Information Age Education
   Issue Number 11
February, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter. Its goal is to help improve education.

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School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
(Composer: Paul Lincke, 1907)

"In short, learning is the process by which novices become experts. " (John T. Bruer; President, James S. McDonnell Foundation.) 

Our current educational system tries to help all students gain contemporary levels of expertise in reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and certain other areas. This expectation is both a strength and a weakness of the education system.

Looking Back

HistoryThe first schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic were developed about 5,000 years ago, somewhat after written language was first developed. Thus, we have about 5,000 years of history, experience, and research on how to help students gain useful levels of expertise in reading, writing, and arithmetic. During that time, contemporary standards for the level of expertise expected have gone up considerably. Colleges and universities often require coursework in these areas.

Here is an interesting historical tidbit. The original version of McGuffey’s Readers was published in 1836. During the next 125 years, about 120 million sets of this seven book series were sold. It is estimated that about 80% of students attending school in the United States during the first 75 years of its availability used this series of books.

Our educational system has come a long way since the heydays of the McGuffey readers. Nowadays, more students go to school; on average they stay in school much longer. An elementary school level of education is no longer sufficient in our current, rapidly changing society.

Here is a tough question. How does one go about deciding on the level of expertise that schools (students) should strive for in reading, writing, and arithmetic? A simple answer is to have a widely accepted set of book (for example, in reading and in math) and then set school the task of having students master the contents of the books. This is especially simple in a one-room school where students can be groups according to the progress they have made.

However, this approach is no longer in vogue. Among other things, we have long known that students vary in their rate of learning and their level of interest in “book learning.” Quoting Plato from about 2400 years ago:

“Did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application, no sooner learns than he forgets?”  

Looking at More Current Times

CurrentOver the past century our educational systems have had to deal with steadily increasing understanding of individual differences, a steadily growing totality of human knowledge, a rapidly changing world, and so on. I find it helpful to make use of the following diagram.

Expertise Scale Diagram

We now know that it takes about 10,000 hours of concentrated effort, along with the aid of good teachers and other aids to learning, for a typical person to achieve somewhat near the highest level of expertise they can achieve in a particular area. At the precollege level, a school year is about 1,080 hours in length. Just for the fun of it, think about a child learning the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the K-2 curriculum, and then devoting much of the next 10 years of his or her schooling toward developing a very high level of expertise in one area. Those 10 years would provide 10,000 years of school time to develop the high level of expertise in one area.

For most people, that approach is silly. What is less silly, however, is that some children are provided with an in-school and outside-of-school lifestyle in which they put in the 10,000 hours of time in school following the regular curriculum, and put in nearly an equal amount of time outside of school in an area such as art, chess, computer games and other electronic entertainment, golf, math, musical performance, tennis, and so on. That is, we know how to provide precollege students with both a broad general education and the opportunity to gain a high level of expertise in an area.

 Looking into the Future

The FutureThe totality of accumulated knowledge is growing far more rapidly than in the past. The Internet and other technology both add to how fast we can collect and store such knowledge, and how easily people can access the knowledge.

The learning time a person has available to spend on informal and formal education—counting both outside of school and inside of school—is limited. Thus, one goal of informal and formal education should be to help students learn to make more wise decisions about how they will use their learning time.

This education should also include a focus on roles of ICT both in having areas of expertise (for example, digital art, digital music, computational thinking) and in gaining the expertise (computer-assisted learning, distance learning, computer simulations.)

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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