Information Age Education
   Issue Number 54
November, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

The Information Age Education web site now includes a blog. Access the blog and comment on blog entries at

The current most popular blog entry is about brain science and exercise. See

Assessing Our Schooling System

 "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879–1955.)

Are Our Schools Getting Worse or Better?

When Bob Sylwester began his teaching career in 1949, folks told him that the schools are really terrible, but that they had been excellent ten years ago. And then during the next ten years, people continued to say the same thing. Actually, they’ve been making the same pessimistic statement during his entire career. Such pessimism suggests that the optimal time to attend school was ten or more years ago. Certainly not now!

Dave Moursund sometimes falls into the “woe is us” pessimistic trap. To bolster his spirits, he periodically asks Bob if schools are getting better, and always gets a positive and uplifting response.

Cultures and communities changed very slowly in the tens of thousands of years before the development of agriculture somewhat over 10,000 years ago. Agriculture facilitated increased population densities and more specialization in labor, and these speeded up the pace of change.

Still, the pace of change was still quite slow until reading and writing were invented a little over 5,000 years ago. The pace of change slowly increased, but was still relatively slow until the Industrial Revolution began somewhat over 200 years ago. The Industrial Revolution brought a large worldwide increase in population, average standard of living, and in formal schooling.

The Information Age, which emerged during the past half-century, has steadily increased the pace of cultural and technological changes. Consider Bob’s observation that many people nostalgically look back at how much better they believe schools were in earlier days. Such retrospective analysis doesn’t consider the many cultural, scientific, and technological changes that schools have been assimilating and/or accommodating.

It’s not easy to measure many of these changes. For example, we may see regression or minimal student improvement if we compare decades of scores on paper/pencil math tests. As we lament such data, we seem to forget that technological progress has brought us calculators and computers that can quickly solve a wide range of math problems. When was the last time you used paper/pencil to solve a two-digit divisor division problem? We now have a wide range of tools with some built-in (machine) intelligence that obviates some of the historically important math education topics.

National and international comparisons of student achievement in paper/pencil math tests may thus be increasingly irrelevant to the needs of soon-to-be adults. If so, major curricular changes are needed. Learn about a recent short, excellent math education talk by Conrad Wolfram accessible at

International Comparisons

The December 2010 Atlantic Monthly includes yet another article that compares US student achievement with other countries (Ripley 2010). The article focuses on the percentage of students in the United States and in other select countries who perform at the advanced math proficiency level.

What’s intriguing about this study is that the 58 worldwide countries assessed were compared with the 50 individual USA states rather than with the USA mean score. Taiwan scored #1 in the 58 + 50 = 108 country/state comparison. Massachusetts scored #17, the highest of the states (right behind Austria). Minnesota, the next highest state, scored 20th (right behind Denmark). Mississippi at #92 scored lowest among the states, right above Chile.

The state/country range: 11.4% of the Massachusetts students and 1.3% of the Mississippi students scored at the advanced math proficiency level, compared with 28% for Taiwan and 0% for Kyrgyzstan. Nebraska (at 6.0%) has the mean USA score, and Ireland (at 7.9%) is the mid-country of students who scored at the advanced math proficiency level. But what do these scores mean?

If we modify our math education curriculum so that it more closely teaches to the national and international tests, our test scores will probably go up. Of course, other countries are also doing that, so that teaching to such tests will not necessarily raise our ranking. This brings us to a very challenging question: do the tests measure what is currently important for soon-to-be Information Age adults? (Moursund and Sylwester, 2010).

Measuring Things that are Easy to Measure

As indicated above, national and international tests focus on the curricular areas that are the easiest to score precisely. Skills and factual information are relatively easy to teach and measure. For example, students can memorize that 6 x 5 = 30 and not 29 or 31, and learn how to solve quadratic equations in math by the using such techniques as factoring or the quadratic formula.

Skills and factual information can similarly be measured in other disciplines. Dog is spelled d-o-g in English, and has precise spelling in other languages. Students can or can’t read the words on a specified page, and know or don’t know the name of their state and national capitol. Students can or can’t identify the composer and/or performer for a particular piece of music….

How important are these kinds of facts and skills for humans to master? Is our world changing in a manner that makes such factual information and procedural skills less important than in the past?

Some Things that are Less Easy to Measure

What Bob has learned in almost 84 years and Dave is gradually acknowledging after a mere 74 years, is that life isn't just about knowing factual information and procedures for dealing with specified kinds of test problems. Life is also about discovering how to get along with other people, to make appropriate well-reasoned decisions, and to appreciate the aesthetics that add style and grace to almost everything.

We’ve both had long and successful professional careers involving continual learning, working with students, and communicating with a broad range of audiences. Teaching, learning, and communication are not areas in which precise measurement is possible. We both know many facts and have considerable procedural knowledge, but these are only part of what has brought richness and satisfaction to our lives and professional careers.

Factual information is certainly important if we're planning a long trip, figuring our income tax, or taking out a loan.  However, we suspect that folks are more apt to lose their job because they can't get along with their co-workers than because they don't know the multiplication tables, or how to spell the word accommodate without the use of a dictionary or their computer’s spelling checker.

Dealing with Approximate Information and Ill-defined Problem Situations

We humans have biological, analog brains. Information in our brain is stored, processed, and used in analog (as contrasted with digital) form. The human brain evolved to deal principally with approximate rather than precise information.

Of course, we have some quite precise capabilities. For example, even very young children and some animals can differentiate among the quantities 1, 2, 3, and 4 because of cognitive systems that are specialized to instantly identify up to four items without counting (subitizing). For most of our history, it sufficed to consider more than four as a whole bunch. It didn’t make that much difference if seven or nine bananas were in bunch, or if a pack of seven or nine carnivorous animals had just picked up our scent.

Most oral communication is quite imprecise and laden with ambiguity. In face-to-face communications—and especially within one’s small family or tribe—a conversation would continue until people reached an acceptable agreement about the nature and/or resolution of the issue. Community and organization meetings currently attempt to carry on this tradition.

The previous IAE Newsletter reported that music (which focuses more on the emotional overtones of communication than on precise specific information) existed long before reading and writing emerged.

Much of our success in life is based on our ability to make reasonably good decisions, and while factual knowledge is typically helpful in decision-making, it’s not the only (or often most important) element. A restaurant menu contains much factual information about prices and ingredients, but four people sitting around a table may choose entirely different meals. The situation is similar with our preferences and choices in such decisions as TV program viewing, breakfast cereal and clothing purchases, and votes in political elections. In all such cases, people generally have access to most of the same facts, but often make considerably different decisions. Analog brains differentially interpret factual information, and also make decisions on the basis of their individualized emotions/feelings plus huge store of accumulated knowledge and experience. And who is to definitively say that one person’s choice is better than another’s?

The arts similarly deal with both factual and imprecise information. The printed score is very clear about what notes are to be played, but when a renowned pianist was once asked to differentiate between a piano player and a pianist, he responded that anyone can play the correct notes; it’s how you play the notes that makes the difference.

Final Remarks

This issue of the IAE Newsletter lays groundwork for subsequent issues that will discuss aids to the mental and physical capabilities of a human being. As these are integrated into schools and everyday life, they present a major challenge to our evaluations systems.

Research and development has created a rapid and rapidly increasing pace of technological change.  While schools are adjusting to some of these changes, the pace of scientific and technology-based changes is outstripping their current coping capabilities. We will explore this situation more in subsequent issues of the newsletter.


Moursund, D. and Sylwester, R. (June 2010). The quality of our educational system. Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 11/21/2010 from

Ripley, A. (December 2010) “Your child left behind”. The Atlantic Monthly (p 94-98). Retrieved 11/20/2010 from

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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