given X then X is a skill. In general, skills are attained by practice. Let's be more specific about this here.

It is easy to force what we might be inclined to define as skills into the sentence frame above, especially when we add a "do." So, we can say "John knows how to do mathematics" or "John knows how to do biology." We might expect our employees to know "how to do systems installation" or "how to manage other employees," for example.

But it is important to understand the difference between a skill that is teachable and a skill set that is not teachable by itself. Whatever doing biology or managing employees might be, these things cannot be only one skill. They are collections of various, possibly quite unrelated, skills. If we confuse skills to be learned with convenient headings that we have learned to describe as skill sets, we will cause the courses we design to lose their focus.

On the other hand, recognizing the skill set to which a skill naturally belongs is critical to curriculum redesign. If one did need to learn some type of calculation to learn to do biology, for example, two very different approaches are possible. For instance, we could separate the skill sets in traditional ways, requiring a course in mathematics prior to biology. This is pretty much today's state of affairs and it has disastrous consequences.

By making a biology student take chemistry or calculus we risk killing off a budding biologist by making him focus on subjects that may not interest him and at which he may not have much talent. A second risk is that much of what else is taught in such prerequisites may not be at all germane to the needs of the biology student. What makes up a coherent course in mathematics is likely to be determined by someone who has an agenda other than helping the biology student be a good biologist. Finally, the aspects of mathematics most of interest to a biologist might be little dwelt upon by the mathematician. In fact, a biologist is likely to be the real expert when it comes to the mathematics he uses on a daily basis. The mathematician is more likely to understand, and therefore teach, the theory behind the necessary mathematics rather than the practice of such mathematics.

This problem is even more critical in the relationship between academic psychology and human resource management. It is all well and good to propose that psychology majors are good prospects for being human resources specialists. But if they turn out to be such specialists, it can only be because of their inherent interest in that subject, not because of what is taught in psychology courses. In the popular image, psychology majors have learned about how to get along with people and understand human relations. In reality, psychology majors have learned only how to be miniature academic psychologists. They know how to run an experiment, how to do the relevant statistical analyses, and how to appreciate the various sub-specialties in academic psychology, none of which have much to do with how to understand or get along with people better.

What should be done is to break down traditional academic lines and teach skills on an as needed basis. Doing this allows for the creation of goal-based scenarios that entail the learning of many different and often unrelated skills in the pursuit of a goal. To put this another way, we must adopt the attitude that a skill is something that fits into the following scenario:

a1: I need John to do X.
b1: John doesn't know how to do X.
a2: Well, then teach him how to do X.
b2: That's easier said than done; learning to do X requires experience.

Part of the point here is that, in business especially, one wouldn't have the above dialogue where X is "human resource management." In that case, a1 and b1 make little sense. X might be "to fire somebody" however, and in that case the dialogue might make sense. Further, it also makes sense that one can't learn to fire somebody except by actually doing it. This is the best way to spot a skill. If one can't learn to do it without actually doing it in practice, it isn't a skill. What this suggests, of course, is that the best way to teach a skill is in practice situations. If one wanted to teach firing someone, practice scenarios would be constructed in which such talents could be learned, and experiences could be gained before one tried it out for real.

Looked at this way, biology is not a skill, but dissecting a frog properly is. Physics is not a skill, but performing a calculation needed in a physics experiment is. Managing people is not a skill, but making sure that a job is done on time and within a budget is. Writing a report is a skill. Computer programming is a skill. Reading a financial report is a skill. Playing a musical instrument is a skill. In short, if one has to learn to do something, and it is relatively easy for an expert to tell whether or not one has done it properly, then we are talking about a skill.

Confusion arises when we talk about major job classifications as if they are skills, when in fact they comprise numerous skills that are often quite difficult to define. For example, being the president of a large company could be talked about as if it were a skill. But, upon closer examination, it is clear that such a job must be comprised of many different skills. It is determining exactly which ones make up the job that gets everyone confused. A company president ought to be able to talk to the press, make his board of directors see his point of view, get the most effort out of his immediate subordinates, and so on. These things may or may not be skills.

Attempting to determine where real skills lie is difficult for two reasons: because of the way we speak about skills and because of the way in which courses have traditionally been taught. We are quite used to courses in biology, or economics, or history, or psychology. Since the content of these courses is rarely looked at from a skill-related point of view, their definition is usually quite skill independent. Courses, after all, usually involve a number of issues that have nothing to do with skills at all.

First, courses almost always involve grades. This often means tests with quantifiable measures, which more often means measures of vocabulary (often called concepts) rather than measures of actual achievements. Sometimes, tests will test skills (in mathematics, for example). But, most of the time tests are oriented towards getting a student to reiterate the teacher's point of view, which is not a skill (except in a kind of perverted way).

Second, courses tend to try to make the student into a kind of mini-scholar of the field in question. Teachers are afraid that their students will have been in an English literature course and not have read Dickens, or have been in a philosophy course and not know Plato, or in an economics course and not know Malthus. Thus, most courses have a serious bent towards history of a particular field. This comes at the expense of time spent on skills, and, more importantly, tends to shift the focus towards scholarship. Such a shift towards scholarship means that courses will have a heavy emphasis on facts. (The "literacy lists of the field" are big here). So, knowing what a particular scholar said and being able to reconcile his view with particular conditions or with the views of an opposing scholar become the meat of such courses and of the tests that provide the grades for them.

The emphasis becomes one of reading about a subject (and being able to argue in a scholarly way about that subject) rather than doing that subject. Thus philosophy courses don't ask the students to "do philosophy" but to read about those who have done philosophy. In the case of philosophy this may not seem so bad. There have been great philosophers, the world does not change all that much in the really important issues, and an argument could be made that all the important things having been said already. Even so, the skill of philosophy, which I take to be original reasoned thought and argument, is only peripherally taught if it is taught at all.

But matters become much worse when the courses under discussion are in fields where the great thoughts have clearly not all been thought and where much remains to be learned. Two fields that come to mind are economics and psychology. Students are asked to read the great works but not to do much of anything except spit back what they have read. The argument is that they should be learning to "do economics" or to "do psychology" but it is not at all clear what this might mean. The fact that this is not clear is part of the problem.

Of course, one can be cynical about such fields and say they contain no clear skills to be taught. But people engaged in such work do employ a number of skills, although they are often skills associated with other subject areas, such as statistics. The problem is twofold. First, just because practitioners can do good work in their field is no reason to suppose that they understand how they do what they do well enough to be able to teach the skill that they have. Second, even if they did know how to teach that skill, it would still be reasonable to ask if that skill is worth learning for the student who only wants to take one or two courses in psychology or economics. After all, wouldn't they be better off with a survey of work in the field without attempting to teach them a skill that takes a very long time to learn and which they may never use?

This then is the essence of the argument. In education in general, there is a choice between a survey of past works in a field, or learning how to be a practitioner in that field. My argument is simple. Survey courses tend to teach to the test, emphasize the point of view of the instructor, leave students years later with very little memory of what they had learned in order to pass the test, and are generally a waste of time.

Skills on the other hand are testable in simple ways, are not biased towards the teacher's point of view, remain with students for a very long time, and provide a framework into which the work of the great masters of that skill can best be appreciated. Further, and this is the main point, mastery of skills builds confidence, is much more easily motivated in school, and the process tends to get students to think about what they are doing.

As an example, let's consider musical education. The argument here is that musical education ought to begin with learning to play an instrument and that after that skill has been learned, students will be better able to appreciate the work of musicians who have gone before them. By the same reasoning, if we want students to understand music theory, they should have to create some music first.

Now this may not seem like such a radical idea, since many music schools do exactly what we've described. But such a point is often devalued as we get to higher education, where music scholars are often clearly differentiated from musicians and it is the former who teach the courses. Further, high school courses, and even elementary school courses, often perpetuate the biases of university level music professors, thus creating non learn by doing skill based courses in a subject area where the skill is as easily definable as is ever possible.

Many elementary schools are smarter than this and teach kids to play anyway. The same is not true unfortunately in subjects considered more central to a child's education. We don't let children just do physics. In fact, we hardly even know what that means. We do let students do math, because we know what that means, but we lose track of why we are doing it. One reason, I suspect, is that schools really like to teach skills. Skills are easy to measure and thus fit well into our test oriented society.

But what happens when a skill is hard to identify? We know we want students to the have the skill of reading and comprehending, although it isn't all that easy to tell when students actually have that skill, especially when the material they are reading doesn't interest them. But, it is easy to tell if a student can solve a quadratic equation, which is a real skill, so schools emphasize mathematics. The point is that while identifying relevant skills is indeed difficult, one should be wary of teaching any skill one can identify just because it is in fact, a skill. We need to teach skills, but they must be relevant skills. This means knowing what one can do with that skill. The things that one can do with algebra are far too limited for anyone to justify teaching it for practical reasons alone, so it is usually justified as a way to teach reasoning. Of course, there might be better means available for teaching reasoning. It is a good idea, therefore, to know what skills one needs for what real purpose before one goes about designing a curriculum.

Creating Goal-Based Scenarios

We want to redesign educational systems so that they consist of various goal based scenarios which may or may not be packaged as curricula according to the nature of the organization doing the instruction and the nature of the certification that they give to graduating students. In any case, our concern is not with effective packaging of GBSs but with the GBSs themselves. The issue is how to crate an effective GBS.

The place to start is with the skill set. As an example, let's discuss biology. I asked Bill Purves, Professor of Biology at Harvey Mudd College, author of the nation's second best selling introductory college biology textbook, to reconsider the biology curriculum in college from the perspective given in this paper. Here is his response:

What skills does a professional biologist need? What skills should a graduating senior in a college biology major have? What skills should be taught in an introductory college biology course for biology majors? in an introductory course for nonmajors? in a high school biology course? I claim that the necessary skills are very few. Different kinds of professional biologists need different skills. The skills required of all professional biologists (Table I) are simply those required of all natural scientists. None seem to be biology-specific! The skills required of a graduating biology major (Table 2) are more biology-specific, but that is only because they are expected of beginning graduate students. We should note, however, that graduate biology departments are usually quick to admit majors in the physical sciences or engineering -- suggesting that general technical skills are more urgently sought than are specific biological skills.

Table I. Skills of a Professional Biologist

Write technical papers
Use and create graphs, tables
Test hypotheses by experimentation
Formulate hypotheses
Extract information from technical papers

Table II. Skills of a Graduating Senior Biology Major

Write technical reports Test hypotheses by experimentation
Formulate hypotheses
Extract information from technical papers
Solve Mendelian genetics problems
Distinguish the cellular organelles
Splice genes (in theory)
Identify major groups of organisms
Use pH meter
Use sterile transfer techniques
Use analytical and other balances
Use centrifuges
Use microscopes

These seemed like skills to me. To determine sure, I asked myself if I could do them. I know how to do the more generic things (write reports or test hypotheses), but I don't know how to do these in the context of biology. If I was interested in being a biologist I would have to learn this. These are indeed skills.

I then asked Professor Purves to consider building some GBSs that would comprise these skill sets. Here is what he came up with:

We should present at least two GBSs per term, although my first example might see us through the first quarter or even semester.

GBS #1: Develop a mutant bacterial strain capable of producing human insulin in sufficient quantity to meet the needs of a diabetic patient.

This GBS would be presented in the following terms. "The human body contains a gland called the pancreas. Certain cells in the pancreas produce and secrete a hormone called insulin. Johnny's pancreas does not produce enough insulin, so Johnny has a dangerous condition called diabetes. To avoid the symptoms of diabetes, Johnny must take insulin every day. How can he get enough insulin? YOUR ASSIGNMENT is to develop a way to make bacteria produce insulin that you can give to Johnny." In the course of working through this GBS, students could learn the following skills:

Distinguish proteins from other macromolecules
Use a centrifuge (in theory)
Apply operon model to inducible and repressible systems
Interpret replica plates
Map genes on chromosomes
Construct plasmids
Distinguish among organelles
Regulate carbohydrate metabolism
Culture bacteria
Operate a chemostat
Interpret chemical equations
Make restriction maps
Analyze enzyme kinetics
Sequence proteins
Sequence nucleic acids
Crack the genetic code
Create a "designer gene"
Interpret base composition data
Apply diffusion equations
Evaluate membrane transport data
Do pH calculations
Prepare nutrient media for bacterial growth

(The student would learn some of these skills only in advanced, or "honors," portions of the GBS.)

According to Professor Purves, GBS #1 provides a framework for the presentation of many cases in such areas as molecular biology, the experimental bases of many theories, microbial genetics, Mendelian genetics, DNA replication, microbiology, recombinant DNA technology, chromosomes and plasmids, cell biology, and biochemistry. Its value is that it includes these things within a realistic and enjoyable environment. One can imagine the course being called (in college epithet, of course), "Cure the Diabetic." What's important is that the course has a point. A prospective student would know what he could expect to learn, in a superficial goal-oriented sense, before he took the course. The course designer's problem was to make sure that real biological skills are needed to succeed in achieving the course's goal. This Professor Purves has done.

Here is his second suggestion:

GBS #2: What caused these illnesses?

The student is asked to figure out the bases of five different diseases. One is a nutritional deficiency, another is a venereal disease, a third is not a venereal disease but is the result of a microbial infection, yet another is a hereditary disease, and the fifth is caused by an environmental hazard (radionuclide or toxic substance). The student might choose to work on one or more of the diseases. Skills that could be taught in GBS #2 include:

Relate diet components to biological functions
Avoid venereal disease
Avoid unwanted pregnancy
Distinguish among various microbes
Culture microbes
Apply Koch's postulates
Use sterile transfer procedures
Relate evolutionary theory to pathogens
Apply health measures to avoid microbial disease
Perform calculations on bacterial population dynamics
Relate genes to phenotypes
Relate DNA to polypeptides
Use recombinant DNA techniques
Use gene replacement techniques
Offer genetic counseling
Perform Mendelian genetics calculations
Relate mutagens to harmful mutations
Evaluate environmental impacts

According to Professor Purves, GBS #2 provides a framework for the presentation of many cases relating to genetics, molecular biology, microbiology, nutrition, digestion, reproduction, ecology, evolution, radiation biology--and relevant topics in elementary chemistry.

Here is his third suggestion:

GBS #3: Feed the world.

The student is to develop proposals to cope with the world food crisis. What this boils down to is either limiting birth rates, improving the food supply and its delivery, or both. Skills that could be taught in GBS #3 include:

Avoid unwanted pregnancy
Evaluate technologies for male contraception
Evaluate technologies for female contraception
Perform calculations on human population dynamics
Determine human nutritional requirements
Relate diet components to biological functions
Use ancient and modern methods for plant propagation
Use energy flow pyramids to select food choices
Use ancient and modern methods for artificial selection
Apply plant growth substances
Use selected light regimes to regulate plant development

According to Professor Purves, GBS #3 provides a framework for the presentation of many cases relating to ecology, endocrinology, reproduction, plant development, plant physiology, human development, animal behavior--and relevant topics in elementary chemistry, politics, etc. Doesn't the idea of considering how to feed the world seem more appealing than a conventional Biology I class? It does to me.

I also asked Professor Purves to comment on the college and high school curricula in use today and to compare them to the GBSs that he suggested. Here is what he said:

At many colleges and universities, the emphasis in the introductory course for majors is on the absorption of "facts," and the acquired "knowledge" is assessed by multiple-choice and true-false tests. The course is taught by one or more lecturers, in one or more sections (often of hundreds of students). There is a textbook, which the lecturers typically do not read (although a benighted few read it aloud in lieu of prepared lectures). The lecturers are frequently not members of the tenure-track faculty.

In many cases, the textbook may be the strongest component of the course. There are a few textbooks in this market that are attractive, engagingly written, and well illustrated. However, students are often expected to memorize, uncritically, huge quantities of material from the textbook. And, while some of these books have considerable appeal, students are learning in a passive way, if at all, when they read the books. In other institutions, the textbook may be one that was written for a "majors" course--an encyclopedic book of well over a thousand pages. Such a book may provide a more rigorous, in-depth, up-to-date coverage than does the typical "nonmajor" book; but it is too much for many students to swallow without much greater motivation than most such courses offer.

While some colleges and universities err in trying to make little majors out of their nonmajor students, force-feeding them "facts" from a fire hose, others err in the other direction. The low-level approach is to settle for very little learning at all, offering passive "entertainment" such as the viewing of videos. What we propose to do is to offer a middle ground--but a higher ground. We will provide GBSs that offer the students attractive opportunities for active involvement in their learning. Memorable cases and the learning of skills will replace the typical preparation to regurgitate facts.

High school courses are taught from large books that teem with new vocabulary. Some of the books introduce as many as 2,400 new terms. The emphasis of the course is on the absorption of "facts," and the acquired "knowledge" is assessed by multiple-choice and true-false tests. The content is largely specified by syllabi produced at the state level.

Many high school biology teachers are highly dedicated, and some are committed to change and innovation. However, the high schools in general are not succeeding at their task. In 1986, 12,000 American high school students took a test of biological information. Of those students who had taken a biology course, 40% scored lower than, or no higher than, half of those students who had taken no biology course at all. Looking at those data, the National Research Council Committee on High-School Biology Education concluded that "Clearly, a great many children are learning almost nothing in their biology courses." Later in its report, the committee concluded that "By any reasonable measure, most high-school students graduate without knowing even the rudiments of basic biological concepts. The students therefore leave school with deep misconceptions about biology that may seriously affect their lives."

High school biology texts contain far too much material, much of it presented in a way that offers no motivation to the student, who then learns (if at all) in a passive way. In contrast with the better college-level texts, the high school texts are poorly illustrated and often confusing to the student.

While I claim that there are no essential skills to be learned in a high school biology course, I do feel that there are three broad "citizenship areas" to which high school students should be exposed in their biology courses. These areas are human reproduction, the biology of disease, and environmental protection. I would like high school students to learn something about their bodies as "machines" and enough about evolutionary theory to understand what the fuss is about.

What might happen to college students who took a biology course like the ones described by Professor Purves? We can only guess that they would have fun doing the work he describes, that they would not need to work for grades but rather for success at achieving goals, and that they would be fully prepared to think about issues that involve biology as they might come up in their adult lives. The students might be less prepared to become professional biologists than had they taken a more "normal" course, but most students who study biology, especially in high school, have no intention of becoming professional biologists. The point of taking biology could only be to prepare them to think about biology and science in general as needed in later life. If this is indeed the case, then Professor Purves' GBSs seem more likely to work than what is now available. It is important to remember that what is now in place in almost any introductory course in almost any field is intended to be a comprehensive overview. In other words, it is likely to be boring and tedious in service of the goal of covering some of everything. This state of affairs is simply ridiculous in an age where there is so much information and so much more interesting stuff to do.

Using Broadcast Journalism for Teaching Social Studies

One day I decided that we needed access to the television news archives of a major network for use in a new software system. I discovered that the former president of NBC, Bob Mulholland, was on the Northwestern University faculty in the journalism school. He was teaching a course in how to put together the evening news. He invited me to attend the class; he was pretty excited by what he was doing there. I agreed reluctantly. (It is probably no surprise that the mere thought of being a student in a college course, for even an hour, sends shivers down my spine.)

In order to teach students how to put together the evening news, Professor Mulholland was doing an unusual thing: he was having them actually put together the evening news (I could tell he hadn't been a professor for long, or he would have been teaching them the theory of how to put together the evening news). He created three teams of students and gave them five hours to watch wire feeds and plan a broadcast. At the end of the process of deciding what would make up the news program, they had to write what the anchors would say, find the accompanying video, block out the time, and then actually do the taping of the news show.

The students were thoroughly entranced by this task. Making the television news captured their interest totally. Students lined up to get into this class. But, what did it teach? For the professor, it taught what he wanted it to teach, how to put together the evening news. The professor advised the students on what they were doing, on what mattered, on what mistakes they were about to make, and helped them evaluate the finished product. Clearly he was teaching an important aspect of journalism.

But he was teaching something else as well. In order to put together the evening news effectively, you must know something about history, about current events, about what the public cares about, about what it ought to care about, and about what people should know in order to live their lives.

Suppose we took the journalism element out of this picture. Putting together the evening news may be fun, but not that many of us need the skill. But it may be a good way to teach current events, history, and social issues. A very dull subject, current events, could be made very real and interesting if putting together the evening news was the goal driving this learning.

This is what we did when we built a program called Broadcast News. Students using this program work with real news sources for a day in the recent past. The stories they are assigned are selected on the basis of the important social studies issues they touch on. The tasks the students must perform require them to understand those issues. Subject-matter experts are available to answer students' questions about the stories, and to challenge decisions that the students make.

Broadcast News supplies the student with all the tools and materials needed to put a show together. These include the following:

* Facilities for editing text and video

* Wire service copy and video feed

* Background material including old articles and newscasts, and a library of reference works

* A teleprompter, video camera, and computer-controlled VCR (which allows the student to achor the show they develop and produce a tape of it)

The facilities closely mimic those typically available to personnel producing a real local news show. The only major difference is that while a real station works with live news feeds and breaking stories, the student works with stored news feeds for a day in the recent past.

In addition to the production facilities, the program supplies subject-matter experts, captured on video disk, who provide teaching if they are asked to do so, or if the student has made a serious error. The experts challenge the students' decisions, answer their questions, and advise them on possible courses of action.

When a student is developing a story he has to acquire any background information he doesn't already have. When reviewing a rough draft of a story that his writers have produced, the student is forced to think about the story in order to do a good job. Are the facts reported in the story accurate? Is the story clear? Is the story biased? Are the issues covered really the most important ones? Is anything important left out? These are the kinds of questions that the journalism task requires the student to think about.

It takes a team of people to put together a real TV news show. Once the raw material has been collected from reporters and wire services, the team needed to turn that material into a show includes producers, writers, video editors, and anchors. During each session with Broadcast News, the student plays one or more of these roles. The roles not played by the student are played by the computer. In the earliest sessions, the student is given a very limited role; the computer does almost everything. As the student becomes comfortable with tasks involved, his responsibilities are increased. Eventually the student can take over all aspects of the newscast, including selecting which stories to put on the air, sequencing the stories in the show, writing them, and finally anchoring them. The reason for phasing in responsibilities is to teach the student about his journalistic challenges gently, so that the mechanics of the job do not distract from the student's main focus, which is learning about the subjects of the stories.

Broadcast News is fun. It relates to a world that children are inherently interested in and want to know more about. It does not relate to intrinsic goals exactly (children probably don't wake up in the morning wishing they were putting together the evening news), but it does relate to a goal children can easily be induced to have. And, I claim, it is a heck of a lot better way to teach history and current events than most of the methods now in practice in high schools.

Sickle Cell Counselor

Perhaps the most important point that can be learned from Broadcast News is that what might seem like inherently passive learning situations can be transformed into active ones with a little thought. Professor Mulholland was trying to teach students to put together the evening news; if student learned about history and current events in his course, they did so only incidentally. The course was particularly exciting to me because it showed me how to make a dull subject exciting to high schools students.

The challenge was to figure out how to find active learning no matter what the setting. A new opportunity of this sort arose recently at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The museum was interested in teaching visitors about Sickle Cell disease. Previously when computer software designers faced such a task they could do nothing better than writing a program that allowed museum visitors to take a quiz, watch some animation or video, or click a mouse for another page of information. We decided instead to train museum visitors to be genetic counselors, using a program called Sickle Cell Counselor.

The interaction in Sickle Cell Counselor is organized around four activities: Asking Experts, Doing Lab Tests, Calculating Risks, and Advising the Clients. Each activity is available to be visited and re-visited, in whatever sequence the student desires. All of this happens within the context of the museum visitor playing the role of a genetic counselor for couples contemplating marriage and having children.

A guide serves as the voice of the tutor, offering help and suggestions regarding not only how to navigate through the program, but also what to look for and what to try next. A geneticist and a doctor are introduced and are available to provide expert knowledge at appropriate times. A lab technician also supplies expertise, but in addition helps the student with the mechanics of a simulated blood lab. This simulated lab is available because an important step in determining clients' risk factors for sickle cell is identifying their hemoglobin types. The blood lab gives the student a chance to draw samples from each client, view them under a microscope, and perform a conclusive lab test. Users can see what red cells (both healthy and sickled) look like and can identify hemoglobin types by their differing electrical properties. The student's goal, though, isn't to "learn about red cells and hemoglobin", but to identify the clients' gene types. In pursuing this goal, a student acquires some level of understanding of the concepts related to sickle cell disease.

Sickle Cell proved to be a popular exhibit as the museum. Users spent more than a few minutes there, some for longer than thirty minutes. But more importantly, by using the idea of goal-directed learning, we made what was an initially passive idea, to get information about sickle cell disease into the minds of the general public, into an active experience. Active learning is simply better than passive reception of information. The trick is to figure out, as we did, how to make active situations out of seemingly passive ones.

Students should have control over where to go and what to do when they're learning. By allowing a student to determine which activities to pursue when, they have a greater feeling of being in control of their learning, their interest is better engaged and they can better follow paths of inquiry relating to their individual interests.

The student's active role in learning should go beyond simply having a computer program react to the student's selections; all interactive programs do this by definition. Rather, the goal is to create a role in which the student actively directs the state of the program or the behaviors of simulated agents. This is why, for example, the Sickle Cell student is the counselor rather than a client.

Sickle Cell Counselor contains a great deal of information. When students are naturally motivated, when they already want to know, simply presenting that information in an easy to access form is sufficient. But, when one cannot rely upon a naturally motivated student one not only has to induce the goal, one has to make the student seek the information that you want to present to him.


The intent of a goal based scenario is to provide motivation, a sense of accomplishment, a support system, and a focus on skills rather than facts. Facts can be deceptive, they give the sense of knowing without the significance of knowing. Understanding why you are doing something, having a clear goal that is more than the recitation of facts, truly knowing why and wanting to know more so that one can become curious about more "whys" is what education is all about. Goal based scenarios, interrupted by good telling of important cases, offer a reasonable framework for courses that are meant to be the means of education.