Information Age Education
   Issue Number 100
October, 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 1: Human Scale, Curiosity, and Technological Extensions

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

This is the first of a series of articles that will discuss (1) current understandings of our body/brain and of the technologies that drive educational policy and practice, (2) the curricular shift from product to process and from a seemingly simple to a more complex educational culture, (3) the nature of some aspects of the Common Core State Standards that seek to improve K-12 students’ understanding of themselves and the biological/technological world we humans inhabit, (4) the general expectations of the Common Core State Standards, (5) an example of how educational leaders have already begun to develop useful programs that meet Common Core State Standards, and (6) the roles that Information and Communication Technology should play in the emerging state standards.

The Mission Statement of the Common Core State Standards Initiative is:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what [precollege] students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy (CCSS, n.d.).

Human Scale

Human scale is the level we humans function at unaided by tools. It includes the cultural knowledge and understandings that get passed down through generations via play, parenting, apprenticeship, and formal education. Unaided by tools, our human capabilities are limited. For example, at the human scale, we can only recognize up to four objects at a glance, and our auditory range encompasses only about ten octaves. Many other creatures are faster and stronger than we are.

Although our body/brain is innately limited, we have immense curiosity. We’ve always been curious about what’s beyond our human ability range. We observed birds flying and fish swimming. We wondered about the immense sweep of the stars and the innards of insects. We continue to live comfortably within our human scale, but we have developed physical exercises, education, and technologies to push at our physical scale edges. This series of articles will focus principally on what schools should teach students who function at a human scale—but it also considers the roles that advanced technological developments should play in the education of 21st century students.

Children somehow sense their developmental limitations. Toddlers wish they could run. Preschoolers must ask their parents to read to them. Much childhood effort is focused on play that moves them towards observed adult capability. Young children are initially content to simply watch older siblings play video games, but soon they feel ready to play and want/expect a regular turn. They’re similarly willing to let their parents drive the car—until mid-adolescence.

Adults are fascinated by virtuosos who use dedicated effort to extend the normal human scale. The recent Olympics gathered many different virtuosos who entertained and astounded the observers. We cheered when someone extended a human performance range even ever so slightly.

We financially support individuals and groups who can play games or music at a virtuoso level, who can understand complex concepts, or who think more profound thoughts than the rest of us. We do love going beyond the edge, even vicariously.

Unfortunately, it would require greatly extended evolutionary time to develop the much more capable body/brain we’d need to expand our normal biological range enough to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about what we can’t do. We have greater cognitive capabilities than all other animals, and we’ve used them to develop technological enhancements for both our brain and body.


Those who are quite comfortable with their current beliefs and a simple world aren’t very curious about alternate scientific explanations and new technological developments. Those who are momentarily thrilled by a new scientific/technological development tend to quickly shift their curiosity to what the next development might be. Both groups send their children to schools that are still largely a paper-and-pencil-driven institution in our increasingly electronic society.

At some ancient point humans developed the frontal lobe capability to technologically off-load tasks that required them to go well beyond the normal human scale. We contained fire to create energy, and cooked food helped to provide nourishment needed by an enlarged brain. Wheels eventually moved people, and wires moved thoughts. We developed reading, writing, and silicon chips to help store and process information.

Our brain, formerly imprisoned within a limiting skull, has thus broken free and created a technological brain outside our skull that takes us well beyond human scale. Our curiosity-driven technology thus gives us an edge in natural selection (and a polluted environment for good measure).

Technology-Extended Scale

The recent technological explosion has allowed scientists to explore natural phenomena far beyond human scale. Most folks whose textbooks and teachers helped them learn about unseen atoms and molecules are now mystified by the differences between charm and bottom quarks. Higgs Boson discoveries seem wonderful, but are still incomprehensible to most of us. We now receive regular reports of the discovery of planets that circle suns located many light years from earth. We marvel over quasars, black holes, and quantum computers.

Well over one billion people across the age range are on various social networks today. More than two billion earthlings make use of the Internet (, 1/26/2011). Such people must be concerned about viruses that cause human diseases and viruses that damage computer systems. Computers are getting smarter. Many people ask questions about how soon (if ever) robots will develop physical and mental capabilities that exceed those of humans (Sylwester and Moursund, 2012).

We remain biologically imbedded in our human scale even as science and technology sprint way beyond it. This causes cultural problems. Many people are psychologically committed to various ancient religious and philosophical explanations of natural phenomena that have been around so long that they’ve become part of the moral/ethical fabric of our cultures. In the competition for allegiance, the more-difficult-to-understand and constantly emerging scientific explanations and technologies are at a disadvantage, but a clear understanding of their applications is essential to a sound educational program.

Schools are expected to teach students current cultural knowledge, but educators now confront the problem of a rapidly widening gap between human scale explanations and scientific and technological developments—science driving technology and vice versa. Scientific and technological advances formerly occurred at a relatively slower pace that allowed us to comfortably assimilate them. Current advances occur with a suddenness that can become culturally confusing.

School patrons who are fearful of a runaway science and technology tend to become even more committed to their human scale beliefs—a cultural-curricular disconnect. We’re experiencing this in the Creationism controversy, sexuality education, global warming, and in the fear of what might happen to children searching an untrammeled Internet. Those on both ends of the continuum tend to be intolerant of the beliefs of the others about an appropriate education, and those in the center search for accommodation. Things won’t become easier to sort out, since escalating genetic advances, cognitive neurosciences, and computer technology will pose a bewildering series of moral, ethical, legal, and cultural issues that students will have to be prepared to confront. The CCSS Initiative must deal with such challenges.

This CCSS Series

Subsequent articles in this series will focus on the issues confronting the task of identifying core K-12 instructional issues. What do we want all students to learn during their formal K-12 education? What kinds of learning do we want families, the extended family, neighborhood, and community to informally foster? What roles should a student’s parents and other caregivers play in deciding what a child is to learn through the combination of informal and formal education? How should it be taught and assessed? What roles should a school, school district, city, state, and nation play in deciding what children should learn and how they should learn it?

As technology increases our physical and mental capabilities, how do we preserve and foster our human scale values and interpersonal knowledge and skills?

How have answers to these questions changed over time? Why do we need or want nationwide or statewide answers to the questions? How has the movement toward school district, state, and national standards helped and/or hurt our educational systems over the past hundred years or so?

Still, with all the current technological glitz, human scale remains important. Parents want their children to accurately spell and compute without the electronic support they themselves use. We supplement miraculous medical technology with bedside comfort. We flock to folk festivals. We expect our cultural heroes and political leaders to be ordinary as well as extraordinary. More than 2,400 years ago Protagoras said:

 “Man is the measure of all things.” (Protagoras; pre-Greek philosopher; 490–420 BC.)


CCSS (n.d.). Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved 10/25/2012 from (1/26/2011). Number of Internet Users Worldwide Reaches Two Billion. Retrieved 10/25/2012 from

Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D. (2012). Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Free download available at

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 Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education (2012, Information Age Education, with David Moursund), 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. See Columnists. Robert Sylwester:

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