Cognitive Neuroscience Discoveries

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The following 2011 article/talk was written by Robert Sylwester. It has been used in a number of College of Education research courses.

Cognitive Neuroscience Discoveries,

Graduate Student Research Beginnings,

and Future Educational Policies and Practices

Robert Sylwester

Emeritus Professor of Education

University of Oregon


Masters and doctoral programs in Education typically culminate in a research project that’s basically an apprenticeship in how to carry out and interpret educational research. Most graduate students worry through the process of identifying and executing their project. What’s strange (and foolish) is that after all that effort, many never again engage in the kind of research investigations they went to so much trouble to master.

A variety of significant developments in science and technology are now emerging that could spark an extended career-long research agenda for imaginative educators who realize that their profession is at the edge of a major research-driven transformation. All credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning will be grounded in the cognitive neurosciences, so whatever career trajectory you follow in Education or some related behavioral field, you’ll need to develop at least a functional understanding of our brain and cognition.

This commentary will identify and discuss seven brain systems and cognitive processes that will significantly affect educational policy and practice in the years ahead – mirror neurons, neuroplasticity, emotion and attention, hemispheric specialization, the arts and humanities, intelligence, and consciousness. It will also include an eighth educationally significant development, the recent rapid advances in electronic media and the development of powerful portable computers.

All of these pose challenging research possibilities for graduate students in education and related fields, but the discovery of mirror neurons seems most intriguing to me (especially since they are functionally related to the other six areas I identified).

Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that prime a specific motor behavior, but they also activate when we observe someone else carry out the same goal directed action. Our tendencies to yawn when we observe someone else yawn, and to reciprocate a smile are examples. Mirror neurons thus create a template in our brain of the behavior we observe, and so provide a vehicle for children to automatically master many important childhood behaviors that are difficult for adults to explain, such as how to smile, grasp, or talk (Iacoboni, 2008).

The renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran (2006) has suggested that mirror neurons may provide the same powerful unifying framework for our understanding of teaching and learning that the 1953 discovery of DNA did for our understanding of genetics. I’ll return to mirror neurons later in this commentary.

New Research Technologies

The relatively recent development of neuroimaging technologies escalated the scientific study of our brain and cognition. Psychological researchers study the behavioral (or motor) output of a brain, and educational and sociological researchers study the behavior of groups of brains, but neuroimaging technologies such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) have added another important research dimension. Neuroimaging can transform a real brain hidden within a skull into a virtual brain observable in a computer. This transformation has finally allowed scientists to observe how various brain processing systems collaborate when they develop a decision, and then activate the appropriate behavior.

Discovering via neuroimaging that two brains might not identically execute a task doesn’t necessarily tell us if one cognitive strategy is better than the other, or why one person performs better than the other – but not being able to observe such internal processing differences insures that our understanding of brain functions would forever be limited to the behavioral end product of cognition. Neuroimaging studies of brain processes will thus be integral to future educational theories, policies, and practices.

An infant isn’t much more than a wet noisy pet – fascinating, but at least 20 years from a clear sense of what it will become. We carefully observe a child’s capabilities and possibilities -- and the enigmas become speculations become convictions.

The neurosciences are similarly in their infancy – fascinating, but they currently provide only tantalizing glimpses of the profound effect they will eventually have on our profession. For example, when cognitive neuroscience researchers identify the brain areas and systems that regulate a cognitive function, they attempt to enhance that function, or to intervene if the function is not robust. The Fast ForWord program for children whose language development is delayed ( is an example of how the discovery of basic knowledge about a system (attention in this case) can be transformed into a successful intervention.

Educational researchers typically haven’t used neuroimaging technology because of the high cost and other deterrents, but I expect that simpler less expensive imaging technologies will eventually develop that educational researchers will use to solve teaching/learning mysteries.

Getting Started

In the meantime, prepare yourself for the kinds of research possibilities that will emerge. Begin by identifying a cognitive system or brain function that intrigues you, and then carefully study its functional elements. Master the inherent research problems at that level, and you’ll then be ready to tackle their more complex neurobiological elements whenever you gain access to the more effective emerging research technologies.

I indicated above that mirror neurons would probably become central to credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning, so if they intrigue you, read as much as you can about them to begin your studies. You might begin with a delightful informative book for general readers by one of the Italian scientists involved in the discovery, Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People: The New Science Of How We Connect With Others (2008).

The list of Resources below will get you started with non-technical materials in the areas discussed in this commentary, and then you should also get into the related primary research reports. A superb overview of what’s occurring in Educational Neuroscience (the name now associated with this development) is David Sousa’s Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom (2011). Seventeen respected researchers contributed chapters in their respective areas of study. For an overview of the book, click on:

Although earlier researchers such as Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner had no awareness of our brain’s mirror neuron system, they explored it functionally, and so you might begin by reading what they did and learned.

Jean Piaget ( carefully observed the behavior of his and other children while they carried out specific tasks, and he then asked them questions about why they did what they did. He thus tried to infer children’s thought processes through their introspective comments.

B. F. Skinner ( carefully observed the externally rewarded behavior of animal and human research subjects. He thus tried to shape the behavior of his subjects, and so determine how behavior develops.

You can informally do what Piaget, Skinner, and others did, replicating their studies within the context of our emerging understanding of the underlying neurobiology of the development and mastery of skilled movements. Read their own reports about investigations they did that relate to your interests. Also read the commentaries of their interpreters. This will give you a sense of how they carried out productive research in an era in which neuroimaging technology wasn’t even on the horizon (just as it isn’t yet available to you).

Observe children while they are learning a simple new task that is not typically learned through verbal directions, but rather mostly through observing and mimicking the behavior of someone else. Examples include learning how to tie shoes, ride a bike, or handle food utensils. Today’s relatively inexpensive computerized cell phone cameras provide exceptional opportunities to informally record and compare the behaviors of easily accessible subjects (such as your own children). This experience will help you to develop the skills you will need to master to carry out graduate level research.

The reality is that effective research techniques are functionally similar, whether the observation of a subject’s behavior is simple and direct, or complex and high-tech. The key research tasks are to ask the correct questions, to accurately observe the resultant behavior, and to draw credible inferences from the observation.

If you teach yourself how to do that with simple replicated Piagetian and/or Skinnerian behavioral studies, you’ll be ready to make the next step when neuroimaging becomes a possibility in your research – allowing you to observe the internal neuronal activity that sparks the external behaviors you initially studied.

Piaget, Skinner, and other early researchers didn’t solve all the questions that underlie our mastery of culturally important behaviors. Identify an intriguing unanswered question, and solve it for your graduate research project. Or replicate an earlier study within the context of what we now know about the mastery and regulation of behavior.

This is the most exciting time in the history of educational research. Prepare yourself now to be part of a future that transforms your profession.

Potential Productive Research Areas in Educational Neuroscience

It comes down to this, animals have a brain and plants don’t. Biological competence isn’t the issue. The reason plants don’t have a brain is that they’re not going anywhere of their own volition. And if an organism isn’t going anywhere, it doesn’t even need to know where it is. What’s the point?

But if an organism has legs, wings, or fins, it needs a sensory system to inform it about here and there, a decision system to determine if here is better than there or there is better than here, a motor system to get it to there if that’s the preferred option, and a memory system to remember how to return to here.

To plan and regulate personal movements, and to predict and respond to the movements of others and of moving objects thus pretty much defines the basic purpose of a brain (and of school for all that).

We can use our leg/foot/toe system to physically move our body; our arm/hand/finger system to grasp, lift, carry, and throw; and our neck/face/tongue system to move food into our body, and ideas from our brain into the brains of others. So speech and song are forms of movement. We also move between dichotomous states – such as from infancy to elderly, from unemployed to employed, from sad to happy, from healthy to sick. The arts add aesthetic qualities to human mobility by encouraging us to move with style and grace. Sports explore virtuosity and the extent of our movement capabilities. Most technologies supplement the limitations of biological movement.

So to be human is to move in many different ways – from the ritual movements associated with conception at the beginning of life to those associated with burial at the end. Our life experiences and the stories we tell about them focus principally on movement in time and space. When movement stops, we die.

Teachers who continually ask students to sit still and be quiet thus seem more interested in teaching a grove of trees than a room full of students. Educational leaders who eliminate recess, and reduce arts and physical education programs seemingly don’t understand the purpose of a brain, and what it takes to develop and maintain one. Perhaps they’re plants and not educators, and so don’t quite grasp that movement is our brain’s definitive property -- and that aesthetic movements add quality to human life.

Cognitive Neuroscience Developments With Research Potential

Mirror Neurons

To continue the explanation begun above -- parental genetic information combines to provide a developing embryo with the necessary bodybuilding directions – how to be. When the child is born, parents and others must provide cultural information about how to behave. They do this principally through language and our brain’s remarkable recently discovered mirror neuron system.

Movement skills must obviously begin to develop almost immediately, and many movement skills (such as how tie shoelaces) can’t be learned solely through verbal directions. Our brain’s mirror neuron system helps to solve that instructional problem, and especially for young children who haven’t developed language skills.

The motor cortex in our frontal lobes regulates conscious movements. The mirror neurons in this region prime movement sequences. For example, five different basic arm/hand/finger movements activate sequentially when we drink out of a glass of water: reach-grasp-elevate-retract-tip (and the movements obviously have to occur in that order). What’s amazing is that we can linguistically represent this action with a set of five sequential letters in our alphabet D-R-I-N-K (any other sequence being a spelling error). So our movement system sequentially combines a relatively small number of basic movements to create many complex movements, and selective sequential sets of 26 letters (or 44 phonemes) can represent our entire movement repertoire. Movement and language are thus integrally related!

Mirror neurons also automatically activate when we observe someone else carry out a goal directed movement (such as drinking out of a glass of water). They thus create a mental model of an observed movement sequence – simulating, and then often imitating what they observe.

As suggested above, for example, when we observe someone yawn, it activates our brain’s yawning system. Adults typically override the tendency and stifle the yawn – but if we stick out our tongue at an infant who is only a few hours old, it’s probable that she’ll immediately reciprocate, even though she had never before stuck out her tongue. Her observation of our behavior and lack of motor inhibition will automatically activate the mirror neurons that prime the motor neurons that activate her tongue projection movements.

Mirror neurons help to explain how children learn to speak, how empathy develops, what causes such maladies as autism, why observing others engaged in sports and artistic performance is so appealing, the effects of role modeling and electronic media on behavior – and I expect a whole lot more in the years ahead (Sylwester, 2010). The research potential is incredible!

Neuroplasticity. Changes occur in the organization of our brain at the cellular and network levels whenever we learn, remember, and forget. This process of adapting cognitive capabilities to new demands and conditions is called neuroplasticity. For example, the brain region that regulates left hand finger movements becomes more robust in right-handed violin students because of the increased activation of left hand fingers, but such changes don’t occur in the region that regulates the right hand fingers that only hold the bow.

Neuroimaging technologies can now compare the amount of brain space devoted to an activity in those who are proficient in a skill with those who aren’t, and so can determine the physical effects of an intervention. For example, Temple (2003) discovered that 8-12 year old dyslexics not only improved selected language abilities after exposure to the Fast ForWord program mentioned above, but also that fMRI brain scans of the related language areas reflected this improvement.

The discovery of the genetic mechanism that simplifies learning in children, and makes it more difficult in older people suggests that scientists may be able to eventually manipulate the process to enhance learning in older people, such as to learn a new language, or to recover from a stroke (Devlin, 2006).

Our brain is thus far more plastic than scientists formerly believed. Neuroimaging technology will play an increasing role in diagnosing cognitive disabilities and determining the effectiveness of a proposed intervention. So it’s an optimistic time. Many of the maladies that negatively affect educational progress may disappear as early diagnosis leads to an early successful intervention.

Emotion and Attention

Emotion and attention are our brain’s activation systems in that our brain will only respond to emotionally arousing phenomena, and it must then frame and focus on the salient elements that led to the arousal (separating foreground from background). Emotion thus drives attention, and attention drives responsive decisions and behaviors. Most brain dysfunctions (from autism to schizophrenia) are emotional and attentional at some level, as is much classroom misbehavior. Our brain’s neuroplasticity is thus dependent on the activation of emotion and attention. Learning and memory exist for the long haul, but emotion and attention are about the here and now (and so are often called our working brain).

Emotion and attention issues are thus central to educational policy and practice, and teachers who don’t factor emotional triggers and attentional focus into their instruction might as well teach in an empty classroom. Unfortunately, the two systems are very difficult to study, and so although humans have always understood them functionally, scientists historically didn’t understand their complex underlying neurobiology and related maladies (such as autism and schizophrenia). That is now changing. For example, Antonio Damasio (2010) has recently updated his much respected theory of emotion/consciousness and its neurobiological base. Michael Posner and Mary Rothbart (2007) have similarly written an excellent accessible book on attention and its educational implications. Educators can expect that the centrality of these integrated systems and the problems the dysfunctions create will spark further research. We’re not alone in our hope for an increased understanding. The success of marketers, politicians, TV programmers, and many others is also dependent on their ability to understand, bias, and regulate emotion and attention.

Hemispheric Specialization

The cerebrum at the top of our brain processes conscious thought and behavior. The sensory lobes at the back recognize and interpret current challenges, and the frontal lobes determine and execute an appropriate response. The role of the right and left hemispheres has been somewhat of an enigma. Elkhonon Goldberg (2009) suggests that the major question a brain must ask whenever it confronts a challenge is ‘Have I confronted this problem before?’ He argues that in most people, the right hemisphere lobes process novel challenges and develop creative solutions, and the left hemisphere lobes process familiar challenges and execute established routines. Childhood and adolescence are characterized by many novel challenges, and so the right hemisphere in young people is more robust. As we age, we develop an increasingly large repertoire of routines that we incorporate into the resolution of a wide variety of challenges. Although both hemispheres activate whenever we confront a challenge, the left hemisphere assumes a greater role and becomes more robust as we age. It takes a lot of energy to understand and respond to novel challenges, so we try to reduce emotional arousal and novelty in our lives, and tend to use responses we’ve already developed. We get set in our ways.

Schools are run by older people who know the established answers, and the students are young people who want to explore the challenges. Schools thus often teach students the answers to questions they haven’t yet asked, and that often don’t emotionally engage them. Students obviously need to master basic skills and their cultural heritage, but the challenge for educators is to create the correct mix of didactic instruction and creative student exploration – and to also reflect this mix in standards and assessment programs.

The Arts and Humanities

The arts and humanities effectively incorporate this curricular mix in that they combine the best representations of our cultural history and the creative explorations of new cultural challenges. They should play a central role in the curriculum, but alas, they currently don’t. Folks intent on providing our nation’s youth with the cheapest possible education see them as disposable frills.

The arts and humanities have always played a key role in human life. The existence of ancient artifacts and legends attest to the seemingly innate human drive to add celebratory and interpretive aesthetics to ordinary phenomena – to decorate clothing and utensils, to amplify ordinary events through extraordinary stories. Scholars are trying to determine the biological genesis of this drive, and several intriguing proposals have emerged. Movement is a central human property, and it’s an essential ingredient of the arts and humanities. It isn’t enough for us to move, but we want to move with style and grace. For example, a child initially masters basic skateboard skills, but then focuses on the aesthetics of skateboarding. It’s the wheeled equivalent of the shift from walking to dancing. The marvelous thing is that such artistic expression interests those who do it, and those who merely observe others do it (perhaps reflecting the significance of mirror neurons). Emotion and attention, the gateway to cognition, are also essential elements of the arts and humanities. Artistic arousal and focus help to maintain the vigor of our emotion/attention systems. Further, the arts and humanities often play an important arousal/focusing role in society that’s analogous to the role that emotion/attention play in individuals. Picasso’s mural Guernica and Aristophanes’ drama Lysistrata are renowned examples of art forms that alerted and continue to alert society to the horrors of war. The integrated nature of the arts and humanities may thus have emerged to stimulate various brain and motor systems to creatively and metaphorically solve imagined problems in non-threatening settings in ways that could later be incorporated into solutions related to real life challenges. At a very mundane level, the young skateboarder who artistically avoids danger will eventually drive in commuter traffic. The recent disintegration of school arts and humanities programs is a biological tragedy that we will come to bitterly regret. Why is it so important that students know the sequence of letters that spell a word but not the sequence of tones that constitute a melody? Articulate speech and song are simply two forms of one language. Speech communicates information, and song communicates how we feel about the information. Information without feeling is robotic. Dissanayake (2000), Deasy (2002) and Livitin (2006) provide excellent non-technical introductions to the neurobiology of the arts and their research potential.


Towards the end of the 20th century, Howard Gardner (1983), Robert Sternberg (1985), and David Perkins (1995) separately proposed that intelligence isn’t a unitary global phenomenon (I.Q.), but rather that it exists within a set of distinct cognitive capabilities that may be differentially expressed in people. The idea of multiple intelligences resonated with educators, and the concept has profoundly affected recent educational policy and practice.

Imaging technologies that were in their infancy when multiple intelligences theories appeared are now far more sophisticated, so it should come as no surprise that emerging new perspectives on intelligence are attracting popular and professional attention. Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence (2004) and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005) are examples of such widely read and discussed books.

It’s difficult to predict the next major breakthrough in our understanding of intelligence, but I suspect that it will incorporate variations in our ability to rapidly and effectively predict, recognize, and respond to environmental challenges, to communicate within a variety of venues, and to alter the environment through human/machine interactions. Whatever emerges will profoundly affect educational policy and practice.


Consciousness is the last major enigma in biology. It provides us with a unified sense of self, a subjective awareness of our existence and of the environment we inhabit. Consciousness had long been the purview of philosophers and theologians, who viewed it as a disembodied entity – mind, spirit, soul. Since neuroimaging technologies can observe conscious brain behavior, the neuroscience community is actively exploring the neurobiology of consciousness. Conscious thought and behavior emerge out of unconscious emotional arousal, which alerts us to potential challenges and helps to activate innate automatic responses. If we have no innate response to a challenge, conscious feelings emerge, and these activate relevant brain systems that consciously (subjectively) and rationally (objectively) analyze the challenge and develop a solution. Since school activities focus principally on conscious learning and behavior, the biology of consciousness will thus help to formulate credible 21st century educational theories. But since consciousness is also integral to religious belief and cultural behavior, its relationship to educational theory will certainly be controversial. Educational leaders will obviously have to understand consciousness in order to deal intelligently with the complex issues it will raise.

Since the grandmother of all Nobel Prizes will probably go to whoever works out the underlying neurobiology of consciousness, the world’s major neuroscience laboratories are working on the issue. Further, respected neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio (2010) are writing excellent books on their discoveries that are accessible to educators.

Electronic Technology

The recent rapid advances in the development of powerful portable computers parallels what’s occurring in the cognitive neurosciences. Classroom walls are disappearing as online instruction expands to encompass the entire world. Problems abound that cry out for research. For example, a major task that schools now have is to teach students how to assess the credibility of information they get from the Internet and cable channels. Credibility isn't as much of a problem with print media, because publishers go to a lot of trouble to assess the accuracy and credibility of anything they publish. This makes sense considering the cost of print production and distribution. Further, educators tend to be careful about the credibility of any print material they give students.

In an era in which anyone can post anything on the Internet and say anything on cable TV it's become the responsibility of the reader/viewer to assess credibility. The Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia aren’t equally credible, but students tend to go to Wikipedia because if its ready availability. Helping students to develop the skills they will need to determine the credibility of electronic information is thus a very important issue, especially if they use this material in student projects. If you want a very rewarding career, solve this complex problem (IAE, 2011).


If I were a young person looking for a challenging 21st century career, I couldn’t imagine anything more challenging than education. Contemplate the emerging issues discussed above, and the important roles they will play in transforming educational policy and practice – and by extension, the direction of our society. Add the incredible advances in powerful portable electronic technologies and their incredible potential for expanding classroom walls to encompass the entire world. What a marvelous opportunity for bright young educators to be at the cutting edge of this emerging unprecedented cultural transformation!


Blakeslee, S. (January 10, 2006) “Cells That Read Minds” The New York Times ( Science).

Corballis. M. (2002) From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Damasio, A. (2010) Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York. Pantheon. See also: Information Age Education Newsletter. Issues 61 and 62. March 2011. “Emotion and Feelings” “Consciousness”

Devlin, H. (August 12, 2006) “Protein block that makes the old less able to adapt to the new” The Times.,,11069-2319339,00.html

Epstein, R. (1982) Skinner for the classroom: Selected papers. Illinois: Research Press.

Flavell, J. H. (1993, 3rd edition) Cognitive development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Focused on Jean Piaget’s work.

Gardner, H. (1983) Fames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. (New York: Basic Books.

Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little Brown. See also, Sylwester, R. “The role of snap judgments in intelligence: An intriguing perspective”

Goldberg, E, (2009) The new executive brain: Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, J. and Blakeslee, S. (2004) On intelligence: How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines. New York: Henry Holt. See also, Sylwester, R. (2005) “Human and machine intelligence: An intriguing perspective”

Iacoboni, M. (2008) Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

IAE (Multiple dates). Information Age Education Newsletter. Issues 37-39 March/April 2011, “The Role of Fiction in Cognitive Development and Maintenance”. “Using Your Brain to Retrieve and Process Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Information”. “Using computers as an aid to retrieving and processing trustworthy and untrustworthy information”.

Meltzoff, A. and W. Prinz (2002) The imitative mind: Development, evolution, and brain bases. Cambridge GB: Cambridge University Press. Note especially chapter 14 by the principal discoverers of mirror neurons, Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese, “From Mirror Neurons to Imitation: Facts and Speculations (pages 247-266)

Nash, J. (Jan. 29,2007) “The Gift of Mimicry” Time Magazine. Vol. 169, No. 5, P. 108-13.

Perkins, D. (1995) Outsmarting I.Q.: The emerging theory of learnable intelligence. New York: Free Press.

Posner, M. and Rothbart, M. (2007). Educating the human brain. Washington D. C.: American Psychological Association.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2006) The Edge. “Mirror Neurons and the Brain in a Vat”

Ramachandran, V. S. and Oberman, L. M. (November 2006b) “Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism” Scientific American. Vol 295, No. 5, p 63-69

Ramachandran, V. S. (2011) The tell-tale brain: A neuroscientist’s quest for what makes us human. New York: Norton.

Ratey, J. (with Hagerman, E.) (2008) Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., and Gallese, V. (November 2006) “Mirrors in the Mind” Scientific American. Vol. 295, No. 5, p. 54-62.

Sternberg, R. (1985) Beyond I. Q.: A Triarchic theory of human intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sousa, D. (editor) 2011) Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree Press.

Sylwester, R. (2010) A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Sylwester, R. (2007) The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Sylwester, R. (2005) How to explain a brain: An educator’s handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Temple, E. et al. (March 4, 2003) “Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioral remediation: Evidence from functional MRI” Proceedings of the national academy of sciences. Vol 100, no 4. 2860-2865. See also: “Changes in Brain Function in Children with Dyslexia after Training” The phonics bulletin (May 2003, volume 1.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon who focuses on Educational Neuroscience issues. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need For Nurture. (Corwin, 2010) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching For Autonomy (Corwin, 2007). He is currently a regular contributor to Information Age Education Newsletter ( Contact information: or 541-345-1452.