Information Age Education
   Issue Number 31
December, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

Please welcome our newest author, Dr. Robert Sylwester. He is Professor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Oregon. His primary area of specialization is Brain Science. You can read more information about him at A large collection of his articles about brain science is available at

Nature, Nurture, and Tools

When considering various ways to improve education, it is helpful to think in terms of nature, nurture, and tools. Nature, nurture, and tools overlap and interact. However, sometimes it is helpful to differentiate among them.

Here is an example. Nature provides us with a body, and most of us are born with legs and arms. Following growth patterns laid down in our basic genetics (nature) and through the nurture of informal and formal practice, adequate food, and so on, we learn to crawl and then walk.

We have a number of tools that aid us in locomotion. Examples include shoes, trains, and bicycles. A key idea about such tools is that they can be mass-produced and widely used, and they can be substantially improved over time. Here is a picture of a widely used tool manufactured a hundred years ago. A hundred years of improvements have certainly helped.

1908 Ford

Human Brain

A healthy human brain is natural curious and has tremendous innate (nature-based) capabilities. An infant’s brain takes 25 years or more to achieve full maturity. During this time, nature and nurture both play important roles. We know, for example, that various poisons such as lead and mercury, or severe malnutrition, can permanently damage a brain. We know that a “rich” and appropriately challenging learning environment from earliest childhood onward makes a huge contribution to a brain’s growing capabilities.

Now, consider the human-developed tools we call reading and writing. For most people, it takes many years of formal education, study, and practice to learn to use these tools reasonably well. Indeed, a person can spend a lifetime becoming an expert and maintaining this expertise in the effective use of these tools.

We recognize the capabilities and limitations of our brains. Since the development of reading and writing more than 5,000 years ago, humans have continued to work on more and better brain tools. We want to overcome some of our limitations and extend some of our capabilities. We want to make brain tools that are easier to learn to use, easier to use, and more powerful or effective than those developed in the past.

Math provides excellent examples. The overall discipline of mathematics can be thought of as a human-developed set of brain tools—aids to the human brain. Perhaps you are familiar with the famous quote: “God created the natural numbers. All the rest is the work of man.” (Leopold Kronecker; German mathematician; 1823-1891.) Math provides quite powerful aids to representing and solving problems, but it takes many years of education, training, and experience to become reasonably skilled in the use of contemporary, widely used tools of mathematics.

And, “there’s the rub.” Each academic discipline produces tools useful in representing, exploring, and solving the problems in its discipline. This has led to an information explosion—most of us suffer from information overload. We suffer from not having the time to learn the various disciplines of study to the depth that we would like to.

In summary, nature and nurture provide humans with very capable brains. Through years of informal and formal education we get better at making more effective use of our brains. We have developed quite good aids to our brains. However, many require a tremendous amount of time and effort to acquire high levels of skill in their use. Thus, it behooves us to continue to develop tools that require only a modest amount of time and effort to learn to use at a level that is personally helpful and satisfying.


A computer is a human-developed tool. It can be built into other tools in a manner that makes it transparent and so that little informal or formal education is needed to learn to make use of the computer component of a tool. We certainly have this situation in modern cars, which are highly computerized.

However, computer tools are also embedded into a number of tools that take a lot of time and effort to learn to use. For example, consider accessing information on the Web. The assumption is that you can read with understanding and write well enough to tell the computer what you are looking for. Reading on the Web is somewhat more complex than reading a book, since the Web is both interactive and non linear, and very extensive. Thus, it takes considerable informal and formal education and experience to learn to make effective use of the Web.

However, there is another aspect of the computer as a tool. A computer system can solve a great many different problems all by itself. All that is needed is precise communication of the problem to the computer. The degree of precision that is needed is far higher than the degree of precision needed when one attempts to communicate a problem to another human being through a combination of oral and written language.

We get a hint of this difficulty as we study math. The very smallest error in solving a math problem can lead to an incorrect solution. We get some hint of this in using a GPS. A tiny error in spelling can lead the GPS system to providing directions to a place other than where you want to go! Similarly, a tiny error in responding to a email message sent to a list can result in responding to the entire list rather than to a specific intended person.

Final Remarks

Our technology has reached a stage that it can make some changes at the “nature” level of a human being through genetic engineering. And, we have just begun in such endeavors.

Our educational system and other aspects of nurture have gradually improved over thousands of years, and we can expect further gradual improvement.

In terms of tools, the pace of change is torrid and is increasing. It is overwhelming the nature and nurture components. As an example, it is easy to claim that “two brains are better than one,” (see However, it is quite hard to design and implement an effective educational system in which one of these two types of brains is increasing in capabilities at an exponential rate. At the current time, our overall educational system seems to think that if we can just do better in the nurture component—better teachers, higher standards, longer school days, year around schooling—that this will take care of the education crisis. It won’t.

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. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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