Information Age Education
   Issue Number 101
November, 2012   

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

Common Core State Standards
Part 2: Beginning the Search for an Appropriate Education 

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The first article in this series describes a dilemma that our curious brain currently confronts. See We’ve created wonderful technologies that have now taken us far beyond our biological limitations. For example, U.S. pioneers moved at a basically human scale during their five-month wagon trip to the west coast—but a cross-country flight now takes only five hours. A complex football play that lasts a few incomprehensible seconds when viewed in real time becomes much clearer when viewed via several slowed-down multiple-angle instant televised replays. Technology has thus allowed us to experience and better understand our world in ways beyond our biological capabilities.

Early 20th century schools were confident that what they taught would probably survive and serve through a student’s life. Folks accepted their stable curricular facts and cultural applications at face value—and they served reasonably well. However, much of science and technology will continue its exponential advancement beyond current levels throughout the lifetimes of current K-12 students.

The time of slow technological change is long past. As the totality of accumulated human knowledge continues its very rapid growth, 21st century schools are faced by major curricular and instructional challenges. Some of these challenges are directly based on science and technology, and others on the complexity of the cultural applications of science and technology.

Schools have historically sought to communicate cultural stability. Their new challenge will be to function effectively in an unstable cultural environment. Two basic proposed educational approaches follow.

From Product to Process

Product and process are central themes in education. This article expands these themes to the understanding of product and understanding of process. The understanding is needed both for transfer of learning and for building a foundation upon which to build more learning.

When science and technology remained reasonably stable, instruction and assessment could focus on knowing the product (the correct answer) rather than on understanding the cognitive processes that led to the answer. Often there was little emphasis on understanding the process that is the basis of the product.

The value of the product is often minimal in the total experience of an activity. For example, the final score is typically a small part of a game. Shortly after a game is over, the athletes start to think about the next game. Artists tend to sell the creations that occupied so much of their time and creative energy. They want to get to the next challenge. A crossword puzzle that may have taken well over an hour to complete is immediately forgotten. The unscripted preparations for a wedding are more often recalled over the years than the scripted wedding itself. It is the process, not the product!

The situation becomes more complex when a process can be better carried out by various computerized technologies. Should students learn processes that can be rapidly, accurately, and cheaply carried out by computers? What about the creative process? We value the natural creativity of humans. How do we help people learn to integrate computer capabilities into their own creative thinking processes? Can a computer be creative? What types of creativity can a computer do that a human cannot do, and vice versa?

Current times suggest that politicians and schools should back off their current obsession with product-oriented standards and assessment, and instead jump joyfully into the uncharted waters of exploration. It’s nothing new. At least some European educators must have advised their students 500 years ago to get a ship and go west to discover what’s over the horizon. Quoting Horace Greely:

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” (Horace Greeley; American author; 1811–1872).

We’re now in a similar period of great exploration—but now we are exploring an immense outer space and a microscopic inner space.

Creative people and explorers don’t want to be told the answer. They want to discover it. What facts should a person memorize versus what facts should they learn to retrieve from reliable sources when they have need for the information? What should one discover for oneself, and how does this discovery process contribute to being able to discover things yet undreamed of?

Where should we start in discussing such educational challenges? Collaborative classroom management has been around for a while, and it’s an excellent initial area for teacher/student exploration of the processes involved in basic democratic values and skills. But why stop there? Many of the scientists and entrepreneurs who sparked our current creative explosion in science and technology were elementary students during the 1970’s when such marvelous, imaginative, process-oriented programs as The Elementary Science Study and The Science Curriculum Improvement Study were in their heyday (see References). These programs created a wonderful open-ended process environment in which teachers and students explored together.

It accomplishes little to muse about how we subsequently got so untracked from this kind of K-12 process exploration. What’s important now is that 21st century educators should take the position that an educational product that doesn’t emerge out of an exploratory process isn’t worth assessing. It’s appalling how much energy many schools currently spend on memorized preparations to meet politicized product standards. It’s such a contradiction: a wealthy society that’s very thankful for the creativity that sparked its wealth and scientific discoveries is now seemingly uninterested in developing even more creative folks. See Moursund (2010, 2011) for an extended discussion of recent research studies on the development of creativity.

From Clear to Complex Cultural Applications

It’s one thing for a creative process to result in a new product. It’s another thing to determine the cultural value and appropriate use of the product. And it’s frequently difficult to achieve consensus on such issues. Nanotechnology, computer technology advances, cognitive neuroscience, and genetic engineering are but four examples of recent important developments that carry troublesome cultural baggage.

The U.S. is a country that espouses freedom of religion. How should our educational system handle controversies/conflicts between science and religion? This question is asked in many countries throughout the world. Quoting the Wikipedia (

Globally, evolution is taught in science courses with limited controversy, with the exception of a few areas of the United States and several Islamic fundamentalist countries. In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled the teaching of creationism as science in public schools to be unconstitutional, irrespective of how it may be purveyed in theological or religious instruction. In the United States, intelligent design has been represented as an alternative explanation to evolution in recent decades, but its "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions" have been ruled unconstitutional by a lower courts.

Of course, the controversies extend far beyond theories of evolution. The Values Clarification Movement and Man: A Course of Study (see References) are two of several programs from several decades ago that sought to help elementary students responsibly explore difficult moral/ethical decisions. These and similar programs were vehemently criticized by folks who felt that schools should not help students explore the dynamics of solving complex cultural issues, but should rather teach students what to believe (generally the various belief systems of the critics).

This intense criticism stifled these and related programs designed to explore the complex issues that still confront us. These issues require both an understanding of science, technology, and culture—and the skills to responsibly reach consensus on developments and issues our society has never faced. This ability doesn’t magically emerge at age 18 in new voters. It has to be nurtured from the start.

The 21st century educators must thus respond also to this challenge, and discover ways to incorporate democratic decision-making skills into the entire K-12 curriculum. No simple solution exists to create human-scale solutions to scientific/technological developments that range way beyond our human scale, but educators might begin by examining innovative programs from several decades ago (such as those discussed above and cited below) that sought to do what must be done now. Perhaps such programs arrived on the scene too early, but they or something like them are sorely needed today.

David Moursund will write the third and fourth articles in the series. These will focus on computer technology as a change agent and an issue in Common Core State Standards. David Ghoogasin will write the fifth and sixth articles in this series. He will describe and discuss the CCSS in terms of the issues raised in the first four articles. Renate and Geoffrey Caine will then describe a respected program that seems to meet the goals that the CCSS are currently seeking.


Elementary Science Study. See

Man: A Course of Study. See

Moursund, D. (2010). An Intact Human Brain Is Naturally Curious and Creative. See

Moursund, D. (2011). Declining Level of Student Creativity. See

Science Curriculum Improvement Study. See

Values Clarification Movement. See

Robert Sylwester

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press), and Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (2012, co-authored with David Moursund, IAE Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. See Columnists. Robert Sylwester:

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