From the Three Rs to the Four Cs: Radically Redesigning K-12 Education

By William Crossman

The battle against nonliteracy has focused on teaching everyone to read and write text. But new technologies that facilitate more holistic learning styles, engaging all of the learner’s senses, may open the locked stores of global knowledge for all. Instead of reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic, we’ll move to critical thinking, creative thinking, “compspeak,” and calculators.

From the moment that Jessica Everyperson was born, her brain, central nervous system, and all of her senses shifted into high gear to access and to try to understand the incredible new informational environment that surrounded her. She had to make sense of new sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile experiences, and even new body positions.

Jessica approached her new world with all of her senses operating together at peak performance as she tried to make sense of it all. Her new reality was dynamic, constantly changing from millisecond to millisecond, and she immediately and instinctively began to interact with the new information that poured through her senses.

Jessica’s cognitive ability to access new information interactively, and to use all of her senses at once to optimize her perception of that ever-changing information, is all about her hardwiring. Jessica, like all “everypersons” everywhere, was innately, biogenetically hardwired to access information in this way.

For Jessica’s first four or five years, her all-sensory, interactive cognitive skills blossomed with amazing rapidity. Every moment provided her with new integrated-sensory learning experiences that helped to consolidate her “unity of consciousness,” as the ancient Greek philosophers called it. Because each learning experience was all-sensory, Jessica’s perception of reality was truly holistic. This meant that the ways she processed, interpreted, and understood her perceptions were also holistic. Jessica was therefore developing the ability to both perceive and understand the many sides of a situation—the cognitive skills that form the basis of critical thinking and lead to a broad and compassionate worldview.

During those preschool years, she also became proficient in using the variety of information technologies (ITs) that continued to be introduced into her environment: radio, TV, movies, computers, video games, cell phones, iPods, etc. Early on, she stopped watching TV, which engaged only her eyes and ears, and switched to video games, which engaged her eyes, ears, and touch/tactility. Before she could even read a word, Jessica had become a multimodal multitasker, talking on her cell phone while listening to her iPod and playing a video game.

At this point in her young life, Jessica was feeling very good about her ability to swim in the vast sea of information using the assortment of emerging ITs. Not surprisingly, she was also feeling very good about herself.

Then, Jessica started school!

The Brightness Dims: Hello K-12, Hello Three Rs (Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic)

On Jessica’s first day in kindergarten, her teacher was really nice, but the message that the school system communicated to Jessica and her schoolmates was harsh. Although none of the teachers or administrators ever stated it in such blatant terms, the message, as expressed via Jessica’s school’s mandated course curriculum and defined student learning outcomes (SLOs), was this: Reading/writing is the only acceptable way to access information. This is the way we do it in “modern” society. Text literacy is the foundation of all coherent and logical thinking, of all real learning and knowledge, and even of morality and personal responsibility. It is, in fact, the cornerstone of civilization itself.

And the message continued: Since you don’t know how to read or write yet, Jessica, you really don’t know anything of value, you have no useful cognitive skills, and you have no real ways to process the experiences and/or the data that enter your brain through your senses. So, Jessica, from now on, through all of your years of schooling—through your entire K-12 education—you and we, your teachers, must focus all of our attention on your acquiring those reading and writing skills.

The U.S. Department of Education holds every school system in the United States accountable for instilling reading skills, as well as math skills, in every one of its students, and it requires students to take a battery of standardized tests every year to see if both their reading scores and math scores are going up.

If the test scores trend upward, the schools are rewarded. If they stay level or decline, the schools are punished with funding cuts and threatened with forced closure. Schools literally pin their long-term survival on just two variables: First, do the tests show that students can read and write, and second, do the tests show that students can do math?

From that moment on, Jessica’s learning experience took a radical downward turn. Instead of accessing a dynamic, ever-changing reality, she was going to have to focus almost entirely on a static reality that just sat there on the page or computer screen: text. Instead of accessing information using all of her integrated senses simultaneously, she was going to have to use only her eyes. And instead of experiencing information interactively—as a two-way street that she could change by using her interactive technologies—she was going to have to experience information as a one-way street: by absorbing the text in front of her without being able to change it.

Welcome, Jessica, to the three Rs, the essence of K-12 education. Of course, Jessica and her schoolmates, particularly in middle and high school, will take other courses: history, chemistry, political science, and so on. However, these other courses count for almost nothing when students go on to college, where they have to take these subjects all over again (history 101, chemistry 101, political science 101), or when they enter the vocational, business, and professional world, where they have to receive specialized training for their new jobs. College admissions directors and workplace employers really expect only one narrow set of SLOs from students who graduate with a high school diploma: that the students should have acquired a basic level of text literacy.

Jessica, like almost all of her kindergarten schoolmates, struggled to adjust to this major cognitive shift. Actually, for the first year or so, Jessica was excited and motivated to learn to read and write by the special allure of written language itself. The alphabet, and putting the letters together to make words, was like a secret code that grown-ups used to store and retrieve information. The prospect of learning to read and write made Jessica feel that she was taking a step into the grown-up world.

However, this initial novelty and excitement of decoding text soon wore off, and most of the children in Jessica’s first, second, and third-grade classes, including Jessica herself, had a hard time keeping up. By the fourth grade, numbers of students were falling further and further behind the stated text-literacy SLOs for their grade level. Their self-confidence was getting severely damaged, and they were feeling more and more alienated from school and education itself. Not surprisingly, Jessica was no longer feeling very good about herself.

Young People’s Rebellion against The Three Rs and Text Literacy

What’s going on here with Jessica and young people in general? Our children are actually very intelligent. From the earliest age, their brains are like sponges soaking up and interpreting experiences and information that floods their senses. Almost all young children love to learn about everything, including about the learning process itself. They’re continually asking “why?” in an effort to understand the world around them. It’s a survival mechanism that we humans have evolved over millennia, much like the newborn deer kids that can stand and run minutes after they’re born.

Young people’s failure to excel, or to even reach proficiency, in reading and writing in K-12 is reflected in the school literacy rates that continue to fall or, at best, remain stagnant decade after decade. Look no further than the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an annual test that most experts consider a fairly accurate gauge of reading scores throughout the United States. The scores for 12th-graders declined from 292 in 1992 to 188 in 2009, while the scores of students in other grades only negligibly improved during that same time period—this despite gargantuan amounts of time, resources, and hundreds of billions of dollars that school systems burned through in an attempt to bring them up.

Yet another reflection of young people’s dissatisfaction with reading is the tragic rising dropout rates of middle-school and high-school students, particularly African American and Latino students. The question that parents and educators need to ask themselves is: Do children become less intelligent as they pass through the K-12 years?

The answer is No! Studies consistently show that, although young people’s text-literacy rates are falling, their IQs (intelligence quotients) are rising at an average of three points every 10 years. Researchers have been noting this trend for decades and call it the “Flynn Effect,” after James Flynn, a New Zealand political science professor who first documented it.

What’s going on here is that young people today are rebelling against reading, writing, and written language itself. They are actively rejecting text as their IT of choice for accessing information. They feel that it’s no longer necessary to become text literate—that it is no longer relevant to or for their lives.

Instead, young people are choosing to access information using the full range of emerging ITs available to them, the ITs that utilize the fullness of their all-sensory, interactive cognitive powers. Because their K-12 education is all about learning to gather information via text, young people are rejecting the three Rs–based educational system, as well. Why, Jessica is asking, do I need to spend years learning to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet when I can download it and listen to it, or listen to it via audio book CD, or watch a movie or DVD of it, or interact with it via an educational video game of the play?

We may be tempted to point out to Jessica and her fellow text rejecters that, when they’re text messaging, they are in fact writing and reading. But it’s not really the writing and reading of any actual written language—and Jessica knows it. Texting uses a system of symbols that more closely resembles a pictographic or hieroglyphic written language than an alphabetic one. “♥2u” may be understandable as three symbols combined into a pictogram, but it’s not written English.

In my opinion, “♥2u” exemplifies not a flourishing commitment to text literacy among young people, but rather the rejection of actual text literacy and a further step in the devolution of text/written language as a useful IT in electronically developed societies.

Replacing Text in Schools—and Everywhere Else

What is text/written language, anyway? It’s an ancient technology for storing and retrieving information. We store information by writing it, and we retrieve it by reading it. Between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, many of our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer societies settled on the land and began what’s known as the “agricultural revolution.” That new land settlement led to private property and increased production and trade of goods, which generated a huge new influx of information. Unable to keep all this information in their memories, our ancestors created systems of written records that evolved over millennia into today’s written languages.

But this ancient IT is already becoming obsolete. Text has run its historic course and is now rapidly getting replaced in every area of our lives by the ever-increasing array of emerging ITs driven by voice, video, and body movement/gesture/touch rather than the written word. In my view, this is a positive step forward in the evolution of human technology, and it carries great potential for a total positive redesign of K-12 education. Four “engines” are driving this shift away from text:

First, evolutionarily and genetically, we humans are innately hardwired to access information and communicate by speaking, listening, and using all of our other senses. At age one, Jessica just started speaking, while other one-year-olds who were unable to speak and/or hear just began signing. It came naturally to them, unlike reading and writing, which no one just starts doing naturally and which require schooling.

Second, technologically, we humans are driven to develop technologies that allow us to access information and communicate using all of our cognitive hardwiring and all of our senses. Also, we tend to replace older technologies with newer technologies that do the same job more quickly, efficiently, and universally. Taken together, this “engine” helps to explain why, since the late 1800s, we have been on an urgent mission to develop nontext-driven ITs—from Thomas Edison’s wax-cylinder phonograph to Nintendo’s Wii—whose purpose is to replace text-driven ITs.

Third, as noted above, young people in the electronically developed countries are, by the millions, rejecting old text-driven ITs in favor of all-sensory, nontext ITs. This helps to explain why Jessica and her friends can’t wait until school is over so they can close their school books, hurry home, fire up their video-game consoles, talk on their cell phones, and text each other using their creative symbols and abbreviations.

Fourth, based on my study and research, I’ve concluded that the great majority of the world’s people, from the youth to the elderly and everyone in between, are either nonliterate—unable to read or write at all—or functionally nonliterate. By “functionally nonliterate,” I mean that a person can perhaps recognize the letters of their alphabet, can perhaps write and read their name and a few other words, but cannot really use the written word to store, retrieve, and communicate information in their daily lives.

Since the world’s storehouse of information is almost entirely in the form of written language, these billions of people have been left out of the information loop and the so-called “computer revolution.” If we gave a laptop computer to everyone in the world and said, “Here, fly into the world of information, access the Internet and the Worldwide Web,” they would reply, “I’m sorry, but I can’t use this thing because I can’t read text off the screen and I can’t write words on the keyboard.”

Because access to the information of our society and our world is necessary for survival, it is therefore a human right. So the billions of people who are being denied access to information because they can’t read or write are being denied their human rights. They are now demanding to be included in the “global conversation” without having to learn to read and write.

Three great potential opportunities for K-12 education in the coming decades arise out of this shift away from text.

Using nontext-driven ITs will finally enable the billions of nonliterate and functionally nonliterate people around the world to claim and exercise their right to enter, access, add to, and learn from the world’s storehouse of information via the Internet and World Wide Web. Voice-recognition technology’s instantaneous language-translation function will allow everyone to speak to everyone else using their own native languages, and so language barriers will melt away. Consider the rate of improvement in voice-recognition technology over the last decade. As David Pogue points out in a 2010 Scientific American article, “In the beginning, you had to train these programs by reading a 45-minute script into your microphone so that the program could learn your voice. As the technology improved over the years, that training session fell to 20 minutes, to 10, to five—and now you don’t have to train the software at all. You just start dictating, and you get (by my testing) 99.9 percent accuracy. That’s still one word wrong every couple of pages, but it’s impressive.” People whose disabilities prevent them from reading, writing, and/or signing will be able to select specific functions of their all-sensory ITs that enable them to access all information.

The Brightness Returns: Goodbye, Three Rs; Hello, Four Cs

Every minute that Jessica and her friends spend getting information and communicating using video games, iPods, cell phones, and other nontext ITs, they’re developing new cognitive skills. Their new listening, speaking, visual, tactile, memory, interactive, multitasking, multimodal skills allow them to access information and communicate faster and more efficiently than ever before. I believe that Jessica and her friends are developing the very skills that will be required for successful K-12 learning as we move into the coming age of postliterate K-12 education.

Something good is also happening to Jessica’s brain and consciousness as she uses her all-sensory, interactive ITs. Jessica is retraining her brain, central nervous system, and senses. She is reconfiguring her consciousness so that it more closely resembles its original, unified, integrated, pre–three Rs state. Jessica’s worldview is broadening because she’s perceiving and understanding the world more holistically. And she’s feeling good about herself again.

Jessica’s story—and there are millions of Jessicas struggling to succeed in our three Rs–based classrooms today—points the way to a new strategy for K-12 education in the twenty-first century. Basing K-12 education on the three Rs is a strategy for failure. We have the emerging ITs on which we can build a new K-12 strategy, one that has the potential to eliminate young people’s academic nonsuccess and sense of failure and replace it with academic success and self-confidence.

Instead of the three Rs, we need to move on to the four Cs: critical thinking, creative thinking, compspeak (the skills needed to access information using all-sensory talking computers), and calculators (for basic applied math).

As text/written language falls more and more out of use as society’s IT of choice for accessing information, so will the text-based three Rs. It’s a trend that’s already starting to happen. Videos as teaching–learning tools are surpassing textbooks in innumerable K-12 classrooms. Instructional interactive videos (we won’t be calling them video “games” anymore) are already entering our classrooms as the next big IIT—instructional information technology—because students want to be interactive with information.

As the three Rs exit the K-12 scene, they’ll leave a huge gap to be filled. What better way to fill that gap than by helping young people to become better critical and creative thinkers—the most crucial cognitive skills they’ll need to help them build a more sustainable, peaceful, equitable, and just world? In order to store and retrieve the information they’ll need to develop and practice these thinking skills, they’ll also need to systematically acquire the all-sensory, interactive skills to access that information: the compspeak skills.

These compspeak skills are the very same skills that Jessica and her classmates have been developing unsystematically by using their all-sensory ITs, but systematic training in listening, speaking, visuality, memory, and the other compspeak skills should be a central component of their post–three Rs education. It’s ironic, and definitely shortsighted, that, in a difficult economic and budget-cutting climate, classes that support these compspeak skills are the first to be cut: music (listening, visual, body movement, memory), art (visual, body movement), physical education and dance (body movement, memory), speech (speaking, listening, memory), and theater arts (all of the above).

Over the next decades, we will continue to replace text-driven ITs with all-sensory-driven ITs and, by 2050, we will have recreated an oral culture in our electronically developed countries and K-12 classrooms. Our great-great-grandchildren won’t know how to read or write—and it won’t matter. They’ll be as competent accessing information using their nontext ITs as we highly text-literates are today using the written word.

About the Author


William Crossman is a philosopher, futurist, professor, human-rights activist, speaker, consultant, and composer/pianist. He is founder/director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures ( Email:

Some of the ideas discussed in this article are discussed in greater depth in the author’s book VIVO [Voice-In/Voice-Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers (Regent Press, 2004). This article is adapted from an earlier version in Creating the School You Want: Learning @ Tomorrow’s Edge (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), edited by Arthur Shostak and used with his permission.


These days, the decision to

These days, the decision to attend graduate school is becoming more and more of a necessity to differentiate yourself within the career marketplace. However, many prospective applicants underestimate the importance of the personal statement in the graduate admissions process. words to avoid in personal statement

interesting post

Very interesting ideas here. Thank you for sharing them so boldly. The following comments are a) from a current public educator, who b) assumes this post is not tongue-in-cheek.

My initial reaction to this post was sorrow. Sorrow for Jessica, who apparently had no one to read with her as a young child. Instead, she was put in front of a screen. The lack of human connection was probably the biggest reason for her culture shock when she entered school. I have sorrow for future learners you describe, who will never have the opportunity to experience the solitude of being alone with a book, engrossed in a captivating narrative. Books helped create some of my fondest memories of childhood. And I have sorrow for readers of this post who believe this prediction will come to fruition. I hope they are able to differentiate between "futurist" and someone who can predict the future.

That said, you make some very solid points about the need for expanding the variety of learning opportunities available in K-12 classrooms. As a school principal, I am striving to introduce these tools for creation and creativity into every classroom. Being literate has taken on new meaning in today's world. Thank you for making this important point.

Interesting ideas

I was so intrigued by this article, I had to write about it on my own blog (educationalchange21.wordpress). You are welcome to visit and leave a comment if you like.

Cognitive modes and the role of text

While I like the creative and critical thinking that goes into imagining post-literate education, I suspect we are farther from that utopian vision that Mr. Crossman suggests. This is not because video and audio forms of communication aren't getting easier and more important all the time, which they clearly are doing. It is because there are modes of communication which require a care a precision more easily learned in a composition class (and eventually in disciplinary writing instruction)than anywhere else. While a library of videos of judges presenting legal opinions might be more accessible than written texts, I suspect it will be at least a couple generations before judges skip the step of carefully crafting those opinions in writing (and in higher courts revising those opinions with the help of colleagues and clerks prior to their release.) Nor is it likely that the laws on which they base these opinions will be delivered first as spoken statements. The scholarly journals which carefully document research results will only slightly more readily admit to conversion to forms other than written presentation. (One can imagine videos of experiments and observations being more engaging than written reports, but would anyone really take the time to observe repeated observations rather than reading a table summarizing the results of these measurements?)

In short, post-literate forms of IT don't fully replace the function of literacy in an information dependent society. Compspeak and calculators as a complete substitute for the three Rs is an overly facile way out of seeking to provide students with meaningful literacies for the 21st century. Whatever the state of communication technology it will still take training to communicate clearly via these technologies. Finding ways to make composition training more engaging is a great idea, but in the end there is a certain rigor that can only be skipped at the cost of lower levels of skill. The messages in video and audio recordings are likely to be of better quality when produced by literate authors.

Similarly, while they are very useful for rapidly solving complex problems, calculators are a poor substitute for an ability to do basic calculation and quantitative reasoning in one's head. When and how calculators are best introduced into an overall education for quantitative literacy (or numeracy if you prefer)is a subject of lively pedagogical debate, but suggesting we simply replace this skill with calculators misses something critical in a complete education. If you don't have a rough idea of what the answer should be, a calculator can lead you very far astray.

A New World Devoid of the Written Word

Peter Drucker once said, "Every company must prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Mr. Crossman makes an excellent case for that statement applying to societies as well. I found this article to be tremendously enlightening and thought provoking. We really will have to act ourselves into a new way of thinking. Thinking of Huxley, Toffler and others, it is apparent that the Brave New World is upon us.