Information Age Education
   Issue Number 203
February 28, 2017   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications. All of the IAE materials are free and can be accessed at

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Humans Develop Tools to Expand their Physical and Cognitive Capabilities – Our New Tool Is the Fourth R

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

Historically, humans have survived and prospered through the development and use of tools that supplement their innate physical and cognitive capabilities. These tools help us solve the problems and accomplish the tasks that lead to an increasing quality of life (Moursund, 2015a).

We are now living at a time of very rapid improvement in these physical and cognitive tools. This pace of change is proving disruptive to many people and to countries throughout the world. For example, think about how improvements in transportation and communication have created worldwide markets and worldwide competition for some types of jobs; how factory automation has changed employment in industrial manufacturing; and how genetically engineered crops have changed agriculture. Think about dramatic changes in the entertainment industry; on-going research and development in the medical field; the rapid growth of the Web and Internet; new electronic aids to teaching and learning; and so on.

Worldwide, our informal and formal educational systems are struggling, because they were not designed for rapid change. The recent publication of my new book, The Fourth R, with the R standing for Reasoning/Computational Thinking, provides extensive examples of effective changes that we can and should be making (Moursund, 12/23/2016). We are not doing as well as we might be in dealing with three basic issues:
  1. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can solve or greatly help in solving many of the types of problems and accomplishing many of the types of tasks currently taught in our schools. What changes should we be making in our current school curriculum, including placing less emphasis on some areas, more emphasis on others, and adding new areas of study?

  2. ICT can teach some aspects of a curriculum area better than a human teacher coping with 15 to 30 or more students, and it can make available a broader range of courses than any one school can offer. What roles should ICT play in instruction?

  3. In the world outside of schools, ICT is routinely used to help solve a wide range of problems and accomplish a wide range of tasks. To what extent should students be allowed to make use of ICT as an aid to solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks on tests and in other performance measures used in schools? 
Taken together, these observations and answers to these questions suggest potential major changes in curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment at all levels of education. By happenstance, you did not live more than 5,000 years ago, during the development of reading and writing, which led to the first formal schools. You did not happen to live during the first two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution, during which time many countries were industrialized, and formal schooling of children became mandatory in much of the world. But, you do happen to be living during a time of change that is at least as earth shaking. You are a participant in the early years of the Information Age!

Expanding Human Physical and Cognitive Capabilities

The brain size of average humans today is about three times that of our two-million-
year-old ancestors, homo erectus. However, that rapid pace of increase in brain size ended perhaps two hundred thousand years ago. We have not become inherently smarter during these past two hundred thousand years. Instead, we have developed informal and formal educational systems, and brain tools.

Quoting a bit of ancient history from Robert Sanders (2003):

The fossilized skulls of two adults and one child discovered in the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia have been dated at 160,000 years, making them the oldest known fossils of modern humans, or Homo sapiens.

The skulls, dug up near a village called Herto, fill a major gap in the human fossil record, an era at the dawn of modern humans when the facial features and brain cases we recognize today as human first appeared.

Our ancestors were tools users for hundreds of thousands of years before that time. In the quote that follows, notice the statement about the hand ax, a tool that increased our physical capabilities (Smithsonian, n.d.).

Early African Homo erectus fossils (sometimes called Homo ergaster) are the oldest known early humans to have possessed modern human-like body proportions with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms compared to the size of the torso. These features are considered adaptations to a life lived on the ground, indicating the loss of earlier tree-climbing adaptations, with the ability to walk and possibly run long distances. Compared with earlier fossil humans, note the expanded braincase relative to the size of the face. The most complete fossil individual of this species is known as the ‘Turkana Boy’ – a well-preserved skeleton (though minus almost all the hand and foot bones), dated around 1.6 million years old. Microscopic study of the teeth indicates that he grew up at a growth rate similar to that of a great ape. There is fossil evidence that this species cared for old and weak individuals. The appearance of Homo erectus in the fossil record is often associated with the earliest hand axes, the first major innovation in stone tool technology. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The controlled use of fire was also one of our earliest tools. Research evidence dates this to at least a million years ago, and perhaps much earlier (Wikipedia, n.d., a).

Thus, we know that for hundreds of thousands of years, prehumans and humans have been developing tools. While we tend to think of the initial tools as mainly aids to our physical capabilities, it is probably more useful to think of how such tools increased both our physical and cognitive capabilities. A tool such as a thrown spear incorporates the knowledge of the inventor and is a way of passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

People growing up with a widely used tool learn its use through a community-wide apprenticeship system, and its use becomes thoroughly integrated into their cognition and world view. You can see this in how today’s children routinely make use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) without needing formal schooling.

I think of spoken language as a cognitive tool. When this first developed is not clear, but it was perhaps a hundred thousand years ago. For humans, this was a very important development. In conjunction with our relatively large brain and our gradually increasing development and use of tools, the pace of change in human capabilities and endeavors greatly increased.

It took many tens of thousands of years before the next great leap forward occurred in the development of cognitive tools. Current records indicate that the first written language was developed by the Sumerians about 5,200 years ago (Wikipedia, n.d., b). Reading and writing are very important cognitive tools, and they help to preserve and pass on information from one generation to the next, and from one part of the world to another.

Computer Technology and the Fourth R

The history of Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic is filled with the development of aids to learning the three Rs, and also with a very wide range of applications of the three Rs across the entire curriculum. The three Rs have served us well, and continue to do so. But now, we have electronic digital computers, and the Fourth R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking is available to support significant improvements in curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment.

As mentioned earlier, many of today’s children acquire considerable useful ICT knowledge and skill sort of by osmosis. But there is a great deal of useful ICT knowledge and skill that they do not learn this way. Consider, for example, working to gain a contemporary level of expertise in the three Rs. In reading, we want students to learn to make effective and informed use of the Web, the world’s largest library. They also need to learn that much of the information they might want to use is neither valid nor credible (Moursund & Sylwester,10/9/2015). It is important for teachers to remember that learning to read for understanding in a multimedia, non-linear, and often disjointed environment is not easy.

Or, consider writing. Our schools certainly are quite experienced in helping students learn to translate their spoken thoughts into writing. But, writing is much more than this. It includes careful thinking, planning, and revision. Nowadays, students can be learning to write in a multimedia environment that includes desktop publication, effective page design and layout, and the use of graphics and images.

The Fourth R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking is not just about learning to use ICT. It is about learning to routinely think, solve problems, accomplish tasks, and learn in an environment that makes effective use of the growing capabilities of ICT.

Artificial Intelligence and Problem Solving

It is now becoming common for people to use voice input to ask questions of large online databases, such as the Web, and to receive voice and/or print answers to their questions. Look back to the three questions that I raised at the beginning of this newsletter. Suppose every student or indeed, essentially all people, carried a tablet computer—think in terms of today’s best Smartphones, but with readily available better keyboards and larger display screens. Suppose every student was allowed and expected to use this tool as routinely as today’s students use pencil and paper. Also suppose every student had routine access to high-quality, highly interactive, intelligent computer-assisted instruction that covered the entire required curriculum as well as other areas that students might like to study. We already have the technology to make this happen.

When I recommend that the Fourth R be thoroughly integrated into all levels of education, that recommendation is no more “far out” than when people in the past recommended that all students should learn the three Rs, and that such student capabilities be used throughout all of the coursework they take in schools.

What You Can Do

I find it hard to imagine what life was like before large numbers of humans were literate and had easy access to books and other print materials. I can imagine that, a hundred years from now, people will look back in a similar way to the “ancient” times before computers were developed, enhanced with “artificial” intelligence, and became ubiquitous.

Today, you can work to develop your own Fourth R capabilities. You can also help all of today’s students to grow up mastering this Fourth R and learning to integrate it thoroughly during their inside and outside schooling, and for lifelong learning.

References and Resources

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The Fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from
. Access the book online at

Moursund, D. (2017). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from

Moursund, D. (2015a). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from

Moursund, D. (2015b). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from

Moursund, D., and Sylwester, R., eds. (10/9/2015). Validity and Credibility of Information. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free Microsoft Word file from
. Download a free PDF file from

Sanders, R. (2003). Press release. UC Berkeley News. Retrieved 2/15/2017 from

Smithsonian (n.d.). What does it mean to be human? Retrieved 2/15/2017 from

Wikipedia (n.d., a). Control of fire by early humans. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from

Wikipedia (n.d., b). History of writing. Retrieved 2/17 2017 from

Free Educational Resources from IAE

IAE publishes and makes available four free online resources:

David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. 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

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 Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executuve Officer of AGATE.


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