Issue Number 240 August 31, 2018

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, seven free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; 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.

Dave Moursund’s newly revised and updated book, The Fourth R (Second Edition) is now available (Moursund, August, 2018). The 4th R of Reasoning/Computational thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the K-12 curriculum. The first edition, published December 2016, and the second edition have now had a combined 19,000 page-views and downloads.

Building on the Previous Work of One’s Self and Others

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men [people], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)

"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." (Richard Buckminster Fuller; American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist; 1895-1983.)

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (Chinese proverb.)

Evolution of Living Creatures and Education

This IAE Newsletter explores various aspects of building on the previous work of one’s self and others. To get started, think about the three quotes given above and how they fit the topic of this newsletter. Take fishing, for example. Fishing involves tools such a fishing pole, line, hook, and lure or bait. Fishing also requires knowledge and skill to be successful. In summary, solving problems and accomplishing tasks requires a combination of tools, knowledge, and skills.

I use the term tools in a very general sense. I consider your current knowledge and skills to be personal tools. You have built this repertoire of knowledge and skills through informal and formal education and practice.

Now think about all of the tools you use that were developed by others. As a personal example, I am currently writing using a computer and software developed by others. My initial reading and writing skills were taught to me by others, and they depend on written language developed by scholars many thousands of years ago. Moreover, I make substantial use of resources available to me on the Web. The computerized aids to writing and the Web make me into a much more productive writer.

However, there is much more to writing than just having a written language and tools designed to help one use the written language. As I write, I am drawing on knowledge gained over a lifetime as well as on writing skills honed over many years of writing and using writing tools developed by others. In summary, when you attempt to solve a new or recurring problem, you typically make use of tools developed by others in combination with your own personal physical and cognitive capabilities.

An aside: This writing situation reminds me of a story from my past. In the 1970s, when I established the computers in education doctoral program in the University of Oregon College of Education, I allowed my students to make use of a word processor when taking their written comprehensive exams. As word processors with a good spelling checker became available, my students used them. Some of the faculty complained that I was giving my students an unfair advantage! Of course, in some sense I was. At that time, students were allowed to use a typewriter when taking their comprehensive exams. But, a computerized typewriter with spelling checker is a more powerful aid to writing than just an “old fashioned” typewriter. I won this argument by noting that my students were doing a doctorate in the field of computers in education, and were merely using a tool that they routinely used in their coursework and would routinely use in their future jobs.

This was long before the Web was invented in1989. But, suppose that the Web had been available in those earlier days, and I had tried to argue that my students should be allowed to freely access the Web when writing their comprehensive exams. After all, if the Web had been available, my students would have routinely been using it in doing their homework assignments.

I surely would have lost that argument. Our current schools are an outcome of 5,000 years of the slow evolution of new techniques and tools to improve education. Computers are now a powerful aid to solving many of the problems and accomplishing many of the tasks that our schools currently teach students to do by hand, using only knowledge that they carry in their heads. That is a far cry from the real world outside of school!

You are living during a time when the technology is available to completely change this approach to education. That is because humans have developed new and very powerful aids to their brains. It is not only that we can provide all students with easy access to the Web, the world’s largest library. It is also because artificial intelligence has made substantial progress (Moursund, 2018a). Progress in in this and other technology is certainly changing the world and is now a major challenge to our educational systems (Moursund, 1/19/2018; Moursund & Sylwester, 4/10/2015).


The first type of life came into existence on earth, possibly as long as 4 billion years ago. Evolution then took over. As is often said, “The rest is history.” Quoting from the Wikipedia (2018b):

The earliest known life forms on Earth are putative fossilized microorganisms found in hydrothermal vent precipitates. The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is unknown. They may have lived earlier than 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years ago, not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and not long after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago. The earliest direct evidence of life on Earth are fossils of microorganisms permineralized in 3.465-billion-year-old Australian Apex chert rocks.

This type of evolution continues. But, starting a few million years ago, prehumans began to develop and use tools to supplement and extend their innate physical and cognitive abilities. They learned to pass this tool-oriented knowledge and skills on to their progeny. While there are other tool-using animals, current humans have far surpassed all other creatures on earth in this endeavor. In some sense, human development of tool disrupted the time-honored process of evolution. Rather than waiting for and hoping for evolution to produce more capable and survivable humans, we developed tools.

The development of writing and reading provides a very important example. Reading and writing are a very powerful brain aid. Over the course of a about 5,300 years, we have moved from no humans being read/write literate to 86% or so of all people ages 15 and above being read/write literate (World Bank, 2018). That rate of change is certainly different than the slow pace of evolutional change of life on earth.

Here is some food for thought: Humans have now developed genetic engineering. This can rapidly produce changes in living species that had previously taken many years of careful, selective breeding, or that might never occur in nature.

Have you thought about what might happen as we use genetic engineering to improve human physical and cognitive abilities?

Evolution of Tools

Fire, stones, and animal pelts were early tools that prehumans discovered and learned to use. Skillful use of such early tools contributed to survival and quality of life. In prehistoric times, children learned to make and use these tools through a combination of one-on-one and small group instruction (in essence, tutoring) and imitation. Comprehensive oral language and schools had not yet been developed.

Certainly, writing and reading are among the most important tools that humans have ever developed. The invention of reading and writing, and of arithmetic based on the use of reading and writing, were huge aids to our cognitive abilities. Moreover, it speeded up the sharing of discoveries over both distance and time. For thousands of years, people have worked to develop other cognitive aids. The abacus is a good example, as were the first mechanical calculators built  about 450 years ago. (Wikipedia, 2018a).

In some sense, we can view such advances in technology as a type of evolutionary process. Each new invention is built on the knowledge, skills, and inventions of previous inventors. Indeed, my recent Google search of evolution of technology produced 747 million results. In this evolutionary process we can include improvements in the teaching of the 3 Rs and other progress such as the development of paper, pencils, typewriters, ballpoint pens, and now computers.

It is interesting that a Google search finds a large number of documents exploring the evolutionary change of our educational systems. My Google search of the term educational technology produced abut 667million results. My personal opinion is that the development of electronic digital computers will eventually prove to be a change agent on par with the development of reading and writing.

The timeline for widespread use of computer technology has been much shorter than the timeline for widespread use of for reading and writing. It takes years of study and practice to become read/write literate, but only a modest amount of time to become reasonably skilled in using a Smartphone. Typically, children do not go to school to learn to use a Smartphone. Rather, they gain their skills through individual tutoring from acquaintances and through trial and error.

Evolution in Learning via Informal and Formal Education

Humans are born with a brain and physical body that are very immature, but have great potential. We have a long infanthood in which we are completely dependent on the work of others. As our brain and physical body grow and slowly mature, we steadily increase our personal knowledge and skills that we can build on to gain still more knowledge and skills.

The quotation from Einstein at the beginning of this newsletter and similar observations by many others emphasize that what we can do and what we actually do are both very dependent on what others have done before us. For example, I know how to read and write, and reading and writing were first developed more than 5,000 years ago. I routinely get vaccinations to help prevent various diseases, and the development of vaccinations was a huge step forward in medicine. Currently, essentially all of my food, clothing, shelter, and transportation depend on the work of others.

Equally important, my personal capabilities at any moment are a result of my previous informal and formal learning, both inside and outside of school. For me, learning is a lifelong, continuing endeavor. All of my learning is “gist for the mill.” I believe this is a very important concept for students to learn.

In many of my writings, I have emphasized that each of us is both a lifelong learner and lifelong teacher. I think of every interaction I have with others in face-to-face conversation, via social networking, via writing, and so on as a type of teaching that helps others to learn, and I also learn from being involved in such communications.

Tools as Repositories of Knowledge and as Teachers

When you pick up a hammer by its handle, you almost instinctively know how to use it to pound on things. From the first use of hand-held rocks for pounding, the hammer has evolved to be broadly useful and somewhat self-teaching. While it may seem a little far out to you, I think of every tool as having knowledge within itself. The process of my learning to use the tool is aided by this built-in knowledge that the tool can offer to me.

In the computer world we talk about user interface. A good computer hardware and software system designed to be used by people has an interface that is easy and “natural” to learn to use and to use. Quoting from (Wikipedia, 2018c):

User interface design (UI) or user interface engineering is the design of user interfaces for machines and software, such as computers, home appliances, mobile devices, and other electronic devices, with the focus on maximizing usability and the user experience. The goal of user interface design is to make the user's interaction as simple and efficient as possible, in terms of accomplishing user goals.

The ideas of UI can be carried to many areas other than those mentioned in the Wikipedia article. For example, suppose you are a teacher preparing a lesson you will teach. You and the lesson are tools (aids to student learning), and the students are the users. The goal to be accomplished is student learning. A good teacher-student interface makes learning easier and better.

Here is a very important idea:

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” (Frederick Douglass; American freed slave who became an ardent abolitionist, orator, and writer; 1818-1895.)

Consider UI in the situation of a learning to read. Most people find that it is a considerable challenge to learn to read their native language. But, some writing systems are easier to learn than others. Some written languages are very phonetic, and students more easily and quickly learn to pronounce written words in a more phonetic language than in one that is not very phonetic. Since the typical student already know the native oral language, this means that learning to read is relatively easy because the written language user interface is better (in terms of learning to read) than in a less phonetic written language.

A book is both a source of information and a type of teacher. Suppose that the book you are trying to read is an electronic book on a computer equipped with voice output and a touch screen. You start reading and come to a word you do not understand and/or cannot pronounce. You touch or click on the word and get a written and/or oral definition and pronunciation. In my opinion, this user interface aspect of an electronic book helps to make electronic books a better aid to learning than hardcopy books. The key idea here is the availability of relevant and timely help/feedback. Such personal help/feedback can be a very important aspect of teaching and learning.

Continuing the reading example, while reading an online book you come to an idea or topic that you want to know more about. Historically, a student could ask a fellow student or the teacher, perhaps locate an appropriate reference in a personal or classroom library, or use a school library. Now, of course, with a few appropriate key presses a student can be browsing the Web—by far the world’s largest library (Moursund, 2018b). Once again, we see the book having evolved (via the addition of computers, the Internet, and the Web) into a much more user friendly and readily available aid to learning.

More About the Computer as a Tool and as a Teacher

The previous section illustrated an evolution in books, with an electronic book serving both as a tool (an enhanced traditional hardcopy book) and as a teacher. This evolution is occurring rapidly as the capabilities of the very wide range of “tools as teachers” continues to grow.

That is the fundamental idea in my latest free book, The Fourth R (Second Edition) (Moursund, August, 2018). I strongly support learners of all ages taking advantage of computer technology as both an aid to learning and an aid to solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

When I carry on a conversation with another person, we are each building on our current knowledge and skills. We are both humans. We know what it is like to be a human, to have emotions, goals, fears, deal with social pressures, and so on. Human teachers bring these characteristics to teaching in their interactions both with groups of students and with individual students. This raises fundamental questions about the computer-as-teacher.

What can a computer-as-teacher do better than a human teacher working with a large group of students? What can a computer-as-teacher do better than an individual human tutor who is available only a very modest amount of time during a student’s educational day and not available at other times during the week?

Each subject that we teach in school needs to be carefully examined to determine the extent to which we want to integrate computerized teaching versions of the subject into the curriculum.

Final Remarks

Evolution is a unifying theme in this newsletter. The development of the varied life forms on earth has been an evolutionary process. It is useful to think about the development of human-produced tools as an evolutionary process. Somewhat similarly, it is useful to think about the development of various disciplines of study—including education—as an evolutionary process.

The development of reading and writing speeded up the evolution of education, and the development of computer technology is further speeding up this evolution. Formal schools and schooling were first developed shortly after the invention of reading and writing a little over 5,000 years ago. While the “progress” or evolutionary change of education may at times seem slow, we have made substantial progress over the past 5,000 years.

Computer technology is a powerful education and society change agent. From an evolutionary point of view, computer technology is a jump somewhat comparable to the jump provided by the development of reading and writing. We are just at the beginning of huge changes in education that are becoming necessary and will occur as the computer-based knowledge age runs its course.

References and Resources

Moursund, D. (2018a). Artificial intelligence. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/12/2018 from

Moursund, D. (2018b). Information underload and overload. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/12/2018 from

Moursund, D. (August, 2018). The Fourth R (Second Edition). Retrieved 8/12/2018 from Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from

Moursund, D. (1/19/2018).What the future is bringing us. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/12/2018 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R, eds. (4/10/2015). Education for students’ futures. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from

Wikipedia (2018a). Calculator. Retrieved 8/15/2018 from

Wikipedia (2018b). Earliest known life forms. Retrieved 8/15/2018 from

Wikipedia (2018c) User interface design. Retrieved 8/13/2018 from

World Bank (2018). Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above). Retrieved 8/13/2018 from


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and 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 (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner).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 IAE books. See . Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executive Officer of AGATE.


Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.

Readers may also send comments via email directly to

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. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at and all back issues of the Newsletter at