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Striving to Improve Education
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
“The principal goal of education in
the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing
new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”
(Jean Piaget; Swiss philosopher, natural scientist, and educator, well
known for his 4-stage theory of cognitive development; 1896-1980.)
“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions,
you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning
whatever you want or need to know.” (From Teaching As a Subversive
Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969.)
This is the second of a sequence of five IAE Newsletters on the topic of
improving education. The first of these newsletters presented Robert
Branson’s Upper Limit Theory of education (Branson, 1987). In brief
summary, Robert Branson argued that the K-12 educational system in the
United States had just about reached its upper limit of productivity
(of producing well-educated students). He postulated that our
educational system would be improved only if we developed and
implemented new research-based paradigms that break us out of our
current paradigms (models, methods). “Business as usual”, with minor
incremental changes, will not produce the improvements that are desired
Improving Our Schools
I often am annoyed when I hear someone say our
school-based educational system is not as good as it should be, and
then proceed to tell me one or more changes they believe should be made
in order to improve it. I am reminded of the quote:
“There is always an easy solution to
every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” (Henry Louis “H.L.”
Mencken; American journalist, essayist, editor; 1880–1956.)
There are certainly a very large number of areas in which changes could
be made. These changes might be made in goals, curriculum content,
pedagogy, assessment, teacher education, teacher working conditions,
teacher pay, school building facilities, class size, number of
counselors/advisors available to students, school breakfast and lunch
programs, reducing poverty, head-start programs, after-school programs,
textbooks and other instructional materials, computer facilities
available to students, length of school day, starting time of school
days, number of school days in a year, and so on and so on. In term of
improving education, all of these are interrelated and changes affect
different stakeholders (students, teachers, school administrators,
parents, tax payers, etc.) in different ways.
That is, education is a very complex,
multivariable endeavor. Moreover, students and the world they
live in are changing. For example, in the economically advanced nations
of the world, children grow up with Smartphones, Web and Internet
access, and computer games. These outside-of-school experiences
certainly have a significant educational impact on our students.
This newsletter cannot explore each of the huge number of possible
change areas. Many have been tried and not one has proven to be a
“magic pill.” Indeed, that is not surprising, since education is such a
complex system. For example, you know that the education of a child
begins even before birth. A child has learned a great deal before he or
she begins to attend school. How will your proposed change accommodate
the huge differences in young students entering a K-12 school system?
For practice, let us focus on just one possible area of school
change—the goals of education. Off the top of your head, pick one goal
of education that you believe could/should be changed, and that the
change would lead to an improvement in our educational system.
With that goal in mind, explore the following types of questions:
Can you, with confidence, name the current generally accepted
goals of education in your country? If you are going to propose a
change, a good starting point might be to know the current goals. For a
relatively stable and generally accepted set of goals of education in
the U.S., see the article by David Moursund and Richard Ricketts
(Moursund & Ricketts, 2013).
Why did you select the particular goal you named to be changed?
What evidence do you have that the changes you propose will actually
improve the generally accepted set of goals? How would you measure the
How would you and others go about implementing the changes you
propose? For example, will others support the changes, are the changes
possible to implement, what will it cost, how long will it take, and so
What are some possible major flaws in what you are proposing? Can
you give good arguments both for and against your proposal?
You know that we each have our own ideas about effective goals for
education. Our current educational system represents a compromise among
a large number of stakeholder groups. This system has many and diverse
goals, many ways of helping students achieve these goals, and many ways
to measure progress toward achieving goals. In total, education is a
very complex and challenging human endeavor.
Consider just the issue of goal setting. People have their own ideas as
to what constitutes a good education. Parents and other childcare
providers each implement their own individual ideas as they care for
and help to educate children. Teachers and other educators have their
own ideas of what the goals should be, and how to implement them.
Similar statements hold for the wide range of other stakeholders. In
brief summary, setting goals, designing and implementing ways to
achieve these goals, and measuring how well we are doing are not exact
sciences. Education is not a factory-like manufacturing process.
Information Age and
The Information Age in the United States began in 1956
when the number of white-collar jobs first exceeded the number of
blue-collar jobs (Moursund, 2016a). The Knowledge Age in the United
States began in 1991 when the U.S. spending for information technology
hardware and software first exceeded the spending for Industrial Age
capital goods. See Learning, Technology, and Education Reform in the
Knowledge Age by Bernie Trilling and Paul Hood (Trilling & Hood,
May-June, 1999). Figure 1 is from Trilling and Hood’s article.
Problem-solving, Research, Analysis, Project Management, etc.
New Knowledge Creation, "Best Fit” Design Solutions, Artful Storytelling, etc.
Compromise, Consensus, Community-building, etc.
Ethnic, Knowledge and Organizational Cultures
Crafting Messages and Using Media Effectively
Effective Use of Electronic Information and Knowledge Tools
Career and Learning Self-reliance
Managing Change, Lifelong Learning and Career Redeﬁnition
Figure 1. The seven C’s: Knowledge Age
Spend some time reflecting on the components of this 1999
table. Do you think that our 2016 K-12 educational systems are doing
well in these areas?
Some of My Education-related Beliefs
I tend to think about improving education in very general
terms. During my long career as a teacher and writer, I have developed
a simple set of beliefs that have served me well in my educational
endeavors. These beliefs help me to analyze and understand our current
educational system and proposed changes in curriculum content,
pedagogy, and assessment.
A unifying purpose of education is to help people improve the
quality of their lives.
Learning is a natural (inherent, built-in) ongoing and lifelong
process for all people. Schooling should stress learning to learn, and
becoming an intrinsically motivated and independent learner.
All people have the right to a lifetime of rich and varied
informal and formal learning opportunities. Schooling should be
designed to help each person to develop and use his or her cognitive,
physical, social, and emotional skills.
Each person is unique. Thus, we should be cautious about
designing and implementing schooling content, pedagogy, and assessment
processes and goals that “pretend” all students are nearly alike.
Problem solving is an underlying, unifying theme in all
education. Through informal and formal education and experiences,
people increase their abilities to solve the types of problems,
accomplish the types of tasks, and make “considered” decisions in their
work, play, interactions with other people, and other aspects of their
You undoubtedly have your own set of education beliefs. Our beliefs
tend to be embedded in how we teach and in our own personal approaches
to learning. Moreover, both you and I are likely aware that our beliefs
do not provide enough detail to design a good educational system.
Problem Solving and
Of my five beliefs listed above, I have spent the most
time and effort on problem solving (Moursund, 2014). Problems and
problem solving include:
Question situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and
Problem situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and solving
Task situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and
Decision situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and making
Using higher-order critical, creative, wise, and foresightful
thinking to do all of the above. Often the results are shared,
demonstrated, or used as a product, performance, or presentation.
Gaining an increased level of expertise in problem solving is an
important goal in the study of any academic discipline. Quoting again
from Moursund (2014):
Each academic discipline or area of study can be defined by a
combination of general things such as:
The types of problems, tasks,
and activities it addresses.
Its accumulated accomplishments such as results, achievements,
products, performances, scope, power, uses, impact on the societies of
the world, and so on.
Its history, culture, and language, including notation and
Its methods of teaching, learning, assessment, and thinking. What
it does to preserve and sustain its work and pass it on to future
Its tools, methodologies, and
types of evidence and arguments used in solving problems, accomplishing
tasks, and recording and sharing accumulated results.
The knowledge and skills that
separate and distinguish among: a) a novice; b) a person who has a
personally useful level of competence; c) a reasonably competent
person, employable in the discipline; d) an expert; and e) a
world-class expert. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Thus, I believe that instruction in any area of study should be
designed to help students move up an expertise scale such as the one
given in Figure 2.
Figure 2. An expertise scale. It is
not a uniform or linear scale.
Much is known about how to help students gain increased expertise in
problem solving. Moreover, problem solving can be taught in a manner
that cuts across disciplines—a manner in which there is considerable
transfer of learning, both from one discipline to another and over
time. Thus, while my comments about problem solving do not suggest
specific goals for the various disciplines of study, they provide one
approach to measuring the overall quality of education of students. How well can students apply their
knowledge, skills, and readily available cognitive and physical aids to
solve the problems they encounter in their lives?
Final Remarks During the Industrial Age, people learned how to design,
manufacture, and distribute better “widgets.” They also developed and
implemented the idea of education for the masses. The educational
systems that we now have are a legacy of a mass production approach
developed during the Industrial Age. Goals and processes in content,
pedagogy, and assessment have changed over the years to better
accommodate changing needs of students and the world.
However, current rates of change in education are not keeping up with
changes in our world. The Industrial Age has given away to the
Information Age, and is now moving towards being a Knowledge Age.
The next newsletter in this series presents a number of major global
changes that our educational system needs to consider.
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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