Purpose of Engines for Education

The purpose of this book is to raise consciousness about the changes needed in our educational system. Certainly some changes are going to occur soon on the American educational scene. People are justifiably upset about education, but the proposals most school reformers are advancing will not work. Though well-intentioned, the reformers are confused.

This book is about what is wrong with the educational system and how to improve it. Our ideas are largely aligned with what the historians of educational reform call the Progressive Reform Movement, which has a history tracing back almost two centuries. The radicals of this movement have tried out such ideas and found them to work, most notably in alternative schools. Fragments of these ideas, though often distorted, have even made their way into mainstream schools. But, by and large, the Progressives' reforms have not been implemented on a widespread basis. Why? One reason is that they have been hamstrung by economics--progressive programs require that children get individual attention, and individual attention is at odds with student-teacher ratios of thirty-to-one.

This book, however, does not give an idealistic view of what education could be if only we had unlimited resources. Rather, it is pragmatic. Early reformers did not have computers; we do. We are now building computer technology that allows us to pursue seriously the radical notion that we must allow children to guide their own education because interested learners learn more. Children can and will become voracious learners if they are in charge of their own education. This does not mean allowing them to play video games all day. But it does mean allowing them to pursue the intellectual goals that interest them, rather than being force-fed knowledge according to someone else's schedule. It also means that the school system should be creating excitement in children about learning and enticing them to want to learn more.

As a cognitive scientist, I have been studying how people think and learn for twenty-five years. Specifically, I have been working in the field of artificial intelligence, which involves trying to understand people by modeling human processes on machines. Earlier in my career, my research centered on the question of how we learn. Over the last decade, my research has shifted to the question of how we can teach. I currently direct one of the handful of research institutions in the world that is dedicated to understanding how learning takes place in people, and then uses those findings to develop new educational technologies. The Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University consists of a team of educators, psychologists, and artificial intelligence researchers who have banded together to produce the educational technology of the future.

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