Issue Number 257 May 15, 2019

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) and Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) 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 in both English and Spanish (Moursund, 2018c). The unifying theme of the book is that 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 was published in December, 2016, the second edition in August, 2018, and the Spanish translation of the second edition in September, 2018. The three books have now had a combined total of more than 39,500 page-views and downloads.

Dave Moursund’s newly revised and updated book, The Fourth R (Second Edition), is now available in both English and Spanish (Moursund, 2018, link). The unifying theme of the book is that 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 was published in December, 2016, the second edition in August, 2018, and the Spanish translation of the second edition in September, 2018. The three books have now had a combined total of more than 37,000 page-views and downloads.

Some Roles of ICT and Math
in the History Curriculum (Chapter 4)

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

Chapter 4: Oral Language

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” (Noah Webster; American man of letter and lexicographer, known for his American Spelling Book and his American Dictionary of the English Language; 1758-1843.)

“The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understand between people.” (Maria Montessori; Italian physician and educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, and her writing on scientific pedagogy; 1870-1952.)


Recently, I have spent considerable time reading about various aspects of ancient history, and have found many conflicting stories. For example, I have read articles that suggest Homo sapiens (we modern people) date back perhaps only 100,000 years, while others suggest we date back 300,000 years or more. Studies of DNA are providing us with evidence in this area.

Similarly, I have read a variety of articles that speculate about when modern humans developed comprehensive spoken languages. Perhaps spoken languages were developed even before Homo sapiens came on the scene, or perhaps they are a much more recent occurrence. Quoting from Mark Pagel’s article, How Humans Evolved Language, and Who Said What First (Pagel, 2/3/2016, link):

All human societies have language, and no language is “better” than any other: all can communicate the full range of human experience. To those of us who study human evolution, this incredible universality suggests that our species has had language right from when Homo sapiens arose in Africa between 200,000 and 160,000 years ago.

If H. sapiens has always had language, could other extinct human species have had it too? Some believe that Neanderthals did – which would imply we both inherited it from our common ancestor some 500,000 or more years ago. This theory is consistent with the discovery that FOXP2, a gene that is essential to speech, is identical at two key positions in humans and Neanderthals but different in chimpanzees. But a single gene is not enough to explain language. And recent genetic evidence shows that the Neanderthal brain regulated its version of FOXP2 differently.

Pagel’s article indicates that Homo sapiens arose in Africa between 200,000 and 160,000 years ago. More archeological findings push this estimate back another hundred thousand years (Gibbons, 6/7/2017, link):

For decades, researchers seeking the origin of our species have scoured the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Now, their quest has taken an unexpected detour west to Morocco: Researchers have redated a long-overlooked skull from a cave called Jebel Irhoud to a startling 300,000 years ago, and unearthed new fossils and stone tools. The result is the oldest well-dated evidence of Homo sapiens, pushing back the appearance of our kind by 100,000 years. 

The technology used to analyze and compare genes makes extensive use of both mathematics and computers. This is an important idea. Recent progress in technology has allowed us to peer into the very distant past. This type of research can tell us that there is a substantial similarity between the genes of current humans and the genes of a 300,000 year old skull. But, it cannot tell us whether this skull belonged to a person who had an extensive and expressive oral language.

In Pagel’s article cited above, he discusses a novel approach developed by Merritt Ruhlen for studying the origins of natural language. Quoting again from his article:

It’s a fair guess that there was once an original mother tongue—the ancestor to all living and dead human languages. The evidence for this is that all human languages, unlike other forms of animal communication, string together words into sentences that have subjects, verbs and objects (“I kicked the ball”), and anyone can learn any language.

Comparative linguists search for sounds that come up again and again in languages from all over the world. They argue that if any relics of a mother tongue still exist today, they will be in those sounds. Merritt Ruhlen at Stanford University in California, for example, argues that sounds like tok, tik, dik, and tak are repeatedly used in different languages to signify a toe, a digit or the number one. Although studies by Ruhlen and others are contentious, the list of words they say are globally shared because they sound almost the same also includes who, what, two and water. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Notice the words one and two are in the list of possibly very ancient words. This is suggestive that the rudiments of math (that is, counting) may go back to the initial development of spoken language. If you are bilingual, you are aware of a great many words that are somewhat similar in the two languages that you speak.

I think of Ruhlen’s oral linguistic approach as being closely related to how information was passed from one generation to the next by oral tradition for the several hundred thousand years before the development of reading and writing.

Recently I have read historian Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He speculates that approximately 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens developed imagination (Harari, 2015, link):

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The term behavioral modernity is used to describe the results of this genetic change (Wikipedia, 2019b, link):

Behavioral modernity is a suite of behavioral and cognitive traits that distinguishes current Homo sapiens from other anatomically modern humans, hominins, and primates. Although often debated, most scholars agree that modern human behavior can be characterized by abstract thinking, planning depth, symbolic behavior (e.g., art, ornamentation), music and dance, exploitation of large game, and blade technology, among others. Underlying these behaviors and technological innovations are cognitive and cultural foundations that have been documented experimentally and ethnographically. Some of these human universal patterns are cumulative cultural adaptation, social norms, language, and extensive help and cooperation beyond close kin. It has been argued that the development of these modern behavioral traits, in combination with the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum, was largely responsible for the human replacement of Neanderthals and the other species of humans of the rest of the world. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Written Communication

Suppose that Harari is correct, and that by about 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens had the cognitive capabilities and imaginations of current human beings. We know that reading and writing were developed in about 3,400 BCE to 3,300 BCE. This would mean that it took us large-brained humans-with-imagination more than 60,000 years to develop a comprehensive system of writing. I find that quite interesting.

This is an aside. Reading and writing are still considered to be the two most important basics of education. Will this still be the case fifty years from now? I wonder how advances in ICT will change our educational systems during the next fifty years. Perhaps being immersed in highly interactive virtual realities will become a common way to learn new material instead of reading, writing, and listening to teacher lectures. Perhaps writing will be well on its way to becoming an archaic means of communication?

What do reading and writing do for us that will make them continue to be fundamental components of a good education? How did reading and writing change the world? It seems to me that these are good questions to have students think about, discuss, and to do research on in their history courses.

As a research mathematician, I could not do my research without the use of writing as an aid to my thinking. I have seen computers emerge as a powerful aid in helping to solve a wide range of math problems, but they have not become a replacement for good, old-fashioned chalkboards or pencil and paper.

As mentioned above, we have good evidence that written language was developed at least 5,300 to 5,400 years ago. This was huge! Detailed information could then be stored and shared over time and distance. Humans were no longer dependent just on oral tradition and physical artifacts to communicate over time and distance.

However, it takes considerable time, effort, and instruction to learn to read and write. Moreover, most people got along without these skills. Thus, for many thousands of years after the development of written language, few people gained these skills for communicating over time and distance. Hmm. Who could have imagined that verbal communication over time and distance would ever be possible?

So, let’s jump forward somewhat more than five thousand years, to about 1840. The telegraph was invented. A few years later, the telephone was invented. Rapid (real time) communication of written words and then spoken language over a distance were major scientific achievements. Telephones were (and still are) a solution to a communication problem that had existed since the development of spoken language.

Students in a history class can memorize the facts that Samuel Morse developed the telegraph and Morse code in the 1840s, and that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the mid-1870s. But, is memorizing such names and dates really what we want students to be doing in history classes?

I think it is much more important for them to learn about the worldwide changes brought about by this new technology. It took more than 5,000 years of technological progress to move from having reading and writing, to having today’s communications via telegraph, telephone, radio, sound and video recordings, television, and the Internet. These six technological developments have been world-changing achievements.

Invention of the Telephone

I was taught in school that, on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell picked up his telephone handset and said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” In U.S. history courses today, Alexander Graham Bell and the date 1876 often are taught as data to be memorized.

Alexander Graham Bell

Figure 4.1. (Wikipedia, 2019a, link).

Do you suppose that Bell ever dreamed about a wireless telephone, much less something like today’s multi-purpose smartphone? You might find it fun to speculate about what might come next. Future studies is now a well-established component of the study of history, and will be discussed in a later issue of this current sequence of IAE Newsletters.

By the way, do you think the picture in Figure 4.1 is authentic, or is it fake news? The photograph aroused my suspicions. A quick Web search provided me with the information that photography was invented in 1831, so it is possible that sometime after Bell made his first call, a photographer was invited to take a picture of Bell holding his telephone. The quote and picture are from Wikiquote. Usually I trust the Wikipedia, but its reliability is not always as good as I would like. The Wikipedia contains an article discussing its reliability (Wikipedia, 2019f, link).

I remained suspicious of the Alexander Graham Bell article and the picture. Did Bell actually invent the telephone? My further use of the Web led me to a third Wikipedia article, Invention of the Telephone (Wikipedia, 2019c, link). Quoting from this article:

The invention of the telephone was the culmination of work done by many individuals, and led to an array of lawsuits relating to the patent claims of several individuals and numerous companies. The first telephone was invented by Antonio Meucci, [in 1856 or 1857] but Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the development of the first practical telephone. [Bold added for emphasis.]

This third article contains the same picture given in Figure 4.1, but with the statement that it is a picture of an actor portraying Alexander Graham Bell speaking into an early model telephone. So, I now know that the Wikiquote article, implying that this is a picture of Bell making his famous statement, is bogus, actually staged with an actor. I felt as if I had been snookered (essentially, lied to) by the Wikiquote article!

This discussion about the invention of the telephone illustrates a key aspect of today’s world –– that it is so easy to develop and publish incorrect or even deliberately fake news, including fake photographs. Fortunately, access to the Web provides readers with ways to check on the possible correctness of the news that is being communicated to the world. This is a very important aspect of history education, one that I believe should be thoroughly integrated into all history courses. Lesley Farmer has made an excellent study of fake news and how to teach students to recognize it (Farmer, 5/31/2018, link).

Students now have easy access to the Web, and thus may be able to check on the accuracy of what their teacher is saying, the reading materials they are expected to read, and any other information they want to verify. However, students still face the problem of understanding that considerable material on the Web is incorrect and/or deliberately incomplete.

We also need to remember that the people who design the history books and our curriculum often censor what they are making available to students. Here is a personal example. I was born and raised in Oregon, but I only recently learned the following about historical discrimination that existed in my home state (Wikipedia, 2019e, link):

The Oregon black exclusion laws were attempts to prevent black people from settling within the borders of the settlement and eventual U.S. state of Oregon. The first such law took effect in 1844, when the Provisional Government of Oregon voted to exclude all black settlers from Oregon's borders. The law authorized a punishment for any black settler remaining in the territory to be whipped with "not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes" for every six months they remained. Additional laws aimed at African Americans entering Oregon were ratified in 1849 and 1857. The last of these laws was repealed in 1926.

History of Numbers and Numerals

We can speculate about when spoken language first emerged, and we have ample evidence that languages change over time. In his article quoted earlier in this newsletter, Pagel refers to a statement by Ruhlen that the counting numbers one and two may go back to the time of the first Homo sapiens spoken language (Pagel, 2/3/2016, link).

Presumably, counting words were developed and came into common usage because they served the needs of the population. When a hunter-gatherer was out hunting and saw a small herd of animals, it would have been desirable to communicate this information to other members of the tribe.

In particular, it would have been useful to be able to communicate the type of animal, size of the herd, where to find the herd, and how long it would take to walk there. Thus, there was a need to be able to deal with numerical descriptions of quantity, direction (location), and time.

The first indications of a start toward a written counting language that archeologists have discovered so far are some quite ancient notched sticks and bones. Such notches on a stick or bone, called a talley stick, can be thought of as a type of writing (Wikipedia, 2019d, link):

The Lebombo bone is a bone tool made of a baboon fibula with incised markings discovered in the Lebombo Mountains located between South Africa and Swaziland.

The bone is between 44,200 and 43,000 years old, according to 24 radiocarbon datings. This is far older than the Ishango bone with which it is sometimes confused.

According to The Universal Book of Mathematics, the Lebombo bone's 29 notches suggest "it may have been used as a lunar phase counter, in which case African women may have been the first mathematicians, because keeping track of menstrual cycles requires a lunar calendar." However, the bone is clearly broken at one end, so the 29 notches may or may not be a minimum number.

Talley marks are a written form of counting still used today. Young children encounter them in their initial math instruction, when one-to-one correspondence is being taught (Figure 4.2).

Talley Marks

Figure 4.2. Talley marks. Think in terms of fingers on one’s hands.

Final Remarks

Many creatures have some form of oral, visual, or pheromone communication system. The oral language of humans far exceeds the communication capabilities of all other creatures on earth. Moreover, languages grow to fit the changing world of their users (English Live, n.d., link):

Many people estimate that there are more than a million words in the English language. In fact, during a project looking at words in digitized books, researchers from Harvard University and Google in 2010, they estimated a total of 1,022,000 words and that the number would grow by several thousand each year. When you see a massive number like this, though, it’s important to remember that this includes different forms of the same word. It also includes lots of words that we could call archaic (they are not used in modern English).

Technological developments and better research methodologies are helping us to learn more about our past.

The next newsletter in this series begins at the time about 13,000 years ago when some Homo sapiens chose to live in permanent settlements and to raise crops and animals. These permanent settlements quickly became much larger than typical hunter-gatherer bands. This led to the development of various forms of government and the need for recordkeeping far beyond talley sticks. Clay and stone tokens of varying sizes and with inscriptions (such as a picture of a basket of grain) proved quite useful. This eventually led to the development of written language, approximately 5,300 years ago. Writing prompted the development of the first schools, which taught reading writing, arithmetic, and history

References and Resources

English Live (n.d.). How many words are in the English language? Retrieved 4/27/2019 from

Farmer, L. (5/31/2018). Using LibGuide to recognize fake news. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 4/21/2019 from

Gibbons, A. (6/7/2017). World’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco. Science. Retrieved 4/23/2019 from

Harari, Y.N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Oxford, England: Signal.

Moursund, D. (2018). The Fourth R (Second Edition). Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 3/21/2019 from Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Download the Spanish edition from

Pagel, M. (2/3/2016). How humans evolved language, and who said what first. New Scientist. Retrieved 3/4/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019a). Alexander Graham Bell. Retrieved 4/29/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019b). Behavioral modernity. Retrieved 4/22/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019c). Invention of the telephone. Retrieved 4/21/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019d). Lebombo. Retrieved 4/21/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019e). Oregon black exclusion laws. Retrieved 4/29/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019f). Wikipedia: Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Retrieved 4/21/2019 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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