Issue Number 263 August 15, 2019

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) and Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, seven 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.

Dave Moursund’s most recent book, The Fourth R (Second Edition), is now also available in a Spanish translation of the second edition, La Cuarta R (Moursund, 2018a, link; Moursund, 2018b, link. The unifying theme of the book is that the 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the K-12 curriculum. The first edition was published in December, 2016, and the second edition in August, 2018. The Spanish translation of the second edition, La Cuarta R, was published in September, 2018. The three books have now had a combined total of more than 64,000 page-views and downloads.). 

Educational Goals and Improving Education

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.” (Kofi Annan; Ghanaian diplomat, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, winner of 2001 Peace Prize; 1938-2018.)

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.” (Isaac Asimov; Russian-born American science fiction author and biochemist; 1920-1992.)

Introduction
The previous IAE Newsletter was the first of a series about improving education to better meet current and future needs of our children (Moursund, 7/31/2019, link).
What are we currently doing that can be done better? Based on forecasts of the future, what changes in our current educational systems will likely better prepare students for their possible futures? My goal is to eventually develop this collection of newsletters into a short (free) book designed for preservice and inservice teachers, parents (especially those with children or grandchildren currently in school), and other people interested in improving our precollege educational systems.
My focus is on technological progress that is providing us with new educational goals and aids to achieving both current and new goals. In this endeavor, we need to think both about the past—the source of our current goals—and the future.
This specific newsletter is oriented toward our past educational goals and achievements. But, before delving into that topic, I want to give you a glimpse of the future of artificial intelligence.
We have all grown up with machines that far surpass human physical capabilities in performing a wide variety of tasks. As these machines became increasingly capable, they were responsible for the Industrial Revolution. For the most part, the people of our world have coped well with the changes brought on by the Industrial Age technology. Now the rapid pace of change brought on by the Information Age is something else!
More recently, progress in the automation of factory machines has certainly changed our world. As one example from my childhood, I got up early one morning and stood in line at a downtown store, hoping to buy a portable radio that contained two transistors. Transistors had recently replaced vacuum tubes, greatly extending the battery life of a portable radio. This was at a special, one-day sale. Unfortunately, I didn’t get up early enough.
Transistors are now very inexpensive and widely used. My smartphone contains several billion transistors and, of course, runs on rechargeable batteries (Moursund, 5/8/2017, link). Think of a transistor as replacing a vacuum tube that cost one dollar. From that point of view, my smartphone contains the equivalent of several billion dollars worth of circuitry from the before-transistors era.
We are now well into the Information Age, routinely working with a variety of computer systems that far surpass our human cognitive capabilities in a number of different areas. When combined with our now automated Industrial Age tools, computers further increase the productivity of these machines and decrease the number of human workers needed to run them.
Rapid progress in artificial intelligence (AI) and in other applications of computers is changing many cognitive aspects of our world. Computer translation of text from one language to another is now available free on the Web. I am still somewhat overwhelmed when I see a person speak in one language, and a computer then quickly translates this voice input to produce voice output in a different language. I routinely use my smartphone’s GPS system, and I marvel how such systems can simultaneously provide driving or walking directions to many millions of people living throughout the world.
As a youth, I grew up with science fiction stories that featured walking, talking robots. Now, we are beginning to have such robots. Sometime in the not so distant future, parents with young children will be making decisions about whether to use such robots as babysitters for their children.
One of the well-publicized possible future achievements of AI is called the Singularity, the point in time when AI will exceed human intelligence. Some people argue that the Singularity will never occur, believing that artificially intelligent computers will never surpass the cognitive capabilities of humans. Other people argue that this Singularity will occur in less than 50 years. If so, most children just beginning preschool today will have witnessed computers becoming smarter and smarter during their lifetimes, and finally surpassing humans.
I find it fun to argue about whether—or when—the Singularity will occur. Meanwhile, I am very interested in thinking about what type of education we could be providing today’s children that will serve them well as continued progress toward the Singularity occurs. This is a very difficult problem that I believe all educational systems should be addressing. To help us to better understand our possible futures, let’s begin with the past.

The Ancient Past

Our predecessors developed stone tools at least 3.3 million years ago (Morelle, 5/20/2015, link). I like to think of a physical tool as information that can be preserved over time and passed on from one generation to the next. Actually, what can be shared and passed on is how to make and use the tool. Many animals make and use tools, but homo Sapiens have proven to be the best at this of all life forms on earth.

The making and use of a simple tool such as a club, a thrown rock, or a spear can be taught without the use of oral language. This reminds me of grade school show and tell activities, but without the tell part.

It is not known when our ancestors first developed an extensive oral language. It may have been more than a half million years ago, perhaps before homo Sapiens came onto the scene. Show (demonstrate) and tell are a more powerful aid to teaching and learning than show (demonstrate) alone. Thus, the development and routine use of a large oral language was a huge step forward for humans.

An intact human brain has a remarkable ability to learn. Your own brain is learning all the time, both when you are awake and when you are asleep. An infant learns a natural language—indeed, more than one when growing up in a bilingual or multilingual environment—without the benefit of formal schools. Thus, for most of our history, humans got along well without the formal schools we have today.

Oral language provided us with what we now call oral tradition, where information is passed from one generation to the next verbally through storytelling and songs. Simple tools, oral tradition, and an apprenticeship type of show and tell education served homo Sapiens well.

And, what about education? You have probably heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Children learn from their environment. The quotation suggests that the total environment—in very ancient times, a small tribe; in less ancient times, a small village—is essential to a learner. Take this idea and apply it to a child in today’s world. The total environment available to children varies considerably with the wealth of the parents, the size and intellectual richness of the community, access to tools and other information, the knowledge and skills of their caregivers, and so on.

But, because of radio, television, smartphones, recordings, the Internet, and the Web, in some sense a child’s environment (the child’s village) has now become the entire world. Not only does this environment sometimes appear to be almost incredibly large and complex, it is changing constantly. The pace of change is overwhelming compared with the pace of change in the hunter-gatherer days. When we talk about improving education, we know that this means much more than just improving schools. Schools are but one part of a child’s learning environment.

Agriculture

For several million years, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. A 23,000 year old agricultural site in the Mideast was reported in a 2015 publication (Tel Aviv University, 6/22/2015, link). Before the publication of that research, the Agricultural Age was usually reported as having begun about 13,000 years ago. For example, quoting from the article, History of Agriculture (Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, n.d., link):

From as early as 11,000 BCE, people began a gradual transition away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle toward cultivating crops and raising animals for food. The shift to agriculture is believed to have occurred independently in several parts of the world, including northern China, Central America, and the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East that cradled some of the earliest civilizations. By 6000 BCE, most of the farm animals we are familiar with today had been domesticated. By 5000 BCE, agriculture was practiced in every major continent except Australia.

Widespread agriculture led to a rapid increase in human population and to the development of population centers such as small villages, and then towns, and then cities. A combination of greatly increased amounts of buying, selling, and trading of goods, together with the ownership of land and dwellings, led to the need for accurate record keeping.

The picture below shows Sumerian clay tokens whose use began about 11,000 years ago (Halloran, 12/8/1996, link). These clay tokens were a predecessor to reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Clay Tokens
Figure 1. Clay tokens from about 9,000 BCE.

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

Reading and writing of cuneiform was first developed beginning about 3,500 BCE (Mark, 3/15/2018, link). Historical records indicate that it took twelve years of schooling for students to develop the needed level of reading and writing literacy (Rank, n.d., link). I find this quite interesting in that twelve years of schooling (a high school degree) is now considered to be a major goal of public education in the United States.

The spoken languages at that time included words for numbers, quantity, distance, and for various mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Thus, the creators of written languages had to develop written representations of words used in a variety of different mathematical measurement and computation situations.

As the usefulness of written records and writing-assisted calculation became apparent, schools were developed. The goal was for students to develop a useful level of capabilities in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The word literacy refers to reading and writing. We want all students in our schools to become literate. A parallel concept is having number sense, or numeracy (Wikipedia, 2019a, link):

In mathematics education, number sense can refer to "an intuitive understanding of numbers, their magnitude, relationships, and how they are affected by operations". Other definitions of number sense emphasize an ability to work outside of the traditionally taught algorithms, e.g., "a well-organized conceptual framework of number information that enables a person to understand numbers and number relationships and to solve mathematical problems that are not bound by traditional algorithms".

Quoting again from the Wikipedia (2019b, link):

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts. Basic numeracy skills consist of comprehending fundamental arithmetics [arithmetic operations] like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For example, if one can understand simple mathematical equations such as, 2 + 2 = 4, then one would be considered possessing at least basic numeric knowledge. Substantial aspects of numeracy also include number sense, operation sense, computation, measurement, geometry, probability and statistics. A numerically literate person can manage and respond to the mathematical demands of life. [Bold added for emphasis.]

In summary, think about the reading, writing, and math-related demands in the daily lives of people. They certainly vary from person to person, and from country to country. Schools throughout the world have embraced somewhat similar goals in the reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) education of students.

By themselves, the terms being literate and having number sense do not tell us the level of performance of a person. Consider literacy as an example. We can test students of various ages or school grade levels and measure their growth in literacy over a period of years of instruction. We might arbitrarily say that a person is literate if the person can read and write at the level of an average eighth grader, or an average tenth grader, or so on.

Reading is a process of extracting meaning from written materials. It is not enough to be able to pronounce the words in a document, or to be able to spell the words when they are presented in a spelling test. The goal is to gain an understanding of the information being communicated.

These same ideas of understanding also apply to number sense. My father and mother were both mathematicians with considerable number sense. I grew up in a number sense environment—it was just one of the ways that I learned to routinely look at and understand information.

Contrast this with the traditional ways of teaching arithmetic and other aspects of math in elementary school. Developing speed and accuracy at carrying out paper-and-pencil arithmetic calculations can make some contribution to one’s level of number sense. (And, perhaps some of this is lost if students become highly dependent on the use of hand held calculators.) But, this calculation aspect of math education is only a small part of the math understanding we want students to gain through their schooling and life experiences.

Students growing up in a home and neighborhood environment that routinely provides rich and varied experiences that contribute to their understanding of words and numbers have a substantial educational advantage over students growing up in less rich or varied cognitive and experiential environments.

It takes many years of instruction and practice in reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) to develop a level of literacy and number sense that fits the needs of an average adult in the economically developed countries of our world. These countries currently provide students with about 11 to 13 years of free schooling.

The world is doing well in helping students to become literate (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 9/20/2018, link):

From a historical perspective, literacy levels for the world population [age 15 and above] have risen drastically in the last couple of centuries. While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 17% of the world population remains illiterate. Over the last 65 years the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years – from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.1

Impact of Technology and Research on Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

Initially, only a very small and select group of children (such as sons of kings and other rulers) had the opportunity to go to school. Over the past 5,000 years, the world gradually has decided that all children have an inalienable right to a free education (Moursund, 10/31/2018, link).

Teachers and educational researchers have been working for more than 5,000 years to improve methods of teaching and learning, as well as to hold down the costs. The development of an alphabet-based writing system represented a huge advancement. Instead of having to memorize specific symbols for each individual word, students could memorize a modest-length alphabet. This alphabet used varied arrangements of the letters to represent the words.

When the spelling of many words in a written language is phonetic, using individual letters or short groups of letters to represent the sound of part of the word, the difficulties of spelling become substantially reduced. Here is a high-tech idea. We now have voice input computer systems capable of changing spoken words into written words. Even for a word that is not spelled phonetically, today’s computer systems can do a quite good job of figuring out what word has been said, and can then write it correctly in the document. In essence, this computer capability is able to make every language phonetic.

While writing using a word processor, I make regular use of a spell checker and a grammar checker that each has some automatic correction capabilities. I also have experimented with voice input systems for many years, but have not yet switched to a regular use of them in my writing. (I am headed in that direction as my keyboarding skills decrease with age, and my spelling accuracy also declines.)

A number of elementary schools in the United states now have stopped teaching the writing and reading of cursive handwriting. Instead, students learn to write and read printing, and learn to use computers in their writing. This is a controversial change that many adults object to for a variety of reasons.

I wonder whether eventually (or, how soon) it will become common for students to use voice input to their computers and smartphones. Let’s expand this into a deeper question. If a computer system can greatly help in solving a type of problem or accomplishing a type of task that we currently teach students to do without a computer, how should our schools deal with this situation? When adults are faced with a comparable situation at work or play, they often choose to make use of the computer facilities. This can offer one type of argument for providing similar computer facilities to students and integrating their routine use across the curriculum and at all grade levels.

The history of the use of spreadsheets provides us with an excellent example. The first electronic digital computers were thought of as data processing machines, and their use spread rapidly in the business world. The development of spreadsheet software that could run on a microcomputer proved to be a huge success, both for the microcomputer industry and for the businesses. A microcomputer with this software was a very powerful aid to literally hundreds of thousands of people who were doing such calculations by hand and with the use of calculators. Business classes at both the precollege and higher education levels soon found that teaching students to use spreadsheets was quite appropriate to their missions.

A similar thing has happened in the field of graphic arts. This does not mean that “by-hand” animation, drawing, painting, and so on have disappeared. It does mean that this entire artistic field has been massively changed by computers.

In brief summary, our schools are faced by the problem of continuing to teach students to use the tried and true “by hand” methods of solving a wide variety of problems and accomplishing a wide variety of tasks, or teaching students to use computers as they are now routinely used by adults. A third decision may be to develop some practical combination of the two approaches. My free book, The Fourth R (Second Edition) explores this topic (Moursund, 2018, link).

Final Remarks
Reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) are still considered to be the basics of a good education. While each is a discipline in its own right, each also is an interdisciplinary tool that can be very useful in representing and helping to solve problems in all areas of study.
These three basics of education have certainly stood the test of time. I find it fun to think about what might happen during the next 50 to 100 years. Will students still be going to school for many years to develop today’s levels of skill in using these basics of education? If not, what will the curriculum be?
Each goal of education can be analyzed in terms of the possible roles of newer technological developments, both for the teaching and for the using (doing) of the subject content currently being taught. The next newsletter will examine a broad collection of well-accepted goals of education, and for each will provide some ideas about how technology can affect both the goal and achieving the goal.

References and Resources

Halloran, J. (12/8/1996). Symbolic counting tokens from the early Near East. Retrieved 8/9/2019 from http://www.sumerian.org/tokens.htm.

Johns  Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (n.d.). History of agriculture. Retrieved 8/9/2019 from http://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/history-of-agriculture/index.html.

Mark, J.J. (3/15/2018). Cuneiform. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 8/10/2019 from https://www.ancient.eu/cuneiform/.

Morelle, R. (5/20/2015). Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans. BBC News. Retrieved 8/10/2019 from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32804177.

Moursund, D. (7/31/2019). Challenging questions about the future of computer technology in education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/11/2019 from https://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2019-262.html.

Moursund, D. (5/31/2019). Planning for the future of education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/11/2019 from https://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2019-258.html.

Moursund, D. (2018). The Fourth R (Second Edition). Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 1/3/2019 from http://iae-pedia.org/The_Fourth_R_(Second_Edition). Download the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/307-the-fourth-r-second-edition.html. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/308-the-fourth-r-second-edition-1.html. Download the Spanish edition from http://iae-pedia.org/La_Cuarta_R_(Segunda_Edici%C3%B3n).

Moursund, D. (10/31/2018). Inalienable rights of children. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/9/2019 from https://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2018-244.html.

Moursund, D. (5/8/2017). In terms of vacuum tube dollars, likely you are a billionaire. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/7/2019 from https://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/in-terms-of-vacuum-tube-dollars-likely-you-are-a-billionaire.html. .

Moursund, D. (2010). All educators are engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/7/2019 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/all-educators-are-engaged-in-the-scholarship-of-teaching-and-learning.html.

Rank, S.M., ed. (n.d.). Mesopotamian education and schools. Salem Media. Retrieved 8/9/2019 from https://www.historyonthenet.com/mesopotamian-education-and-schools.

R.L.G. (5/29/2013). Lexical facts. The Economist. Retrieved 8/7/2019 from https://www.economist.com/johnson/2013/05/29/lexical-facts.

Roser, M., & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (9/20/2018). Literacy. Our World in Data. Retrieved 8/12/2019 from https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.

Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D. (August, 2012). Creating an appropriate 21st century education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/243-creating-an-appropriate-21st-century-education.html and the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/242-creating-an-appropriate-21st-century-education.html.

Tel Aviv University (6/22/2015). First evidence of farming in Mideast 23,000 years ago. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 8/12/2019 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150722144709.htm.

Wikipedia (2019a). Number sense. Retrieved 8/11/2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_sense.

Wikipedia (2019b). Numeracy. Retrieved 8/10/2019 from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numeracy.

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 (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner).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 IAE 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 Executive 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.