Information Age Education
   Issue Number 75
October, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave 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. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

This is the first of a series of IAE Newsletters that will explore educational aspects of the current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two introductory articles. These will be followed by a series of invited articles written by a broad selection of experts in the field.

For the most part, these invited articles will focus on cognitive neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send comments on an article to These will be posted at the end of the related article in the back issues site.

We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are available at

Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education
The Roles of Cognitive Neuroscience and Computer Technology

Robert Sylwester
University of Oregon

"Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary." (Steve Jobs, talking to the Stanford graduating class.)

This is the first of a series of two dozen IAE Newsletter issues that will explore various elements of the educational issues that will confront our society during the 21st Century. The principal focus of the series will be on the dramatic developments currently occurring in the cognitive neurosciences and computer technology. These promise to play an especially significant role in reshaping educational policy and practice.

The authors of the articles are all widely known and respected for their work in the area in which they write. They were asked to select a general issue that they consider important to 21st century education and to discuss the elements of it that they consider especially significant to educators. Some authors will focus on simply exploring the issue itself, and others will also suggest educational applications.

We invite you to join in with your comments on elements an author did or didn’t cover–to fill in gaps and/or provide another perspective, as it were. Email your comments to the IAE Newsletter editor, Dave Moursund ( We’ll begin to post the comments we get several days after a column is posted. They’ll be placed at the end of the archived article.

When the entire series is complete, we’ll incorporate the articles and selected reader responses into an online book that we’ll post for downloading at no cost. We hope that this preliminary discussion will help lead to the eventual development of a comprehensive 21st century theory of education.

This certainly isn’t the only current search for the elements of what 21st century education could and should become. For example, Edutopia is also running a series of articles ( The new Learning Resource Network ( at Johns Hopkins University provides a clearinghouse of educationally significant developments from several disciplines. What will occur over time as the literature expands is that an increasing number of educators will get involved, and a bottom-up consensus will eventually emerge. Nothing new. Bits and pieces merging into a complex entity describes how biology, technology, cities, and democracy develop and function.

The Context

About 100 years ago, events (some of which helped to precipitate World War I) led John Dewey to argue that the development of democratic values and skills in school would become at least as important to 20th century education as the mastery of the 3Rs. Further, the classroom itself could serve as an excellent laboratory for developing them, since it provides a dozen year-long opportunities for students to interact with a couple dozen non-kin in the solution to group management problems. He argued in his early 20th century publications that the existing authoritarian classroom management and instruction model should thus be replaced with a democratic model that he called Progressive Education (

Many educational leaders embraced Progressive Education, but the authoritarian model was so deeply ingrained in American culture that it took well over 50 years for elements of Dewey’s model to emerge and demonstrate how it could work. A. S. Neill's Summerhill ( was one important early example of what came to be called the Free School Movement in mid-century (

The current high stakes standards and assessment programs suggest that the authoritarian model of education didn't die, but rather has come back with a vengeance. Our educational system continues to resist change even when it is much needed, as it is today because of rapid culturally and educationally significant advances in science and technology. These new advances alas, can be used to empower students or misused to maintain existing political and cultural constraints.

Towards the end of the 20th century, many educators and researchers sought to free our educational system from the shackles of Behaviorism, which viewed our brain as a black box that would never be understood. An initially small group of educators were excited by the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience. They began to explore how we might teach students about the human brain and adapt instruction to this new knowledge. Some of the early speculations look foolish now, but false starts are a part of any innovation. As more educators became interested, the field matured and the level of professional knowledge about our brain and cognition increased.

At the same time, computers were continuing to increase in capability, decrease in price and size, and demonstrate their potential as aids to learning and problem solving. The cost of computers and the amount of staff development they initially required slowed their assimilation into schools, but computers became broadly used as a powerful change agent outside the world of education.

And now it's the 21st century and WOW! The pace of change has certainly quickened.

Since the turn of the century, neuroimaging technology has discovered credible answers to many cognitive mysteries, and new discoveries are occurring at a previously unimaginable rate. Renowned cognitive neuroscientists, such as Michael Posner and Mary Rothbart (2006), John Ratey, (2008) and Stanislas Dehaene (2010) are writing books that directly address the educational applications of their research. Other scientists are contributing chapters to books directed to educators (Sousa, 2011). Graduate programs are introducing educators to the biological base of our profession. Professional organizations, such as the International Mind Brain and Education Society ( are shaping the emerging field of Educational Neuroscience. Commercial educational programs that purport to be based on cognitive neuroscience research are expected to provide convincing independent research evidence to support their claims. The future of Educational Neuroscience looks promising!

Moreover, students are growing up with routine access to the Internet and Web, computerized social networking and texting, a wide range of computer-based entertainment venues, and steadily improved computerized aids to learning. Who could have imagined the key role that cell-phones would play in the emerging democratization of the Middle East?

The next article in this series will focus on the manner in which computer technology is currently impacting educational policy and practice, and what we might expect in the coming years.

References and Resources

Kelly, Kevin (12/1/2010). Evolving the Scientific Method: Technology is changing the way we conduct science. The Scientist.

Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Penguin.

Posner, M. and Rothbart, M. (2006). Educating the human brain. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Ratey, J. with Hagermann, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Sousa, D. (2010). Mind, brain, and education. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.

Robert Sylwester
is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. His most recent books are: A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run (archived:, and is now a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter.

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. Please refer to the form below.
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 include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back issues, go to To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the “Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.