The Fourth Revolution

21 Jul

Stevan Harnad, the cognitive psychologist, has argued that we are seeing in the advent of the Internet the Fourth Cognitive Revolution. The First Revolution was the development of language way back in the Paleolithic. This Oral Revolution was characterized by the power of interactivity. The Invention of Literacy was the next revolution, and was characterized by reflection. With words written down, the thoughts expressed could be more easily reflected upon, long after they were penned.

The Third Revolution, the invention of the printing press, was a revolution in scale, bringing the power of literacy within the reach of all humanity.

Harnad argues that the Internet brings about a Fourth Cognitive Revolution, and that it is characterized by the bringing together of the power of Oracy and the power of Literacy in a unique way. E-mail, for example is interactive and immediate in ways similar to speech, but also has many of the characteristics of reflection common to other literacies. If we think about the changes wrought by a world which very soon will be always on, always connected, and what this means for knowledge production, and the wiring of the brain, few can doubt now that Harnad is right.

But what does it mean for teachers? There are a number of implications that follow directly from what Harnad is saying. Firstly, there is the notion that the chief cognitive affordance of the screen, as opposed to the page, is that it allows for interaction & reflection. We need to ensure that our pedagogical approaches maximise this benefit, and exploit this possibility, or we run the risk, for example, of ending up with a screen culture which is immediate, but not reflective.

There are two things I think we can do which will help promote reflection. On the one hand we need to ensure that we set searching, divergent questions which challenge students to order and structure their responses. Too often we ask questions which simply set the stage for students to do a quick, and superficial Internet search, followed by a desultory cut and paste job. The question needs to force students to re-order information, analyse, synthesise and evaluate (the full panoply of Bloom’s taxonomy). What are the causes of the French Revolution? This invites a Google search and cut & paste – the scrap-booking approach to education. The French Revolution was the first Modern Revolution. Discuss. This invites students to reflect on what they are reading and requires them to draft a response with a great deal more care and attention to ordering their own thoughts. This amounts to a focus on Problem Based Learning.

On the other hand, we also need to ensure that we give adequate opportunity for reflection within a collaborative working environment. Too often we set up collaborative tasks, but we do not teach students how to deal with them. We need to actively teach students explicitly how to deal with each stage of the collaborative process, including reflection. This amounts to a focus on Collaborative Learning,

My argument is, then, that we need a pedagogical focus on Problem based Collaborative Learning, and we need to be very clear about the fact that we will need to teach students, quite explicitly, about how to use the new digital literacies to develop their cognitive and critical thinking skills. We cannot rely on it happening en passant. It doesn’t, not for everyone anyway. There is a great deal spoken about the need for teachers to be facilitators, guides on the side. Rubbish! We need to be that at times, of course, but we sometimes need to be the sage on the stage. As Proudhon noted, the only natural authority in the world is that of the adult over the child, and anyone who says that teachers never need to teach, has never spent any time with a child! Mainly, as teachers, we need to be meddlers in the middle, we need to model cognitive and collaborative behaviours and routines for our students. We need to work alongside them and show, by example, how to collaborate, how to solve problems, and how to reflect on our work.

The traditional classroom focused on presenting content to students in ways which students could digest. The 21st Century classroom needs to stand education on its head. Focusing on Problem Based Collaborative Learning means zeroing in on the processing part of it, in other words what used to be done as homework, and actually helping students deal with the content in meaningful ways. In a world where content is available 24/7, digesting the content should be the homework, and there is a great deal to be said for using vodcasts and podcasts for this rather than class time.

All this impacts on the design of the classroom of the 21st Century. The classroom of the future, which starts today, needs to be connected 24 hours a day, during weekends and holidays. It needs to be able to access anything at any time. To my mind the starting point then is a basic platform which allows Internet access, and access to course materials from school and from home, which supports a range of mobile devices across all classrooms in the school, and is flexible. With good bandwidth, interactive whiteboards and wireless access across the school there is scope for individual teachers to use whatever resources they can find to do what they need to do. Above all the basic IT infrastructure needs to enable communication and collaboration. we don’t need fancy presentations and expensive software. We need to enable students to talk meaningfully with each other, with other students, with experts and with their teachers.


2 responses to “The Fourth Revolution

  1. Stevan Harnad

    July 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm


    Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414.

    Light, P., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. & Harnad, S. (2000) Up for Debate: CMC as a support for course related discussion in a campus university setting. In R. Joiner (Ed) Rethinking Collaborative Learning. London: Routledge.

    Dror, I. and Harnad, S. (2009) Offloading Cognition onto Cognitive Technology. In Dror, I. and Harnad, S. (Eds) (2009): Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins




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