Information Age Education
   Issue Number 195
October, 2016   

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) 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.

Robert Branson’s Upper Limit Hypothesis

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

“It isn't enough just to learn—one must learn how to learn, how to learn without classrooms, without teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in short, how to think and analyze and decide and discover and create.” (Michael Bassis; American educator and author; 1946-.)

More than ten years ago I read and later wrote about Robert K. Branson’s article, Why Schools Can’t Improve: The Upper Limit Hypothesis (Branson, 1987). See my paper, Developing a Philosophy of Computers in Education (Moursund, 7/23/2005). In brief summary, Branson’s article presents the case that in 1987, schools in the U.S. were about as good as they were going to get without use of the new computer technologies.

Quoting from Branson’s1987 article:

The first purpose of this paper is to question whether there is a significant discrepancy between the current levels of productivity and quality of American schools and the levels required to serve the society well. The second purpose questions whether the current approach, or the approaches of blue ribbon commissions are likely to produce significant improvements. A third purpose sets forth the hypothesis that the current school operations model cannot be improved by the recommendations offered by the National Commission. The fourth purpose is to suggest that some form of technological intervention must be made before any substantial increases are made in productivity. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Branson’s fourth point relates to the idea that Malcolm Gladwell called the tipping point. Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, provides a number of examples of how changes in technology have produced tipping points that have caused many companies to go bankrupt (Gladwell, 2002). His key point is that new technologies often present a major challenge to companies that are doing well using the older technologies and ways of doing business. New and more nimble companies may well capture the customers served by the older, better-established companies.

Branson supported both research-based incremental improvements and the need for a paradigm shift. Quoting from Branson’s 2001 article (Branson, May, 2001):

The conclusion to be presented and defended is that education cannot get better until it uses the results of programmatic research and development (R&D) to make incremental changes in the current processes. Educators cannot avoid the difficult and deliberate R&D work that other industries must do to make fundamental improvements.

Upper Limit Theory

Branson uses the word hypothesis in his article. I tend to use the term theory in discussing the same ideas. In a “pure” science, a theory (hypothesis) is proposed, and then scientists go about the task of trying to prove or disprove the theory. Their goal is to have results that are solid enough, sound enough, reliable enough (choose your own words) so that others can build on them with confidence. Newton’s theory (laws) of motion published in 1687 was very useful, but eventually gave way to results from Einstein’s general theory of relativity published in the early 1900s. Einstein’s earth-shaking theory is still being tested now, more than a hundred years later.

My recent Google search of the expression upper limit OR limits theory produced over 60 million results. The term is used in many different areas of performance. For example, how fast can a human run the 100-meter dash? The world record time for the 100-meter dash has decreased over time. Over the past hundred years the record time has decreased from about 10.60 seconds to 9.58 seconds (Wikipedia, n.d.). This is due to some combination of a broader range of participants drawn from much of the world, better training, better shoes, better tracks, and so on. A “scientific” analysis of this data might suggest that 9 seconds is an upper limit.

Of course, with appropriate technology it is quite easy for a person to travel 100-meters in less than 9 seconds. (Just think about automobile drag racers that can cover a quarter mile in less than 4 seconds.)

Figure 1 illustrates an incremental, continuous improvement model. Although the remainder of this article is specifically talking about education, this figure is applicable in many different areas of performance. Over a long period of time, incremental improvements are made. The effects are small from year to year, but tend to occur in a cumulative manner. Thus, the total effect increases over the years.

Eventually, the new improvements begin to have a smaller and smaller overall effect. Whatever performance is being improved gets closer and closer to being as good as it can be—that is, unless there is a major breakthrough.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Continuous improvement model and upper limit theory.

Our educational system employs a continuous, incremental improvement model. Now, nearly 30 years since Branson’s 1987 article, we can look back over a great many years of national data on K-12 education and see that little progress is occurring in the overall quality of student performance in areas such as reading, writing, science, and math. Branson argued that our educational system was performing at approximately the 95% level of possible performance by the mid 1960s. All of our efforts to improve our educational system since then have had little effect on performance in reading, writing, science, and math.

Branson’s article argues that a paradigm shift —based on computer technology—would propel education to much higher levels of achievement. Figure 2 helps to illustrate the idea of a major paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is like starting anew from the level that has previously been achieved.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Paradigm shift, opening room for more incremental change.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book provides examples of such paradigm shifts in business and industry. Here is a computer-related example. Before the invention of the transistor, vacuum tubes were an essential component of electronic equipment. Vacuum tubes (much like incandescent light bulbs) were relatively large, fragile, had a short life, and produced a lot of heat. Such tubes were gradually improved over time since their invention in the early1900s. However, it seemed likely that they were approaching their upper limit in the 1940s, just as electronic digital computers were beginning to be developed.

The early computers were machines that used many thousands of vacuum tubes. In essence, the developing computer industry was stymied by the power consumption and heat of the best tubes that could be produced. You may find it both instructional and amusing to read a little bit about the 18,000 vacuum tube ENIAC computer built in the United States during 1943-45 (Computer History Museum, n.d.).

The invention and development of transistors was a tipping point—a major paradigm shift in electronics. Beginning after the invention of the transistor in 1947, vacuum tubes gave way to transistors. Now, about 70 years later, it may well be that you own a laptop or desktop computer that contains more than a billion transistors. Try to imagine such a machine containing a billion vacuum tubes, each the size of your thumb and each giving off 25 watts of heat. At 10 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, the hourly cost of running such a machine would be about $2.5 million! And, this does not include the cost of the needed air conditioning.

Perhaps you don’t own a desktop or laptop computer, but do own a Smartphone. The newer Smartphones contain more than two billion transistors. The number of neurons in a human brain is estimated at 186 billion. Intel predicts that by 2026 they will be producing a computer chip containing as many transistors as the number of neurons in a human brain (Henderson, 1/6/2014).

How would you like to be a billionaire? The chances are that you own electronic equipment that contains transistors that are equivalent to several billion dollars worth of vacuum tubes from the 1940s. In today’s dollars, such vacuum tubes may have cost in the $5 to $10 range. So, a person why buys a modern cell phone or tablet computer is buying the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of the types of vacuum tubes that existed before transistors were invented.

Final Remarks

The 100-meter dash makes use of very precise measures of distance and time, and precise rules on drug use, equipment, track surfaces, wind speed, and so on. Our educational system lacks precision, both in what it is trying to accomplish and how accomplishments are measured. Moreover, the “rules of the game” have changed over time, now being quite flexible in allowing use of technology such as books, audiovisual materials, drugs (for example, Ritalin for students with ADHD and anxiety), and so on. So, the analogy between the 100-meter dash and Branson’s observation about possible upper limits in educational achievement is quite a stretch.

We all know what modern electronic technology has done for the communication and entertainment industries. It seems like an understatement to say that electronic technology has revolutionized these industries. In addition, we routinely hear news about how robots are “taking over” middle class jobs. We are getting used to voice input to computers and voice output from computers (Weise, 9/29/2016).

Here is a very important “fact” to understand. Machine interfaces (the way that humans interact with the machines) are designed so that the machines are both relatively easy to learn to use and relatively easy to use. A typical five-year-old can learn to use a tablet computer, a cell phone, a digital camera, and a wide variety of computer games. There is a strong parallel between this type of learning and the other informal learning that is going on for young children. It is not school-based learning.

Think of this from a formal schooling point of view. What can/do children learn from their routine, everyday lives outside of school? What do children learn from the 180 or so school days per year? Here are three questions for you to ponder:
  1. How can the overall education of children be improved by modifications to their informal (outside of school) forms of education?

  2. How can computer technology and other school-related paradigm shifts make school time more productive?

  3. What should our informal and formal educational systems be doing to effectively deal with the continuing progress in artificial intelligence? Perhaps someday computers will be more intelligent than humans. Computer scientists call this the singularity (Moursund, 5/16/2015 and 3/4/2015). This singularity would represent a paradigm shift in computer intelligence.

References and Resources

Branson, R.K. (May, 2001). When all the quick fixes fail again, try R&D. International Conference on Technology and Education Proceedings. Retrieved 10/2/2016 from

Branson, R.K. (1987). Why schools can’t improve: The upper limit hypothesis. Journal of Instructional Development. Retrieved 9/29/2016 from

Computer History Museum (n.d.). ENIAC. Retrieved 9/30/2016 from

Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Henderson, R. (1/6/2014). Intel claims that by 2026 processors will have as many transistors as there are neurons in a brain. Retrieved 9/30/2016 from

Moursund, D. (5/16/2015). Technology-based mini-singularities. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/30/2016 from

Moursund, D. (3/4/2015). Education for the coming singularity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/30 2016 from

Moursund, D. (7/23/2005). Developing a philosophy of computers in education. Retrieved 9/29/2016 from

Weise, E. (9/29/2016). Amazon will give you $1M if your AI can chitchat for 20 minutes. USA Today. Retrieved 9/30/2016 from

Wikipedia (n.d.). Men's 100 metres world record progression. Retrieved 10/1/2016 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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