Issue Number 241 September 15, 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.

A Thought Experiment About the 4th R in Education

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

Albert Einstein is well known for his research in the field of relativity and developing the formula E= mc2 (Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared). He often used thought experiments in explaining his theories.

A thought experiment is a type of mental experiment or analogy. After some consideration, I began to see that many of my own thoughts are actually a type of thought experiment. When I think before I act, I am mentally considering the possible consequences of my possible action. This helps my conscious mind to understand the proposed action. My conclusion is that all of us frequently do thought experiments. This IAE Newsletter explores that idea.

Albert Einstein

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

A hallmark of Albert Einstein's career was his use of visualized thought experiments (German: Gedankenexperiment) as a fundamental tool for understanding physical issues and for elucidating his concepts to others. Einstein's thought experiments took diverse forms. In his youth, he mentally chased beams of light. For special relativity, he employed moving trains and flashes of lightning to explain his most penetrating insights. For general relativity, he considered a person falling off a roof, accelerating elevators, blind beetles crawling on curved surfaces, and the like. [Bold added for emphasis.]

A Bit of My Early Professional Career

This is a personal story about some teaching that I did in the summer of 1963. I had finished my doctorate in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin about a half year earlier and had just accepted a teaching position at Michigan State University to start in the fall. As part of my doctoral studies, I learned to program in the FORTRAN language. My dissertation was in Numerical Analysis, which is the study of using computational methods to solve math problems. I made extensive use of computer programming in my doctoral dissertation and in my subsequent math research career.

A friend of mine and I were hired to teach a 1963 summer course to a group of high school students at the University of Wisconsin. The course consisted of a combination of computer programming in FORTRAN and the uses of computers to help solve math problems. My friend taught the computer programming component of the course and I taught the numerical analysis part.

During this instruction, I started thinking about the possibility that the instruction we were providing could/should become a routine component of high school math courses. What would teachers need to know in order to integrate computer programming and computer-oriented math into their teaching, and how would the overall high school math curriculum need to be changed?

In essence, this was a thought experiment. It was the beginning of my subsequent lifelong career in teaching teachers about the uses of computers to help solve the types of problems and accomplish the types of tasks they were encountering in their work and in other parts of their lives. For the remainder of the summer course, I continued to think about what these preservice and inservice teachers should know and be able to do in order to make effective use of computer technology in their teaching and in their personal lives.

This long (and still continuing) career eventually led to my writing The Fourth R (Moursund, December, 2016) and its recent second edition (Moursund, August, 2018). The basic idea is simple enough. Schools have been teaching the first 3 Rs of Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic for about 5,000 years. Computers are a powerful aid in learning and making use of each of these three disciplines. Indeed, computers are significantly changing these three disciplines. This analogical thinking, or thought experiment, led me to my current definition of the 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking and my writings about this topic. 

Back to Einstein and Thought Experiments in the Sciences

Einstein used his thought experiments both to guide his own research thinking and to communicate his ideas to others. The eventual results were his various theories that were huge contributions to physics. They led to his great fame and a Nobel prize. A key aspect of Einstein’s work is that it suggested some scientific experiments and data analysis that could lend credence to his theories or prove them wrong. This is a fundamental idea in science.

Part of my 1963 thought experiment was supported by the fact that many thousands of high school students had already learned computer programming and were making use of their programming skills both in and outside of school. There was no need to conduct research to see whether high school students could learn to program and make use of their programming skills in solving problems. What was missing was good research on the effects on math education when students in secondary school math classes were routinely having access to computers and routinely using their programming skills to learn and do math.

You know that many academic disciplines—including teaching and learning—incorporate very large and steadily growing bodies of research. But, you also know that the discipline of teaching and learning does not have a “solid” theory-based underlying research foundation comparable to what we find in disciplines such as physics and chemistry. I can conjecture that having the 4th R thoroughly integrated into K-12 education will improve education, but it is quite difficult (perhaps impossible???) to design and conduct research that will absolutely prove whether my conjecture is correct or incorrect.

One of the reasons for this is that we have no universally agreed upon definitions or sets of criteria as to what constitutes a good education. Perhaps an even larger problem is that no two people are identical. My brain is different from your brain and from every other brain on earth. That is quite different from what a researcher encounters when conducting physics research. The science of physics studies particles that are the same throughout the known universe.

I believe that all people who are concerned about their own education and about the education of others should be giving careful thought to the 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking. The next two sections will explore a hypothetical (fictional) educational scenario set in the past, and contrast this with the world’s current challenges of making effective use of the 4th R in education.

The Scenario

I enjoy reading alternant history books. In such books, the author changes some events in history and then explores the consequences. For example, suppose that Custer, when he was making his “last stand” against attacking Native Americans, had available several of the new Gatling guns that had already been invented by that time. With his Gatling guns, he handily defeated the attackers. What then happens to Custer in the future and how does this change American history?

Or, suppose that John Wilkes Booth’s gun had failed to fire when he was trying to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. How would the United States have been changed by Lincoln’s continuing to serve as President and by the rest of his life-long activities?
I have written several alternant history scenarios in the past. My favorite is Chesslandia, in which teaching all children to be excellent Chess players is the driving force in an education system (Moursund, March, 1987).

An Alternant History Scenario

The Agricultural Age began more than 5,000 years before the development of reading and writing. Now imagine that, as villages and towns began to grow during the first few thousand years of the Agricultural Age, the residents developed schools to help their children learn the various things the elders believed young people should know. For example, these schools taught local history and laws, counting, arithmetic using an abacus-type device as an aid, mnemonics as aids to memorizing stories and ballads, weaving, pottery, making and using farming tools, and a host of other topics. All of this was done without reading and writing, which had not yet been invented.

Over the years, the school curriculum grew until eventually all children were required to go to school for six years. Those who showed appropriate talents and learning skill could continue for six more years, and then move into jobs that required their level of maturity, knowledge, and skills. Even the smallest villages had a school (typically a one-room building) and a teacher. Teaching required knowledge of the subject matter one was teaching, as well as knowing what students had been taught at earlier grade levels. It also required knowledge of the local population, including their beliefs and values.

And then, reading and writing were developed, and also math based on the use of reading and writing! It soon became evident that these were very useful subject areas and tools, and that it certainly benefitted a village or town to have a number of residents who had mastered reading, writing, and basic math. It also became apparent that students could begin to learn these new 3 R skills even in the first grade or earlier, but that it took a full eight years or more of schooling to meet the standards required in many business and civil service jobs. So, there was considerable pressure to increase required school attendance to eight years, and to provide suitable further education for students who wanted to continue their studies for four or more additional years.

Initially, a few adults—including some teachers—learned to read and write. Some children learned reading, writing, and arithmetic at home, and some went to special “outside of regular school” classes where they learned the 3 Rs. Three major issues arose as these new skills were added to the traditional curriculum:

  1. Who would produce the reading materials needed by teachers and students? Who would provide students and teachers with appropriate writing paraphernalia? (Remember that books, paper, pens, and pencils had not yet been invented!)

  2. What would schools do with those few students who had already made good progress in learning the 3 Rs at home, when their teachers and fellow classmates did not know how to read and write?

  3. What would become of the current teachers as more and more children learned to read and write and the 3 Rs became a required part of the grades 1-8 curriculum? For example, would teachers at the upper grade levels be required to learn the 3 Rs being taught to all students in grades 1-8? Also, would they be expected to develop curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment suitable to such literate students?

Of course, there were other problems. Suppose a teacher assigned homework that involved the 3 Rs. Most parents were not yet able to read and write, and so would not understand what their children were learning or know how to help them! In addition, written documents (such as books) would be quite expensive and few homes would have libraries of such materials for students to read, learn from, and enjoy. Students from rich families thus had a decided advantage. 

The Parallel with Today’s 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking

There is an obvious parallel between the above alternant history scenario of the 3 Rs and the current 4th R situation of possibly integrating the 4th R into our schools of today. In the scenario, there was both an infrastructure problem and a problem of needing to redesign curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Today we already have the Internet, Web, a large computer-production capacity, many adults who are quite computer knowledgeable, and a huge collection of computer-based materials for reading and writing. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a well-established discipline of study, especially in higher education. Computers—including Smartphones and tablets—are routine parts of everyday life outside of schools. So, we have already made substantial progress on the underlying tasks of materials and infrastructure.

What about the needed vertically structured curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment? This curriculum content and assessment can be produced by a small group of people and then mass distributed. (Remember, we have had a textbook industry for many years.) We already have considerable knowledge on teaching about computers and teaching with computers to students at all grade levels.

But, what about the teachers? Remember that today’s teachers at every grade level have had four or more years of college education above the 12th grade level. During these years of college, they were continually involved in reading and writing, and learning in a reading and writing environment. Very few, however, have used computers throughout their precollege and college years in a manner designed to build 4th R knowledge and skills equivalent to the level of their 3 Rs knowledge and skills. That is, essentially all of today’s college students routinely use computers, but for most of them the use is rather superficial and self-taught. They are not learning the “deeper” content that can be taught even at the earliest grade levels and integrated throughout the curriculum.

Here are three basic questions currently facing our educational system:

  1. How do we prepare new teachers to develop their 4th R knowledge and skills at a level comparable to their current college-education-provided knowledge and skills in the first 3 Rs?

  2. How will this process of integrating the 4th R into the entire curriculum impact today’s current teachers, many of whom still have 10 to 20 or more years ahead of them as teachers?

  3. How do we deal with questions 1 and 2 during a time when the 4th R is rapidly changing due to research and technological progress in ICT? It is important that both the teachers and the curriculum keep up with these changes. Our educational systems have never before been faced by such a rapid pace of change.

I find this last question to be especially challenging when I consider the current pace of progress in artificial intelligence (AI). Perhaps my favorite educational questions are:

  1. If a computer can solve or greatly help in solving a type of problem or accomplishing a type of task that students are currently studying in school, what changes (if any) should we make in the curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment? Imagine the changes needed in these areas if all tests were “open Web-connected computer.” After all, we are adults who have the need to routinely function in such an “open Web-connected computer” environment. In the parlance of educational researchers, our school curriculum and assessment are not authentic.

  2. What should be dropped from the curriculum and what should be added as computers and good connectivity become increasingly available worldwide? At the current time, the world is producing and distributing 1.5 billion Smartphones per year. That is about one for every five people on earth. Today’s Smartphone is a far more powerful computer than was the multimillion-dollar mainframe computer from 30 years ago.
Final Remarks

We all think about our immediate and longer-term futures. We are doing the type of thought experiment that we use to help understand and solve problems we will encounter during the day and over the longer run.

Teachers are doing a thought experiment when they create a lesson plan and/or review a lesson plan they intend to use the next day in class. They mentally consider the problem of helping their students to learn, and they are imagining the effects of using the lesson plan.

Our current educational systems have evolved slowly over the past 5,000 years. It took nearly 90% of that time to develop the movable type printing press and begin the mass production of books. (The Gutenberg press was invented in about 1440.) Since then we have gradually decided that it is beneficial to students throughout the world to provide (and, typically, to require) ten or more years of schooling.

It is only during the past 200 years that we have developed technologies such as telegraph, telephone, electric light, radio, motion picture photography, and television. The commercial production of computers began less than 70 years ago. The Web is less than 30 years old, and devices such as the Smartphone and tablet computer are less than a dozen years old. Thus, compared to the historically slow pace of change in education during the first 4,500 years after the invention of reading and writing, today’s educational systems are making very rapid progress in dealing with the new technology. The challenge is that this new technology just keeps coming and coming and coming.

I have spent the past 55 years of my life working to increase the effective use of ICT in education. From time to time I have been frustrated by the slow pace of such “progress” and wished that it could have much faster. Looking back, however, I see that amazing progress has occurred and is continuing to occur in the integration of this new 4th R into all curriculum areas and at all grade levels. To all of you who have supported and helped to implement such change, I say, “Thanks. Keep up the good work. The best is yet to come. ”

References and Resources

Moursund, D. ( 2018). Computer literacy in 1972. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/17/2018 from

Moursund, D. (2018). History of computers in education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/26/2018 from

Moursund, D. (2018). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/26/2018 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. (1/18/2018). What the future is bringing us: 2007 to 2018. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/1/2018 from

Moursund, D. (2016). Goals of education in the United States. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/26/2018 from

Moursund, D. (March, 1987). Chesslandia: A Parable. The Computing Teacher (Learning and Leading with Technology.) Eugene, OR: ISTE. Retrieved 8/19/2018 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 (2018). Einstein’s thought experiments. Retrieved 6/24/2018 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.


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