Information Age Education
   Issue Number 93
July, 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

This is the 19th and last of a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provided two introductory newsletters. Newsletter # 77 and a number of subsequent newsletters were written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also contributed to this emerging collection. The collection of 19 articles will be organized into a book that will be made available free on the Web.

For the most part, the guest newsletters focus on cognitive neuroscience. Dave Moursund is providing Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions near the end of each newsletter.

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

Summary 2: Educational Game Changers

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

 “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (Isaac Newton; English mathematician and physicist; 2/5/1675 letter to Robert Hooke; 1642–1727.)

We humans are blessed with the most capable brains of all creatures on this planet. Using our creative brains and our communication skills, we have survived and prospered. We have developed tools to aid our bodies and minds, and we have become quite dependent on these tools. As noted in the quote from Isaac Newton, such progress is cumulative.

The articles in Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education range over a variety of topics. Within and between articles there is a continual play of theory versus applications of cognitive neuroscience. Computer technology is a major topic in the book because it helps facilitate cognitive neuroscience research and implementations of some of this research into educational practices.

For most of recorded history, the brain has been a black box. We lacked today’s sophisticated instrumentation to peer into a brain as it goes about its various activities. We now have a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a human brain. We are at the beginning of integrating cognitive neuroscience and the capabilities of computer brains into our everyday school curriculum. We are developing interventions to help deal with disabilities, and we are learning to make more effective use of brain capabilities.


A tool such as a spear or a club is an embodiment of information. This information is passed from generation to generation as elders teach their children to make and use the tools. Similar comments apply to hunting and gathering skills, and making and using fire, shelters, clothing, and medicines.

If we look back many tens of thousands of years, the pace of change was very slow. A hunter-gatherer would live a lifetime without seeing an appreciable change in tools and the techniques for using these tools.

The development of agriculture a little over 10,000 years ago was a major game changer. Permanent settlements and increasing population in settlements promoted and facilitated sharing and made more specialization possible. An inventor might spend years developing a better hoe, animal husbandry method, or pottery-making technique. This could then be shared with the growing population of the local community and the growing number of travelers among communities.

I think of reading and writing as human-developed mind tools. The development of these mind tools a little over 5,000 years ago was another major game changer because it helped in the preservation and sharing of collected knowledge and skills. Since that time, over a hundred million different books have been printed and distributed. This has helped the accumulated knowledge of the human race to grow at an increasing pace. Improvements in transportation and communication have added to this pace of change. Nowadays it is common for research groups around the world to be actively cooperating and sharing their progress.

I like to think back over the past couple of centuries that have brought us: the steam engine and industrial revolution; telegraph and telephone; photography and movies; cars and airplanes; plastics and synthetic fibers; radio, television, and radar; jet planes and rocket ships; computers, telecommunication systems, electronic games, and the Web; huge advances in medicine; CDs and DVDs; nanotechnology; the human genome project and progress in genetic engineering; portable media players, cell phones, and social networks; and so on. The recent pace of change overwhelms me. Perhaps you have heard people say: “Help—stop the world, I want to get off! The world is passing me by….”

Three Brains are Better Than One

I like to think and write about the idea of three brains working together to solve problems and accomplish tasks:
  1. The unschooled (native, intuitive) human brain (Gardner, 1991). Think about the learning of language, culture, and ways of dealing with the world that a typical child has achieved before starting kindergarten. The unschooled brain is very capable and in many ways its capabilities put the schooled brain to shame. It prospers in a rich cultural, language, and intellectual environment. On average, children growing up in such a rich environment experience considerably more rapid cognitive growth than less fortunate children.

  2. The schooled brain that is developed through formal schooling and self-education based on both the formal schooling and on individual interests and needs. Reading, writing, libraries, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are major aids to—indeed, can be thought of as components of—the schooled mind. Schooling helps a person draw on the rapidly growing accumulated knowledge of the human race. In recent years we have made considerable progress in the use of computer-assisted learning and distance learning as aids to developing the schooled mind.

  3. Computer “brains” built into computers, robots, and computerized machinery. Artificial Intelligence (AI) (in England it is called Machine Intelligence or MI) is steadily growing in its capabilities. Ray Kurzweil (2005) is a world leader in analyzing and forecasting when computer intelligence may exceed human intelligence. (Also see

Human Intelligence and Mind

The first two numbered paragraphs are about the human brain. The careful study of the functioning, capabilities, and limitations of a human brain has a long history. Quoting Plato:

When you spoke of a nature gifted or not gifted in any respect, 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 then he forgets… (Plato; Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world; 428/427 BC– 348/347 BC.)

The development of intelligence tests in the early 1900s was a major milestone in the study of human intelligence. Tests were devised that were relatively good forecasters of a person’s ability to learn to deal with complex problem-solving tasks. However, these IQ tests do not provide good information about what is actually going on inside a brain.

Progress in a number of fields has led to the development of non-invasive and minimally invasive ways to “peer” inside a functioning human brain. Computer technology plays a major role in collecting and processing the data from such brain scans. Better instrumentation, faster computers, and better computer programs have contributed greatly to the discipline of cognitive neuroscience.

In recent years we also have learned about human (and other) genes and how some of them relate to cognitive development and disease. We have developed techniques and drugs that can enhance cognitive functioning. This type of research is progressing rapidly; however, it is still in its infancy.

Artificial (Computer) Intelligence

The third of the numbered paragraphs is about computer brains and robotics. The first electronic digital computers were called “brains” or “computer brains.” One of the driving forces in the computer field has been to develop “smarter” computers. This led to the modern disciplines of artificial intelligence and robotics. Of course, science fiction authors explored the field of artificial intelligence and robots long before the development of electronic digital computers.

The discipline of artificial intelligence has taken two approaches to its problems. One approach is to develop computer models of how a human brain represents and solves problems. The goal is to develop computer versions of the neurons and other components of a brain. Slow but significant progress is occurring in developing computer programs that can simulate the performance of parts of a human brain. See

The second approach is to focus specifically on a problem to be solved. A good example is provided by the quest to develop a computer system that could play chess better than a human chess expert. This was achieved in 1997 by use of “brute force” methods. The IBM computer system that beat the world chess champion Garry Kasporov (Computer History Museum, n.d.) could analyze 200 million board positions per second. That is not how a human player plays chess. The very best of human chess players can only analyze two or three board position per second. Good (human) chess players have learned to quickly decide which board positions to analyze. Their brains have been trained to make such decisions at subconscious level.

The word artificial in AI was a provocative choice. I grew up in a world that included trains, cars, trucks, bicycles, airplanes, and automated factory machinery. It never occurred to me and my peers to think of such tools as “artificial muscle.” I learned to routinely use artificial muscle and fully integrated its use into my everyday life.

Contrast this with AI. Many people are greatly concerned about integrating AI and other computer capabilities into our everyday lives. This is in spite of the fact that this integration has been gradually occurring over the years. All of us routinely make use of the progress that is occurring in AI and in robots that include some AI capabilities.

The Future

Both cognitive neuroscience and computer technology are now emerging from their infancies. Research and development in cognitive neuroscience, medicine, and genetics will lead to better functioning brains. Research and development in information and communication technology will lead to smarter, much more capable computer systems and robots.

Computer futurists such as Ray Kurzweil use the term technological singularity when discussing the time when computers will become “smarter” than humans.  (See In a recent Wall Street Journal interview Kurzweil reiterated his prediction that this will occur in 2029. (See
.) This is sooner than the 2045 prediction Kurzweil discussed in (Kurzweil, 2005). Other writers on this topic have produced different forecasts, typically much further into the future.

In a February, 2011, Jeopardy game contest between an IBM computer system named Watson and two human expert players of the game, Watson won. The computer system accepted voice input from the human asking questions. The computer system did not have a human-like understanding of the meaning of the questions being asked, but it could quickly draw upon a huge databank of the types of information being sought in the questions and then to match questions with the appropriate stored data. See

Many of us are awed by student performance in national spelling contests and by human performance in quick recall memory games. Such human skills are developed through many years of intense practice. A computer can outperform the best humans in rote memorization and quick retrieval endeavors—and computer capabilities continue to improve.

Educational Game Changers

There are a steadily increasing number of problems and tasks in which computers and computerized machinery are now more capable than humans. A simple digital wristwatch and the now commonplace Global Positioning Systems provide good examples. The development of automated aids to the human mind and body continues at an accelerating pace.

Young children readily adapt to the changes that have occurred in the past. After all, everything is new to a newborn child. All of us adults have marveled at how children seem to thrive in the world of computer-based games and tools. However, much of this thriving does not involve deep learning with understanding. Rather, it provides children (as well as many adults) with aids to entertainment. It does not help to develop the knowledge, wisdom, and foresight that are essential to productive and responsible adulthood in a rapidly changing world.

Our institutions of higher education have made progress in integrating computational thinking and the tools of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into a wide range of disciplines. However, progress at the precollege level has been slow and remains slow. The National Education Technology Standards for precollege students developed by the International Society for Technology in Education more that 20 years ago have not been widely implemented (ISTE, n.d.). The basic ideas of computer-aided problem solving have not been integrated into the precollege curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A great many college students face challenges of learning computer uses that could have been met and overcome during their precollege days.

Of course, similar statements apply to students learning about their brains, progress in cognitive neuroscience, and progress in many other disciplines. The totality of accumulated and accessible human knowledge is growing at a stupendous rate. Our current educational system seems mired in using the new technology and knowledge to continue to implement curriculum content that is out of date and not designed to deal with the current and steadily increasing rate of growth of accumulated human knowledge.

The types of educational game changers that are needed are not easy to implement. Perhaps the most fundamental challenge is for teachers, curriculum material developers, and curriculum designers to learn to think in terms of using three brains instead of two brains. It is not easy to learn to think in terms of the capabilities (and limitations) of a computer brain that is steadily growing in capability. It is not easy to learn to think in terms of how to make effective use of a computer brain in conjunction with one’s unschooled human brain and one’s conventionally schooled brain. In recent years, the term computational thinking has emerged as a description of a human brain solving problems and accomplishing tasks using a combination of human and computer brains. My belief is that computational thinking will be a unifying theme as the future of education unfolds. See


Computer History Museum (n.d.). Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997. (6:07 video.) Retrieved 6/7/2012 from

Gardner, Howard (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. NY: Basic Books.

IAE-pedia (n.d.). Computational thinking. Retrieved 6/7/2012 from

IAE-pedia (n.d.). Two brains are better than one. Retrieved 6/7/2012 from

IAE-pedia (n.d.). What the future is bringing us. Retrieved 6/7/2012 from

ISTE (n.d.). International Society for Technology in Education National Education Technology Standards. Retrieved 6/7/2012 from

Kurzweil, Ray (2005). The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. Penguin Group (USA). (See

Perkins, David (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The science of learnable intelligence. New York: The Free Press.

David Moursund

David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught in the Mathematics Department and Computing Center at Michigan State University for four years before joining the faculty at the University of Oregon.

At the University of Oregon he taught in the Mathematics Department, served six years as the first Head of the Computer Science Department, and taught in the College of Education for more than 20 years.

A few highlights of his professional career include founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral students. In 2007, he founded Information Age Education (IAE), a non-profit company dedicated to improving teaching and learning by people of all ages throughout the world. See He has authored or coauthored of more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops.

For more information about David Moursund, see

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