Information Age Education
   Issue Number 208
April 30, 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 back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; 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.

My Simplified View of Some Problems of Education

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

Our schooling system is huge, complex, and expensive. Moreover, schooling is just part of our overall informal and formal educational systems, and these are beset with many problems. In this IAE Newsletter, I share a few of my insights into understanding and dealing with some of these problems.

Learning

“An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages.” (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle; French scientist, philosopher, mathematician, and writer; 1657-1757.)

Your mind/body is learning all the time: a) when you are awake and when you are asleep; and b) throughout your waking hours, whether you are in school or not. Schools are important, but they contribute only part of a person’s lifelong learning.

Our informal and formal educational systems have a great many intertwined goals. My simplified view of the goal of all learning is summarized by the statement:

I believe that the overall and unifying goal of learning (via a lifetime of informal and formal education) is to develop and maintain cognitive, moral, physical, and spiritual knowledge and skills that help learners to solve or in other ways to cope with the problems they encounter.

Two major sub-goals in learning are:
  1. Learn to learn and to make effective use of available aids to learning. There are many aids to learning. Each person can develop skills in using the available aids that are most productive for the person and for the specific learning task at hand.

  2. Learn to make effective use of available feedback. Feedback can come from the learner (self-feedback, introspection, metacognition), from external sources, or from some combination of the two. For example, when a student makes use of an answer in the back of the textbook, the student and the book work together to provide feedback.
I use a very broad definition of problem. My definition includes dealing with problems such as: growing up to be a responsible and contributing member of our society; developing people skills; and becoming a lifelong learner who can adjust to the changes that are going on in the world.

Definition of Problem

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it.” (W.C. Fields; American comedian and actor; 1880-1946.)

I have written extensively about problems and problem solving (Moursund, 2016). Here is a brief summary of three key ideas:

Defining the Term Problem

You (personally) have a problem if the following four conditions are satisfied:
  1. You have a clearly defined given initial situation.
  2. You have a clearly defined goal (a desired end situation). Some writers talk about having multiple goals in a problem. However, such a multiple-goal situation can be broken down into a set of single-goal problems.
  3. You have a clearly defined set of resources that may be applicable in helping you move from the given initial situation to the desired goal situation. These typically include some of your time, knowledge, and skills. Resources might include money, the Web, the telecommunications system, computers, libraries, friends, teachers, and so on. There may be specified limitations on resources, such as rules, regulations, guidelines, and time lines.
  4. You have some ownership—you are committed to using some of your own resources, such as your knowledge, skills, time, and energy, to achieve the desired final goal.
I believe these four aspects of a personal problem should be carefully and thoroughly integrated into schooling in all subject areas and at all grade levels. However, students should also learn that not every problem they or other people encounter is solvable. The above quote from W. C. Fields provides an amusing reminder of this fact.

A somewhat modified definition of problem is needed when we want to consider the fact that our schools are not as good as they could or should be. Who has the resources and who has ownership? It is common to say “they” should do something. Who is the “they,” and what resources and authority (ability to take action) do “they” have?

I believe it is very important for students to learn about personally dealing with problems in which they have personal ownership and resources. Students also need to experience and learn about the types of problems faced by the ubiquitous “they,” when the students themselves may currently be or eventually will be part of the “they.”

Think about schools in which a broad cross section of students come together to learn, and compare these with schools for specific restricted groups, or with online schools. Schools in which students come together as a group, learn together, learn to function in a group setting, and learn to help each other learn also provide an opportunity for students to learn about different types of “they.” This reminds me of the Pogo comic strip quote:

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Walt Kelly; American cartoonist; 1913-1973.)
 
The Term Problem Includes:
  • Decision situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and making good decisions.
  • Problem situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and then solving problems.
  • Question situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and answering questions.
  • Task situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and accomplishing tasks.
I believe such recognition, posing, clarification, and subsequent action can and should be thoroughly integrated into schooling in all subject areas and at all grade levels.

Said more poetically, I believe students should learn to view education through problem-solving-colored glasses. Thus, I want students to routinely ask their teachers, “What problems are we going to learn to solve today?” rather than just, “What are we going to learn today?” I want parents to ask their children who are returning from a day at school, “What problems did you learn to solve today?” rather than just, “What did you do in school today?”

Problem Solving Often Requires:
  • Using higher-order critical, creative, wise, and foresightful thinking. Often the results from working on and solving a problem are a basis for personal action, and may be shared, demonstrated, or used in a product, performance, or presentation.
  • Making effective use of aids to problem solving such as available tools and the available accumulated knowledge of others. For example, think about the tools provided by the discipline of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). See my free book, The Fourth R, that discusses using a combination of computer intelligence and human intelligence to solve problems and accomplish tasks (Moursund, 12/23/2016).
Each of us solves or deals with a very large number of problems in our daily lives. Many are trivial, such as “What socks should I wear today?” and “How do I put on a sock?” Some are much more complex, such as “How can I make and follow a budget that allows me to accumulate substantial savings for my retirement years?” and “What can I personally do to improve education?”

The ICT aspects of the final bulleted item given above certainly represents one of the most complex problems our formal educational systems currently face. However, we have a very long history of successfully dealing with learning to use new tools and dealing with the society-changing aspects of these new tools.

Some History of Humans as Tool Users

Long before recorded history, proto humans and then more modern humans developed tools to aid their physical and cognitive capabilities. Fire and clubs, considered as tools, were discovered and used by proto humans well over a million years ago. Knowledge and skills about making and using such tools was readily passed on from adults to children, preserving the knowledge and related skills from generation to generation.

This fundamental aspect of teaching and learning still exists. For hundreds of thousands of years, adults have taught their knowledge and skills to their children, and expected their children to learn to make effective use of what was being taught. We can view this as a type of apprenticeship. By imitation and personal instruction, children learned to do what adults were doing, and were expected to help adults in performing these tasks.

Now, move forward a million years or so. During that million years, more and better tools were developed. Both making some of these tools and gaining a high level of expertise in using the tools became more and more of a challenge. This led to specializations in making some tools, and specialization of users who developed a high level of expertise in using a particular tool or set of tools.

The development of speech (think of speech as a tool) a hundred thousand or so years ago greatly changed human civilization. Newborn children have the innate capabilities to learn oral communication. The home environment of an extended family creates an apprenticeship type of learning situation that is very effective. A hundred thousand years ago, children did not go to school to learn oral communication in one or more languages.

Now, move forward to the time when humans developed the tools we call reading and writing a little more than 5,000 years ago. A child does not learn to read and write by watching and imitating an adult. So, adults developed the ideas of schools in which students received specific instruction in reading and writing over an extended period of time. Relatively early on, such schools also taught math problem-solving methodologies that made use of reading and writing.

In the historically early years of reading and writing, the goal was for learners to develop a level of skill that was useful in business, government, and religion. Such activities required only a modest number of reading and writing employees, so there was little need for or value in teaching the broad population to read and write. Thus, use of one of the most important tools ever developed by humans was initially limited to a modest number of people.

Gradually, humans began to develop libraries of written documents, and larger numbers of people began to benefit from knowing how to read and write. They also learned to perform arithmetic and other math using methodologies that required reading and writing.

The Industrial Revolution contributed greatly to the development of more schools and to required schooling. Initially, in England, schools were developed to keep young children out of the factories and off the streets. Later, as the British Empire grew, students with good skills in the 3Rs were in high demand to work as clerical staff.

Eventually, people decided it was highly desirable for many—and nowadays essentially all—children to learn the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, humans have developed more and more tools, and have accumulated more and more knowledge. A good, modern education requires far more than just learning the 3 Rs.

We now have ICT! Consider the following two-part question:

If a computer system can solve or greatly help in solving a type of problem that we currently teach students about in school, what do we want today’s students to learn about solving this type of problem? For example, what math do we want students to learn to solve using pencil-and-paper versus learn to solve using a computer?

If a computer can solve or greatly help in solving an important type of problem that students are not currently learning to solve in school, what should students be learning about this type of problem? For example, what do we want students to learn about genetic engineering, global weather forecasting, robots and other computerized and artificially intelligent machines, and the vast amounts of information (“big data”) being collected on us—all of which depend heavily on the use of computers.

A Longstanding Problem in Improving Education

Well over 2,000 years ago, Plato made an important observation:

“When you spoke of a nature gifted or not gifted in any respect, did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application no sooner learns then he forgets.” (Plato; Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world; 428/427 BC-348/347 BC.)

In a nutshell, Plato describes one of our longstanding and still current problems in education. Students vary considerably in their innate capabilities and interests. We want all students to develop contemporary knowledge and skills, not only in the 3Rs, but in many other areas. However, people have varying opinions on the extent that all children should learn to play a musical instrument, sing, dance and create art; participate in a variety of athletic activities; study the history of their state or province, nation, and the world; master a substantial amount of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; as well as be introduced to a host of other knowledge and skills areas.

In terms of innate cognitive and physical capabilities, no two people (not even identical twins) are the same. Moreover, a person’s physical self and cognitive self change from day to day. The advantages for each student of having one or more highly qualified personal physical trainers and cognitive tutors is evident. Perhaps less evident, but also perhaps equally important, is the value of having well-qualified personal help in developing one’s “people” and psychological knowledge and skills. However, all of this becomes prohibitively expensive in terms of providing all children with such a good education!

Our current schooling systems are a product of some 5,000 years of trial and error. There also has been more carefully designed research and development in the areas of: a) curriculum content; b) teaching methodology and aids to learning; and c) formative, summative, and long term residual impact assessment. Over the past 65 years, we have developed very powerful (and steadily improving) ICT-based aids in each of these three areas.

Final Remarks

It is easy to be critical of our informal and formal educational systems. It is more difficult to agree on, develop, and implement cost-effective improvements. My simplified view of the problems of education helps me to quickly analyze proposed ways to improve our educational systems.

Here is an example to think about. In the “good old days,” one measure of the quality of a school was the number of books, magazines, and other materials made available to students. Now, both at school and quite often at home, students have easy access to the Web, which is by far the world’s largest library.

Consider this conjecture and question:

If our overall educational systems could be substantially improved by providing all students with easy access to this huge library, then our schools would by now be much improved. Why hasn’t this new computer access to the Web substantially improved our schools?

Perhaps one answer is that the ability of students to solve meaningful problems has indeed been significantly improved by this Web access, but our assessment systems fail to measure this improvement. Think what is measured in an open book exam versus what is measured in a closed book exam. Then make an analogy to an open computer exam versus a closed computer exam. The open computer exam is much more similar to situations students will face in life once they get outside of the school classroom environment.

This single example helps to illustrate a major challenge to improving schools. We not only have to consider possible changes, we also have to consider how to assess the overall quality of education students will obtain when these changes are implemented. It is easy to talk about the need for authentic assessment (Wiggins, 1/29/2014). It is an added challenge to design curriculum and assessment that will prove to be relevant well into a student’s future. 

Most of my long professional career has been spent studying and teaching about roles of ICT to help improve curriculum content, teaching, and assessment. I believe that our educational systems have made significant, but relatively slow, progress in such uses of ICT.

However, the pace of change is accelerating. In the United States and in many other countries, it is now financially feasible to provide every student with good computer hardware and software, connectivity, access to information, and access to highly interactive, high quality, intelligent computer-assisted instruction. It will be interesting to see how this changes education and whether the resulting changes can convince most people that our educational systems have indeed been substantially improved.

I like to read books about utopias and dystopias. Will technology gradually obviate the need for most people to have paying jobs? Will computers take over the world? Many of today’s children will live to see answers to such questions.

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. (10/29/2016). Good curriculum instruction, and assessment. IAE-Blog. Retrieved 3/27/2017 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/good-curriculum-instruction-and-assessment.html.

Moursund, D. (2016). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/3/2017 from http://iae-pedia.org/Problem_Solving.

Moursund, D. (2016). Computational thinking. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 3/27/2017 from http://iae-pedia.org/Computational_Thinking.

Wiggins, G. (1/29/2014). Twenty-seven characteristics of authentic assessment.
Retrieved 4/14/2017 from http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/assessment/27-characteristics-of-authentic-assessment/.

Wikipedia (n.d.). Pogo (comic strip). Retrieved 4/3/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip).

References and Resources

IAE publishes and makes available four free online resources:

Author

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 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.

Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.