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Humans Develop Tools to Expand their Physical and Cognitive Capabilities – Our New Tool Is the Fourth R
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
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 R
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
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
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
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 R
iting, and ‘R
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
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
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
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
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 http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/289-the-fourth-r/file.html. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/290-the-fourth-
r-1/file.html. Access the book online at http://iae-pedia.org/The_Fourth_R.
Moursund, D. (2017). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.
Moursund, D. (2015a). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from http://iae-pedia.org/Problem_Solving.
Moursund, D. (2015b). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.
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 http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/275-
validity-and-credibility-of-information/file.html. Download a free PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/277-validity-and-
Sanders, R. (2003). Press release. UC Berkeley News. Retrieved 2/15/2017 from http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/06/11_idaltu.shtml.
Smithsonian (n.d.). What does it mean to be human? Retrieved 2/15/2017 from http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-erectus.
Wikipedia (n.d., a). Control of fire by early humans. Retrieved 2/18/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_of_fire_by_early_humans.
Wikipedia (n.d., b). History of writing. Retrieved 2/17 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing.
Free Educational Resources from IAE
IAE publishes and makes available four free online resources:
Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon, and 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.
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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