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Integrating the 4th R into the Curriculum
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon
The Four Rs
The 4Rs of Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic (math), and Reasoning
(computational thinking) form the foundation for a modern education.
The 4th R of Reasoning
(computational thinking) makes use of human and
computer brains, working individually and together, to solve problems
and accomplish tasks. The capabilities of computer brains are already
large, and they are growing and improving rapidly. This is a major
challenge to our educational systems.
If you have not already read my free short book, The Fourth R,
I strongly recommend that you do so (Moursund, 12/23/201). I believe
that in terms of curriculum content, instructional processes, and
assessment, the 4th R is one
of the greatest educational opportunities and challenges of our current
Information Age era (Moursund, 2016a).
Reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) first became available a little
more than 5,000 years ago. So, we have had thousands of years to fully
integrate the first 3Rs into school curriculum, instruction, and
assessment—and into our everyday lives. Even with this long history,
educational researchers are still making significant progress in
improving the teaching and learning of the first three Rs.
Electronic digital computers first became commercially available less
than 70 years ago. The technology has changed very rapidly over these
intervening years, and the price to performance ratio has improved by a
factor of more than a billion. This technology is now deeply embedded
into the everyday lives of people like you, my readers. Our schools are
just now beginning to face the difficult challenge of helping all
students to gain contemporary levels of computer knowledge and skills.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
Most people find it difficult to comprehend the rapid pace of
change in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The world’s
fastest supercomputer in 1990, a room-sized device that cost over $10
million, was about as fast as my current cell phone! And, that computer
could not take still and motion pictures, or use voice commands to find
information online. It was not very “user friendly”.
The 4th R of
Reasoning/computational thinking adds a very powerful aid to solving
problems and accomplishing tasks in all areas of human intellectual
endeavor. Think about the holdings of a typical school or home library
of 50 years ago. Compare that with today’s Web that contains the
equivalent of many tens of millions of books that you can access
quickly and at your convenience.
And the change is not just in being able to “look up” information. I
can also access programs that allow me to accomplish many different
tasks that are personally important to me. A GPS (Global Positioning
System) is an excellent example. I tell the GPS in my car or in my
cellphone my destination, and it provides me with oral directions as I
Hmm. It occurs to me to ask, “What do we want today’s students to learn
about reading and using a map printed on paper?” This is a hard
question, one that is representative of a much more general question. If
a computer can solve or greatly help in solving a type of problem
students currently learn to solve by hand, what changes (if any) do we
want to make in this part of the school curriculum?
As you mull over this question, you might want to look for some
analogies. After the microscope and telescope were invented, we
eventually wanted students to learn “microscope and telescope
thinking”. These tools changed our understanding and thinking about
both the very small and the very far away.
When the telephone began to become widely available, we wanted people
to learn “telephone communication thinking”. The telephone example is
particularly important, because telephones were in peoples’ homes, and
children could learn to use them by a type of at-home apprenticeship.
This same type of learning occurs with many of today’s computerized
tools. Our children gain considerable skill in using certain aspects of
computers through an informal apprenticeship system run by their
parents, siblings, and peers.
But wait! Social networking is one of today’s most popular uses of
computers. It requires using texting and email, which require the
ability to read and write. Reading and writing are not easily learned
by a brief amount of instruction from a parent, sibling, or peer. Now
we are getting to the heart of the purpose of this newsletter. We want
people of all ages to learn to make effective use of ICT to help them
solve the problems and accomplish the tasks they deem important to
themselves and/or that others deem to be important (see levels 2 and 3
in Figure 1). We have thousands of years of experience in beginning
instruction in the first 3Rs at home, and then continuing this
instruction in year after year of schooling. Now, our educational
systems face a brand new problem. What level of ICT expertise do we
want students to achieve, and how do we go about helping them to reach
Figure 1: Expertise scale.
It is clear to me that a modern precollege education can and should
help all students to achieve a level of ICT expertise some place
between levels 2 and 3 on this scale.
Learning the 4th R: ICTing across the Curriculum
We know that during a student’s years of schooling, it is very
helpful if students make routine use of the various disciplines they
are learning or have learned both in and outside of school. An
important part of the joy of education is learning content that is
meaningful and useful outside of a school setting (Sylwester &
Moursund, 1/2/2017). Our schools struggle with this aspect of
schooling—witness the continuing question, “Why do I have to learn
One answer to the “Why” question is that the people who developed the
curriculum (the “powers that be”) decided so. A variation on this is
the answer, “It will be on the tests that I and others will give you.”
While some students find these to be satisfactory answers, in my
opinion they leave much to be desired.
We certainly can provide a different set of answers to the question,
“Why do I need to learn to read and write?” Reading and writing empower
learners, even novices who are just beginning to read and write.
Learning empowers the learner. I believe this concept of empowerment
should be thoroughly inculcated into the minds of students.
Here is an “empowerment” story. A great many years ago, my wife and I
were visiting two of her fellow teachers. They had a six-year-old child
who had already learned quite a bit about computers. He went off to
show the home computer to a 12-year-old friend. A few minutes later he
came running back to ask, “How do you spell print?”
It was evident to me that he had learned to write simple programs in
the BASIC programming language, and wanted to include a line of code
telling the computer to PRINT something. His spelling skills were not
yet up to his speaking and programming skills. (It never occurred to me
to wonder why he did not ask his friend. Perhaps he thought this was a
special computer word, and his friend would not know about it?)
Unfortunately, many students find that parts of today’s school
curriculum do not seem to be beneficial to themselves. And this brings
us back to ICT. At every grade level and in every school discipline,
ICT can be immediately useful and empowering to students. Take learning
to read as an example. We now have interactive books with sound and
graphics, offering students the ability to clarify an unfamiliar word
by hearing both its pronunciation and a definition. Stories can be
interactive. For many students, this ICT-based learning environment is
more fun than learning to read from a static print book, and can
facilitate faster learning.
Or, take writing. With a keyboard, young children can produce written
words before they have developed and mastered the muscle control and
manual skills used in hand printing and hand writing. I find it
interesting that many schools today have stopped teaching cursive
writing. Perhaps over the long run we will find that keyboarding, voice
input, and hand printing suffice to meet the needs of most people.
Music provides another excellent example. Here is another story from my
distant past. I attended a talk by a grade school music teacher who was
“into” computers. For a year, he was a teacher on special assignment,
teaching 4th grade students to compose computer music. It turns out
that his students learned to compose and edit music that the computer
then played for them.
What do you think, should we teach music composition in grade school?
And what about three-dimensional printing (the Maker Movement)
—providing students with “maker” tools and a “create your own”
curriculum (Sylvia & Stager, 11/13/2013)? ICT is opening up a
number of possible changes in our current school curriculum.
The 4th R: A Separate Course, Integrated into
Other Courses, or Both?
Each of the first three Rs is typically taught during an
assigned time block in elementary schools or as a self-contained course
in secondary schools. This leaves it up to teachers of other
disciplines to integrate reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) into
the content they teach.
and Writing Across the Curriculum
In terms of reading, all teachers of reading are expected to teach
reading across the curriculum (Hunter, n.d.). In the U. S., students
are expected to read well enough by the end of the third grade so that
“reading to learn” in all disciplines can begin to receive considerable
emphasis. By the seventh grade, typically more than half of the
curriculum is based on “reading to learn”.
Writing across the curriculum is much more successful in some course
areas than in others. In the social sciences, for example, students are
expected to write papers, and tests may include essay questions.
Teachers in the social sciences are expected to be skilled in helping
students to improve their writing skills. The Writing Across the
Curriculum Clearinghouse is an excellent source of information on this
topic (The WAC Clearinghouse, 2017).
Note that many students who complete high school and proceed on to
college do not meet contemporary standards in writing. Colleges and
universities in the U. S. often find that many incoming freshmen must
take a remedial composition course, which may not carry credit toward a
The discipline of math presents a major challenge in learning to read
and write across the curriculum. Math has an extensive vocabulary that
includes a number of special symbols. The vocabulary and symbols are
very carefully defined, and this supports the very precise
communication that is an essential aspect of mathematics (Moursund,
Math teachers face the challenge of helping students learn to read and
write math well enough to communicate precisely and effectively in the
language of mathematics. The “show your work” aspect of math education
is a critical aspect of this endeavor. Having students show and explain
their solution to a problem to the whole class is a commonly used
But, that raises an interesting question. What if a student in a math
class has poor writing skills? Should the math teacher take off points
when a student who is expected to “show your work” makes many errors in
spelling, grammar, sentence construction, and so on? Many math teachers
are uncomfortable with providing useful feedback on their students’
writing and do not want to “grade” their written communications.
Across the Curriculum
Schools accept the importance of reading and writing across the
curriculum. But, what about “mathing” across the curriculum? The third
R of arithmetic (math) presents a challenge to many non-math teachers.
It is quite generally agreed that reading and writing are essential
aspects of every discipline of study, including mathematics. However,
developers of curriculum in disciplines outside the math and science
areas tend to place little emphasis on using math to help represent and
solve the problems of these various disciplines. This also is true of
teachers outside of the math and science areas who often tend to place
little emphasis on helping students to learn appropriate uses of math
in their own discipline.
Thus, we have a three major problems in math education. Many students:
Do not learn to make use of math to represent and solve problems
in a number of the courses they take, even though math is very useful
in doing so.
Do not learn to read math well enough to be able to learn math by
reading a math book. We still have a very strong oral tradition of
“show and tell by the teacher” as a methodology for teaching math. Much
of the current teacher-presented show and tell might better be replaced
by modern computer-assisted learning systems.
Find it is difficult to transfer their math learning to the other
courses they are taking and to problems they encounter outside of
school. Even if they want to make use of their math knowledge and
skills in their various courses, they may find that some teachers do
not understand what the students are trying to do and cannot provide
Here is another story from my distant past. About 35 years ago, I
visited a summer camp where primary school children were learning to
program in the Logo programming language (Wikipedia, n.d.). Three
different models of personal computers, each with a slightly different
version of Logo, were available. From time to time, the teacher/leader
would say “switch” and the children would switch to a different model
of computer and version of Logo. The entire focus was on learning to
write simple programs in Logo, and to learn to deal with differences in
computers and in versions of Logo. I was very impressed!
But, when these students returned to their regular schools, they did
not have adequate computer facilities and most of their teachers knew
nothing about Logo or other computer languages. Much of the great
learning opportunity provided by the camp was lost because the schools
and teachers of these students were not ready for students with this
level of ICT knowledge and skill.
My conclusion is that instruction in the 4th R
of ICT needs to make use of both blocks of time starting at the
earliest grade levels and self-contained courses in the upper grades.
We also need a substantial and sustained effort to integrate ICT across
We have ample evidence that students of all ages can learn to make use
of computers as an aid to solving problems and accomplishing tasks—be
they of an academic or entertainment nature. In terms of hardware,
software, connectivity, and computer-based instructional materials,
cost is no longer the major deterrent. Instead, the major challenges
Implementing major changes in both preservice
teacher education and inservice staff development.
Developing the necessary additions to and
modifications of the curriculum content, instructional processes, and
assessment in all of schooling to appropriately reflect the 4th R.
Convincing educators, parents, and the “powers that
be” that the 4th R should now
be a full-blown component of schooling.
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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