I’d first heard of Roger Schank’s work as an AI ‘groupie’ during my college years. His contributions to cognitive science have been immense. He was a challenging personality and intellect, and yet he fought for the right things. He passed away yesterday, and he will be missed.
Roger’s work connected story to cognition. He first saw how we had expectations about events owing to his experience at a restaurant with an unusual approach. At Legal Seafoods (at the time) you paid before being served (more like fast food than a sit-down venue). Surprised, Roger realized that there must be cognitive structures for events that were similar to the proposed schemas for things. He investigated the phenomena computationally, advancing artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Roger subsequently applied his thinking to education, writing Engines for Education (amongst other works), while leading a variety of efforts in using technology to support learning. He also railed against AI hype, accurately of course. I was a fan.
I heard Roger speak at a Cog Sci conference I attended to present part of my dissertation research. The controversy around his presentation caused the guest speaker, Stephen Jay Gould, to comment “you guys are weird”! His reputation preceded him; I had one of his PhD graduates on a team and he told me Roger was deliberately tough on them, saying “if you can survive me, you can survive anyone”.
I subsequently met up with Roger at several EdTech events hither and yon. In each he was his fiery, uncompromising self. Yet, he was also right. He was a bit of a contradiction: opinionated and unabashed, but also generous and committed to meaningful change. He also was a prodigious intellect; if you were as smart as him, I guess you had a reason to be self-confident. I got to know him a bit personally at those events, and then when he engaged me for advice to his company. He occasionally would reach out for advice, and always offer the same.
He could be irritating in his deliberate lack of social graces, but he was willing to learn, and had a good heart. In return, I learned a lot from him, and use some of his examples in my presentations. It was an honor to have known him, and the world will be a little duller, and probably a little dumber, without him. Rest in peace.