Challenges Facing Our Schools (Part 2)

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon
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Challenges Facing Our Schools (Part 2)

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” (Albert Einstein; German-born theoretical physicist and 1921 Nobel Prize winner; 1879-1955.)

“So much to learn. So little time.” (Unattributed.)


The problem being addressed by my current two-part newsletter series is:

Our current approach to education of children places considerable emphasis on students learning to read and then reading to learn. Reading materials can be thought of as a partial substitute for a human teacher, but books lack interactivity and individualization. While many students do reasonably well in this book-assisted instructional environment, a great many do not.

Over the past century, we have added audio and video media as supplements to reading. This helps, but still does not create as effective a learning environment as we would like to have.

Another challenge is the combination of computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI) designed to aid our physical and cognitive capabilities. This affects teaching and learning in two major ways. First, AI-using computers can solve many of the problems and accomplish many of the tasks that students traditionally learn to handle using their human capabilities and simpler aids such as pencil and paper. Making this possible change to our schools is controversial. Although we have had inexpensive calculators for more than 50 years, we still do not have full agreement on the extent that their use should be allowed on tests. Can you stretch your mind to considering the possibility of students routinely taking open Web-connected-computer tests as a routine tool for assessing their academic progress? After all, this is the environment they will function in as adults.

You likely are aware that the pace of technological change in our world is faster now than when you were a child, and that it seems to be accelerating. This presents a challenge to both informal and formal education.

The previous newsletter explored some possible rather general changes we can (and probably should) make in our educational systems as we continue to make technological progress in developing tools to aid our physical and cognitive capabilities. This newsletter raises some specific important issues.

As I look at the totality of knowledge and skills that humans have collected and developed, I overwhelmed. The amount of information available to me on the Web grows more in only one day than I could read, listen to, and view in a lifetime. The availability of this information is good, but it also presents a problem of information overload. This is captured in the second of the two quotations given at the beginning of this newsletter, “So much to learn. So little time.” A related major problem is the accuracy of the information being made available free on the Web.

This situation offers us a good starting point in planning and implementing improvements in our current educational systems. We want students to gain skill in accessing information, determining its trustworthiness, and using the information to help in solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

Prehumans began finding, developing, and learning to use tools starting more than three million years ago. Millions of years of this evolutionary development of increasing intelligence, capped by the development of speech 50,000 or more years ago, led to current humans. Fifty thousand years ago the total human population was much smaller than that of some of today’s cities, and all people were hunter gathers living in quite small groups.

It wasn’t until a mere 5,500 years ago that we developed reading and writing. That was certainly a huge step forward. It led to the establishment of schools that provided a combination of teacher and reading-assisted instruction. This combination of aids to learning served us well for thousands of years, before the first electronic digital computers started to become available in the 1950s.

In my opinion, the development of computers and AI is on par with the development of reading and writing as being huge human-developed aids to humans. I believe the near future of schooling will consist of a combination of teacher and computer-assisted instruction. Further into the future we likely will see significant changes in the roles that human teachers play. Moreover, the content being taught will be changed significantly by the steadily improving abilities of AI-based computers to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Human teachers currently provide a type of group and individual assistance to students that is essential. However, the increasing instructional capabilities of AI-based computers will decrease the current roles of teachers in providing small group and individual help to students.

Problem Solving

Today’s schools have many purposes. One is to help students to become better at solving the problems and accomplishing the tasks that they (or someone else, such as a potential employer) want to solve. I will use the term problem solving to cover both solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

The term problem means different things to different people. Here, I am mainly interested in the types of problems that students learn about in their schooling. Our current school curriculum places a major emphasis on students learning to read and write. Reading allows students to access much of the collected knowledge of the human race. Writing is an aid to communication as well as an aid to organizing one’s thinking in attempting to understand and solve a particular problem. Similarly, schools help students learn some math as an aid to representing and helping to solve a wide range of math-related problems.

It is important to realize that people recognized and solved a wide range of problems long before the development of reading, writing, arithmetic, schools, and pre-computer media. However, reading, writing, and arithmetic are such important aids to representing and solving problems that they continue to constitute a large portion of the current school curriculum, especially at the K-8 levels. This education helps students to recognize and understand certain types of problems, and to solve certain types of problems that adults in our society need to routinely address.

Over the past century, our schools have adjusted to the availability and use of audio and video materials for storing and accessing information, and as aids to instruction. It has taken many years for these materials to be developed, to become readily available, and to become widely used in schools.

Our schools now face the challenge of making effective uses of computers. It is only quite recently that computers and their connectivity have been inexpensive and available enough to make it feasible to integrate their routine use into the everyday K-12 curriculum. Such integration already is beginning to occur in many schools.

Basic Issues

Although our country’s schools certainly have changed over the years, the pace of change has been modest. Consider a person (in the past) taking a four or five year program of college studies in teacher education, and then becoming a teacher. This person brought to the job considerable relevant teacher education knowledge gained through having been a K-12 student in our schools.

Historically, the content and teaching methodologies a new teacher is teaching and is expected to use had not changed much since that new teacher was a precollege student. This is no longer the case. The capabilities and availability of Internet-connected AI-based computers have changed dramatically during that time.

Somewhat similarly, children’s day-to-day lives outside of school also have changed dramatically. Many of today’s children are spending much less time in face-to-face voice commucation and much more time in electronic commucation. It has become common to see children sitting in a small group who are communicating electronically with friends in the same room as well as with friends across the world. It isn’t just the Covid-19 pandemic that has changed the day-to-day life of children.

The following are some issues that I believe our schools need to address. For each task, ask yourself how it is being affected by current and likely future capabilities of AI-based computers.

  1. Consider possible new instructional goals. As one example, should we expand the goal of having all students learn to read and write text to include having all students learn to read and write multimedia? Carefully think about such possible new goals. Develop approaches for deciding which goals to explore for possible implementation over the short, medium, and long term. Study and experiment with possible changes in instruction based on this research. Then incorporate this overall process into a routine, ongoing activity of our educational systems.
  2. Reconsider the rights of individual teachers, schools, school districts, states, and the nation to decide on the goals of education, aids to learning, instructional materials to be used, and other aspects of schooling. This leads us to rethink the issue of who develops the curriculum and everything else that goes with it. As an extreme example, should the federal government fund the development of a comprehensive set of computerized curriculum materials covering essentially every “regular” course that schools teach, and make them available free to every student in both public and private schools, as well as to students being schooled at home?
  3. A similar question can be asked regarding all instructional materials and facilities needed for the ongoing preparation of inservice teachers.
  4. Provide teachers with considerably more time for the training/education they need in order to take full advantage of the ongoing changes in technology relevant to their jobs.
  5. Educate parents and other caregivers about the instruction their students are receiving in school. Also, educate them in how to work effectively with students who are doing part or all of their formal schooling online outside of the school classrooms.
  6. At the nation, state, and district levels, reconsider uniformity versus individualization of the content and processes of schooling.

We need to reconsider student assessment in light of the changes that AI-based computers are bringing to the world of learning.

First, are students learning to learn in the types of learning opportunities that will be available to them throughout their adult lives? As a simple example, a routine part of schooling might be for an individual student to select a topic, decide what they want to learn, learn it, and then demonstrate that they have gained the knowledge and skills they wanted to gain.

Second, are our current in-school assessments appropriate for measuring the progress students are making in learning to solve problems in a highly computerized world? In simple terms, should we be moving from the current closed book testing methods in schools to adding routine open book, open computer, assessments?

Third, consider placing an increased emphasis on assessments that are designed to be useful to individual students themselves instead of our current focus on comparing one student’s performance with that of other students, and/or comparing one school’s ranking with that of other schools. Think of assessment much more as a process whereby individual students gain information about what is working well and what is not working well for them personally. Is the current combined approach helping both the individual students and the school system in making assessments to insure students receive an education that will serve them well during the subsequent years of schooling and throughout their adult lives?

The routine use of computers as aids both to learning and to using one’s learning makes it possible to provide routine, timely, and relevant feedback individually to each learner. It is up to us to make certain that our educational systems take full advantage of these possibilities.

Final Remarks

As noted at the beginning of this newsletter, AI-based computer systems are a very powerful change agent. It took the world more than 5,000 years to decide that every student should learn to read and write, and to be educated in a manner that prepared them for adult life in a literate world. We certainly do not want to take that many more years to develop and implement universal K-12 education that is deigned to prepare children for their adult life in a highly computerized world.

Our challenge is the need to make careful assessments of what we currently are achieving for our students. We need to develop and implement a plan that leads to significant improvements in this achievement on a year-to-year basis. This is a huge challenge to our schooling system.


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.