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Robert Branson’s Upper Limit Hypothesis
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
“It isn't enough just to learn—one
must learn how to learn, how to learn without classrooms, without
teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in short, how to think and analyze
and decide and discover and create.” (Michael Bassis; American educator
and author; 1946-.)
More than ten years ago I read and later wrote about Robert K.
Branson’s article, Why Schools Can’t Improve: The Upper Limit
Hypothesis (Branson, 1987). See my paper, Developing a Philosophy of
Computers in Education (Moursund, 7/23/2005). In brief summary,
Branson’s article presents the case that in 1987, schools in the U.S.
were about as good as they were going to get without use of the new
Quoting from Branson’s1987 article:
The first purpose of this paper is to question whether there is a
significant discrepancy between the current levels of productivity and
quality of American schools and the levels required to serve the
society well. The second purpose questions whether the current
approach, or the approaches of blue ribbon commissions are likely to
produce significant improvements. A third purpose sets forth the
hypothesis that the current school operations model cannot be improved
by the recommendations offered by the National Commission. The fourth
purpose is to suggest that some form of technological intervention must
be made before any substantial increases are made in productivity.
[Bold added for emphasis.]
Branson’s fourth point relates to the idea that Malcolm Gladwell called
the tipping point. Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little
Things Can Make a Big Difference, provides a number of examples of how
changes in technology have produced tipping points that have caused
many companies to go bankrupt (Gladwell, 2002). His key point is that
new technologies often present a major challenge to companies that are
doing well using the older technologies and ways of doing business. New
and more nimble companies may well capture the customers served by the
older, better-established companies.
Branson supported both research-based incremental improvements and the
need for a paradigm shift. Quoting from Branson’s 2001 article
(Branson, May, 2001):
The conclusion to be presented and defended is that education cannot
get better until it uses the results of programmatic research and
development (R&D) to make incremental changes in the current
processes. Educators cannot avoid the difficult and deliberate R&D
work that other industries must do to make fundamental improvements.
Upper Limit Theory
Branson uses the word hypothesis in his article. I tend to use the term theory
in discussing the same ideas. In a “pure” science, a theory
(hypothesis) is proposed, and then scientists go about the task of
trying to prove or disprove the theory. Their goal is to have results
that are solid enough, sound enough, reliable enough (choose your own
words) so that others can build on them with confidence. Newton’s
theory (laws) of motion published in 1687 was very useful, but
eventually gave way to results from Einstein’s general theory of
relativity published in the early 1900s. Einstein’s earth-shaking
theory is still being tested now, more than a hundred years later.
My recent Google search of the expression upper limit OR limits theory
produced over 60 million results. The term is used in many different
areas of performance. For example, how fast can a human run the
100-meter dash? The world record time for the 100-meter dash has
decreased over time. Over the past hundred years the record time has
decreased from about 10.60 seconds to 9.58 seconds (Wikipedia, n.d.).
This is due to some combination of a broader range of participants
drawn from much of the world, better training, better shoes, better
tracks, and so on. A “scientific” analysis of this data might suggest
that 9 seconds is an upper limit.
Of course, with appropriate technology it is quite easy for a person to
travel 100-meters in less than 9 seconds. (Just think about automobile
drag racers that can cover a quarter mile in less than 4 seconds.)
Figure 1 illustrates an incremental, continuous improvement
model. Although the remainder of this article is specifically talking
about education, this figure is applicable in many different areas of
performance. Over a long period of time, incremental improvements are
made. The effects are small from year to year, but tend to occur in a
cumulative manner. Thus, the total effect increases over the years.
Eventually, the new improvements begin to have a smaller and smaller
overall effect. Whatever performance is being improved gets closer and
closer to being as good as it can be—that is, unless there is a major
Figure 1. Continuous improvement model and upper limit theory.
Our educational system employs a continuous, incremental improvement
model. Now, nearly 30 years since Branson’s 1987 article, we can look
back over a great many years of national data on K-12 education and see
that little progress is occurring in the overall quality of student
performance in areas such as reading, writing, science, and math.
Branson argued that our educational system was performing at
approximately the 95% level of possible performance by the mid 1960s.
All of our efforts to improve our educational system since then have
had little effect on performance in reading, writing, science, and math.
Branson’s article argues that a paradigm shift —based on computer
technology—would propel education to much higher levels of achievement.
Figure 2 helps to illustrate the idea of a major paradigm shift. A
paradigm shift is like starting anew from the level that has previously
Figure 2. Paradigm shift, opening room for more incremental change.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book provides examples of such paradigm shifts in
business and industry. Here is a computer-related example. Before the
invention of the transistor, vacuum tubes were an essential component
of electronic equipment. Vacuum tubes (much like incandescent light
bulbs) were relatively large, fragile, had a short life, and produced a
lot of heat. Such tubes were gradually improved over time since their
invention in the early1900s. However, it seemed likely that they were
approaching their upper limit in the 1940s, just as electronic digital
computers were beginning to be developed.
The early computers were machines that used many thousands of vacuum
tubes. In essence, the developing computer industry was stymied by the
power consumption and heat of the best tubes that could be produced.
You may find it both instructional and amusing to read a little bit
about the 18,000 vacuum tube ENIAC computer built in the United States
during 1943-45 (Computer History Museum, n.d.).
The invention and development of transistors was a tipping point—a
major paradigm shift in electronics. Beginning after the invention of
the transistor in 1947, vacuum tubes gave way to transistors. Now,
about 70 years later, it may well be that you own a laptop or desktop
computer that contains more than a billion transistors. Try to imagine
such a machine containing a billion vacuum tubes, each the size of your
thumb and each giving off 25 watts of heat. At 10 cents per
kilowatt-hour of electricity, the hourly cost of running such a machine
would be about $2.5 million! And, this does not include the cost of the
needed air conditioning.
Perhaps you don’t own a desktop or laptop computer, but do own a
Smartphone. The newer Smartphones contain more than two billion
transistors. The number of neurons in a human brain is estimated at 186
billion. Intel predicts that by 2026 they will be producing a computer
chip containing as many transistors as the number of neurons in a human
brain (Henderson, 1/6/2014).
How would you like to be a billionaire? The chances are that you own
electronic equipment that contains transistors that are equivalent to
several billion dollars worth of vacuum tubes from the 1940s. In
today’s dollars, such vacuum tubes may have cost in the $5 to $10
range. So, a person why buys a modern cell phone or tablet computer is
buying the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of the types of
vacuum tubes that existed before transistors were invented.
Final Remarks The 100-meter dash makes use of very precise measures of
distance and time, and precise rules on drug use, equipment, track
surfaces, wind speed, and so on. Our educational system lacks
precision, both in what it is trying to accomplish and how
accomplishments are measured. Moreover, the “rules of the game” have
changed over time, now being quite flexible in allowing use of
technology such as books, audiovisual materials, drugs (for example,
Ritalin for students with ADHD and anxiety), and so on. So, the analogy
between the 100-meter dash and Branson’s observation about possible
upper limits in educational achievement is quite a stretch.
We all know what modern electronic technology has done for the
communication and entertainment industries. It seems like an
understatement to say that electronic technology has revolutionized
these industries. In addition, we routinely hear news about how robots
are “taking over” middle class jobs. We are getting used to voice input
to computers and voice output from computers (Weise, 9/29/2016).
Here is a very important “fact” to understand. Machine interfaces (the
way that humans interact with the machines) are designed so that the
machines are both relatively easy to learn to use and relatively easy
to use. A typical five-year-old can learn to use a tablet computer, a
cell phone, a digital camera, and a wide variety of computer games.
There is a strong parallel between this type of learning and the other
informal learning that is going on for young children. It is not school-based learning.
Think of this from a formal schooling point of view. What can/do
children learn from their routine, everyday lives outside of school?
What do children learn from the 180 or so school days per year? Here
are three questions for you to ponder:
How can the overall education of children be improved by modifications to their informal (outside of school) forms of education?
How can computer technology and other school-related paradigm shifts make school time more productive?
What should our informal and formal educational systems be doing
to effectively deal with the continuing progress in artificial
intelligence? Perhaps someday computers will be more intelligent than
humans. Computer scientists call this the singularity (Moursund, 5/16/2015 and 3/4/2015). This singularity would represent a paradigm shift in computer intelligence.
Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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