Information Age Education
   Issue Number 194
September, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: 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.

K-12 Education: Out With the Old—in With the New

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that we must want for all of the children of the community.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; 1859-1952.)

You have heard the expression, “Out with the old—in with the new.” In K-12 education, the old has served us well, but new ideas are always being put forth. As we work to improve our educational system, we must make judicious decisions about what to keep and what to replace.

In this IAE Newsletter, I explore aspects of our current K-12 schools that I believe can be changed or replaced in a manner that will being more joy to students and improve their education. Keep in mind, however, that it is not so easy to do the following:
  1. Make good decisions on what to remove, and what to add or significantly change.

  2. Actually be successful in implementing these improvements.
The new may be based on progress in technology. Certainly the progress in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has been accompanied with a very large number of proposals on how to make effective use of ICT to improve education. Or, the new may be based on educational research. For example, we certainly know a great deal more about cognitive neuroscience (brain science) than we did 20 years ago. Other sources of new lie in progress in medicine, genetic engineering, issues of sustainability of the various life forms on earth, achieving global cooperation in dealing with global warming, and so on.

ICT provides interesting and challenging examples. Let’s use a Smartphone for an example. Worldwide production of Smartphones is now at a rate of over a billion a year, or about one for every seven people on earth. In the “developed” nations, they are ubiquitous. For the most part, children and adults manage to learn to use them without the benefit of formal schooling. Frequently, children who are self taught or who learn from other children develop a range of Smartphone knowledge and skills exceeding that of many adults.

Here is a fundamental three-part Smartphone question:
  1. What problems and tasks can a Smartphone-equipped person effectively deal with better than a person who does not have such an aid?

  2. How important are these problems and tasks to the person in their everyday life, and to the education of the person?

  3. How are our schools making use of what students + Smartphones can learn to do together?
More generally, educators need to better understand how much transfer of learning occurs from an informal educational environment to the formal schooling environment. How might schools better help students to understand such transfer of learning and to take advantage of it in school and in their lives outside of school?

These are not simple questions and they do not have simple answers. However, the capabilities and “smartness” of Smartphones (also tablet computers, computerized games, and so on) are steadily increasing, so the challenge to our current educational system is growing. We recognize the joy and other benefits that Smartphones bring to the lives of many students but we see many school districts strongly resisting use of Smartphones in school.

Some Examples from Will Richardson’s Article

Will Richardson has recently written a provocative article, Nine Elephants in the (Class) Room that Should “Unsettle” Us (Richardson, 4/13/2016). This section briefly discusses some of his ideas. To a large extent, each of the nine elephants that Richardson addresses is an example of the heritage of our current educational system, and they tend to decrease joy in education.

Students Forget Most of What They "Learn" in School

All adults know this. They need only think back to what they “learned” in various courses and grade levels, and how much they still remember. I was shocked many years ago when my older daughter took a freshman calculus course and would come to me for help from time to time. I—with my doctorate in math—had trouble with some of the details of the material that I had not used for many years.

As Richardson notes:

That’s primarily because the curriculum and classroom work they experience has little or no relevance to students’ real lives…. Yet we continue to focus our efforts primarily on content knowledge, as is evidenced by the focus of our assessments. If we would acknowledge that true learning is unforgettable, made of the things that we want to learn more about, we’d radically shift our focus in the classroom. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Richardson’s assertion is challenged by modern research. The research suggests we forget quite a bit, but we also remember quite a bit (Willingham, Fall, 2015). Quoting from the reference:

We certainly forget things over time, and there’s no reason to expect that what students learn in school should be any exception. But take heart: we don’t forget everything, and under some conditions, we remember nearly everything. Researchers have some understanding of why we’re likely to overestimate what we’ve forgotten. And most important, there is some evidence that the memory of what we’ve learned in school matters—and actually makes us smarter.

As students progress through school, a substantial portion of their time is spent on content that is not immediately useful to them. They memorize a lot, make immediate use of some of what they memorize, and over time forget a great deal of what they have memorized.

The advent of computer technology has made a considerable portion of school content available so a person can quickly look the information up electronically. For example, I find it helpful to know that the U.S. has 50 states, and that each state has a name and a capital city. Is it important that off the top of my head I be able to name all 50 states and their capitals?

I know that states have counties or parishes. Hmm. My computer just told me that there are 3,142 counties and county equivalents in the U.S. I think that at one time I could name the 36 counties in my home state of Oregon, but certainly I can no longer do that. (And, I lived in Wisconsin and Michigan for a number of years without feeling the need to remember the names of all of their counties.) So, a continuing question is, “What to memorize and what to depend on just looking it up?” 

One thing is clear to me. We can do better in integrating school content across the curriculum.  For example, math and science are part of essentially every discipline of study. We teach them as isolated subjects and we do poorly in integrating student math and science knowledge and skills into the rest of the curriculum.

Our Schools Are Not Set Up to Produce Deep, Long-lasting Learning

Quoting again from Richardson:

When we look at the things that each of us has learned most deeply in our lives, the same certain conditions almost always apply: Among other things, we had an interest and a passion for the topic, we had a real, authentic purpose in learning it, we had agency and choice, deciding what, when, where, and with whom we learned it, and we had fun learning it even if some of it was “hard fun.”

The “hard fun” reference is to an article by Seymour Papert, a pioneer in use of computers in school (Papert, n.d.). Papert was a wizard at using the Logo programming language to create joyful learning experiences in schools, especially at the elementary school level. Learning can be (and often is) hard work. But intrinsic motivation and success in using one’s new knowledge and skills can often help to turn this hard work into hard fun.

Note that Richardson is focusing on what might be called “pure” academic content. He does not discuss the many aspects of schooling that prepare students for their current and future lives. For example, students make friends in school, and they learn to work together with fellow students. They learn about cooperation, sharing, helping others to learn, and learning from each other. These are all continuing and very important aspects of bringing students together for long periods of informal and formal interaction.

Parts of Our Curriculum Are Archaic

Richardson says this more poetically as follows:

The way we talk about “The Curriculum” you would think that it was something delivered on a gold platter from on high. In reality, [for U.S. schools] it was pretty much written by 10 middle-aged white guys (and their primarily white, middle-aged friends) in 1894 called “The Committee of Ten.” They were from some of the most prestigious schools and universities at the time, and they fashioned the structure of much of what we still teach in schools today [CSMC, 2004].

It is easy to be critical of the work of “The Committee of Ten” done more than 120 years ago. This work definitely advanced secondary school education in the U.S. However, it also solidified some ideas that have resisted change.

Ten-person subcommittees worked in each of ten different discipline areas. In math, for example, the Committee’s five reports were:
  • General statement of conclusions.

  • Special report on the teaching of arithmetic.

  • Special report on the teaching of concrete geometry.

  • Special report on the teaching of algebra.

  • Special report on the teaching of formal geometry.
Over the years we made changes to this set of recommendations, but they continue to weigh heavily on the math curriculum.

Currently, the typical grades 9-12 secondary school provides students with two years of algebra, a year of geometry, a year of pre-calculus (calculus prep) topics, and calculus. (Increasingly, the first year of algebra is offered in the eighth grade.) Over the past 50 years the math recommendations have been shoved downward a year and new content has been added.

However, it seems clear that this “college track” math curriculum is not meeting the needs of a great many college-bound students. Evidence of this is provided by the fact that the majority of students who graduate from high school and begin college are forced to take remedial math courses based on their math placement test scores.

In addition, at the current time the “average” adult in the U.S. performs at about the eighth grade level in math. This is despite the fact that 90 percent of U.S. adults have completed high school or a GED (U.S. Census, n.d.).

In a completely different academic area, we definitely have made progress in modernizing the curriculum. In languages, Greek and Latin used to be required for admission to many colleges, and so were emphasized at the precollege level. That is no longer the case.

Other Examples

Substantial research tells us that the sleep patterns of teenagers are different from those of younger and older people. Many adolescents suffer from sleep deprivation (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). Quoting from this site:

Teens are among those least likely to get enough sleep; while they need on average 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night for optimal performance, health and brain development, teens average fewer than 7 hours per school night by the end of high school, and most report feeling tired during the day. The roots of the problem include poor teen sleep habits that do not allow for enough hours of quality sleep; hectic schedules with afterschool activities and jobs, homework hours and family obligations; and a clash between societal demands, such as early school start times, and biological changes that put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock. As a result, when it is time to wake up for school, the adolescent’s body says it is still the middle of the night, and he or she has had too little sleep to feel rested and alert. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Here is a statement from the American Medical Association (June 17, 2016):

The AMA, the nation's largest group of physicians, has just announced a new policy encouraging middle and high schools to start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This position echoes that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other leading health associations that recognize the research supporting later bell times.

"While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences," noted AMA Board Member William E. Kobler, M.D.

From time to time I see news items that a school district is changing to a later start time for secondary school students (Macintosh, July 22, 2015):

In a surprise move designed to save $9.2 million by "streamling" bus routes, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) just announced they will be shifting 60 high schools to 9 a.m. openings and 17 elementary schools to earlier openings of 7:30 or 7:45 a.m. According to recent press coverage, the routes involved will go from three bus "tiers" to two. CPS announced the change less than two months before the start of school and without public input. Interesting how quickly a school system - even a large one - can make a decision like this when it ostensibly involves saving money!

Notice that the reason given was “to save $9.2 million” rather than “to better meet the health needs of high school students”!

On a somewhat related subject, have you thought about why most school “years” are only nine months in length? It is certainly not because students’ brains need a yearly three-month rest. We developed the nine months school year when farmers needed their children’s help in the fields during the summer. That time is long past.

For another example, consider the teaching of non-English languages in U.S. schools. The research strongly supports starting this instruction at as young an age as possible—for example, kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, or still earlier. While we have some language emersion schools that follow this idea, most of our non-English language instruction begins when students are much older—and when their brains have substantially reduced language-learning capabilities. Quoting from Jeanette Vos’s article, Can Preschool Children Be Taught a Second Language? (Vos, 2008):

For years it has been thought that teaching a foreign language to preschool-age children would be futile. However, recent studies indicate that the best time for a child to learn another language is in the first three to four years of life.

"During this period and especially the first three years of life, the foundations for thinking, language, vision, attitudes, aptitudes, and other characteristics are laid down," says Ronald Kotulak, author of Inside the Brain. Consequently, it would be a waste not to use a child's natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years, when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first.

Many bilingual and trilingual people experience joy in their language communication skills and knowledge of a second and/or third culture. Interestingly, research indicates that there are cognitive advantages of this linguistic achievement (Chan, 6/14/2014; Nacamulli, 6/2/2015). The latter reference is a 5-minute video that I found to be quite delightful.

Final Remarks

I don’t know about you, but when I start on a car trip I tell my Smartphone my starting point and destination. As I drive, my Smartphone tells me where to turn, how far I still have to go, and how long this is apt to take. The capabilities of today’s cars continue to improve, and eventually most people will be riding in self-driving cars. These aids to driving are only one of the many ways that ICT is changing our daily lives.

When I have a question that other people are apt to have studied and answered, I communicate with my Smartphone or computer and am quite likely to be provided with a useful answer. Think of this as my computer working with me to solve problems and accomplish tasks better than either of us can do alone.

It is vitally important that a modern education prepares students to solve problems and accomplish tasks using both their own physical and cognitive capabilities, and the physical and cognitive capabilities of machines. Yet, in many schools we are doing a very poor job of preparing students to make effective use of the rapidly growing cognitive capabilities of computers.

It also is important that we pay attention to the joy that so many of our students find in exploring the capabilities of their computer, Smartphone, and other electronic tools. Wouldn’t it be grand to bring much of this joy into our classrooms?

References and Resources

American Medical Association (AMA) calls for later school start times! (June 17, 2016). Start School Retrieved 9/3/2016 from

Chan, A. (6/14/2014). Seven reasons why it’s good to speak another language. Huffpost Healthy Living. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

CSMC (2004). The Committee of Ten. Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

Lathrop, A. (6/24/2015). Note to a friend with children. IAE Blog. Retrieved 7/15/2016 from

Macintosh, H. (July 22, 2015). Sixty Chicago high schools to start later this fall. Start School Retrieved 9/3/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2016). Improving the world: What you can do. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/20/2016 from

Moursund, D. (5/12/2016). Building a personal library for children. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/20/2016 from

Moursund, D. (1/23/2016). Learning problem-solving strategies by using games: A guide for educators and parents. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/20/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Web: PDF: Microsoft Word:

Moursund, D. (2/25/2015). The coming technological singularity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

Nacamulli, M. (6/2/2015). The benefits of a bilingual brain. TED Ed Lessons Worth Sharing. (Video, 5:03.) Retrieved 9/3/2016 from

National Sleep Foundation (n.d.). Backgrounder: Later school start times. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

Papert, S. (n.d.). Works by Seymour Papert, Ph.D. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from Provides a list of about 100 articles written by Papert, including links to many of them. The article Hard Fun is available at

Richardson, W. (4/13/2016). Nine elephants in the (class) room that should “unsettle” us. Huffpost Education. Retrieved 5/202016 from

U.S. Census (n.d.). Educational attainment in the United States: 2015. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

Vos, J. (2008). Can preschool children be taught a second language? Earlychildhood News. Retrieved 5/21/2016 from

Willingham, D. (Fall, 2015). Do students remember what they learn in school? Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Retrieved 9/3/2016 from


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-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. 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 In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See


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