Elevating the Educational Experience

Introduction

Elevate is a recent addition to the genre of brain fitness games. The company markets itself as a cognitive training tool designed to build communication and analytical skills where members are provided with a personalized game-based training program that adjusts over time based on performance. It features a free-to-play mode with limited features and a subscription program that unlocks additional exercises and modes for 4.99/month. Since launching in May 2014, Elevate has been a commercial success with more than 5 million downloads on the App Store and Google Play. It has also been selected by Apple as ‘App of the Year’ for 2014.

After installing the app, Elevate asks the user for preferences in training goals (ex. Articulate your thoughts more clearly), and more recently has added a formative assessment that tests you in key areas to gauge your initial skill level. With its emphasis on communication and analytical skills, the application tracks the users in speaking, writing, reading, listening, and math abilities. Each of these categories has 3-4 exercises that help users can complete in order to gain proficiency points for the ability. The difficulty of these exercises increase with performance up to a maximum level. Elevate unlocks 3 semi-random exercises every day, depending on personal training goals, and tracks the user performance history. The exercises are all unique in design and execution, each with its own graphics, sounds, and user interaction.

In this article, we will delve into the machinations of Elevate because it exemplifies the modern learning experience combining design elements with a data-driven approach to learning. We will consider its engaging user experience and explicit tracking of proficiency levels, while comparing them to their counterparts in public education. While Elevate is targeted towards a different audience with its own goals, it’s possible to consider tangible elements from its structure and apply them the learning experience in traditional schools.

The 'Diversifying Design' section below refers to these case Studies of the five Elevate subjects along with a featured game evaluated for content, engagement, and validity.

 

Diversifying Design

 

For Learning

On average, students’ learning experiences are extremely structured, often at the expense of engagement. Especially towards secondary schools, classroom layout follows a pattern, there is little variation in teaching style throughout the year, and students spend the entire day sitting in desks, taking notes, listening to the instructor, participating in some discussion, or filling out assessments. The biggest criticism of students not engaged in learning is that school is ‘boring’. Most adults assume that this comment is directed at the content, but perhaps it’s equally important to consider the environment and how the content is presented.
 
One of the most remarkable attributes of Elevate that distinguishes itself from traditional learning is the number of different ways players can interact with the games. Even in the confines of the application, you can tap the screen, swipe left or right, choose between responses, drag facts to appropriate markers, build a tower, and more. Let’s consider the Mathematics Case Study. The featured game teaches players how to organize units in different systems of measurement, by having them build a tower of length or weight units in order. In school, the student will learn the ratios between the numbers and convert them on a test, perhaps with a few examples. Especially as we progress to middle and high school, concepts and ideas are taught, practiced, and assessed in only abstract terms. This game design allows student to visualize explicit and relevant numbers. In order to succeed, you must still internalize the proper ratios, but the application of this knowledge is more meaningful a range of learners, and allows abstract, visual, and tactile learners to absorb the information.

Singapore math is one traditional approach to mathematics education that uses some of the principles outlined above to teach standardized curricula. The method uses three steps to teach students the same concept. First, students engage in hands-on learning using concrete objects, followed by drawing pictorial representations of the concepts, and finally solving problems by using numbers and symbols. Variations of this methodology are still employed in elementary school, but concrete and pictorial exercises don’t mature well with students, and are therefore discarded in secondary education. Digital tools offer a clean solution to this problem, and well-designed applications or games can supplement in-class instruction to provide diverse and interactive learning opportunities in not just mathematics, but other subjects as well.

 

For Testing

Assessments present an interesting design issue, because the process itself is so detached from learning. Standardized tests use Scantron paper forms which allow machines to quickly translate responses to scores. Widely used to save time and resources, the test limits the questions with discrete answers, where the student must choose between options. Many secondary schools began to follow this trend, partly for their benefits, but also because it helps prepare students for the standardized tests to come. Even schools and teachers that don’t use it directly employ the same elements in their tests like multiple choice, true/false, and matching questions. This simplification comes at the expense of student learning by introducing discrepancies between the goals of the knowledge or skill and how it’s being tested.

Alternatively, let’s consider Elevate’s approach, where assessment and learning are intertwined and game design reflects the development goals. The games offer instant feedback and corrections to mistakes, prioritize accuracy and speed differently, and reward streaks and specialization over comprehensive knowledge gain. 

For example, the Syntax game in the Writing Case Study helps you identify grammatical errors. It displays a highlighted word or phrase within a sentence, and you must choose if its usage is correct. If the usage is incorrect, regardless of whether you were able to identify it, the game displays the proper replacement in its place. This adds a dimension to the otherwise simple true-false structure where the player gains more information than just whether he was right or wrong. Both, the Conversion game in the Math Case Study and the Precision game in the Speaking Case Study have similar features where they provide immediate feedback or additional knowledge to the player after his response.

Also, the game designs also reflect the values of the goals. The Syntax game features a boat trying to reach the harbor before the sun sets, personifying progress and time respectively. The boat moves forward with every correct answer, but back for every mistake, and the game is scored on the time left. Therefore, a player who is quick but makes an error may earn more points than one who is careful. It’s an assessment designed to prioritize speed and efficiency of the skill. Conversely, the ‘Processing’ game from the Reading Case Study uses its design to control reading speed, but values accuracy by testing comprehension—you lose the game if you make two mistakes in the session. These are but a few ways that design in assessments can help cater to specific goals and skill objectives. 

Over the last few years, teachers have begun to use an assortment of formative analysis and digital tools to provide gauge student learning and provide feedback. One widespread example of this innovation is the usage of the clicker, which allows teachers to gauge the proficiency of students to determine if more time is required to cover particular concepts. But a majority of these tools are either diagnostic in nature, directed towards teachers, or derivatives of simplistic evaluation metrics. A combination of good design and digital tools can transform assessments into powerful and engaging learning tools that empower students.

 

For Engaging

The final argument for diversifying the design in education is engagement. Our culture has evolved considerably within the past few decades, especially with regards to technology and how we interact and communicate with the world. The current generation of students has grown up in a world where they have unfettered access to an expansive world within the internet. They have always known the accessibility of smartphones, computers, and tablets. Their videogames and movies feature incredible graphics, and unprecedented interactivity. The consumer culture is accompanied by escalation in engagement metrics that our current system of education has been unable to match so far. It’s only natural that students will feel uninterested reading from textbooks and copying notes from a chalkboard.
 
Much of Elevate’s novelty comes from its visual design and interactive games. Consider Focus from the Listening Case Study, where users listen to a conversation between two people regarding a theme with multiple subtopics. These subjects are visually represented by three different circles on the screen. As facts about these subjects surface in the conversation, they get added to the screen as a hollow ring. Players must drag the ring to their respective topic circle, after which the game visually and audibly rewards you with a flash and sound effect. These fact rings then rotate around the circle, until the topic set is completed, and the user is left with a list of facts on a topic. While the purpose of the game is actually to improve concentration and memory, it can just as easily be a more modern approach to note-taking, where audio and visual cues reward adding information.

The process of increasing engagement through digital tools is met with resistance from some educators who provide some variation of the reasoning, ‘I learned things this way, why can’t they?’ The problem with this line of thinking is that the goal of education is to prepare its students for the future. It not only takes more resources to teach students with tools outside of their comfort zone, but it also isolates their learning from their interests and peer interactions. If education is to cater to the needs of children, educators need to adapt and teach through a language that’s familiar to students.

 

 

Data-Driven

 

Students in the current public system maintain an unhealthy relationship with numbers that are used to evaluate them and their peers. Assignments, quizzes, participation, reports, tests, projects, and exams all provide a number that is supposed to measure students and hold them accountable for their learning. In this section, we will examine the philosophy behind how Elevate measures and uses the proficiency levels of the players and compare it to the approach in schools.

Compared to the escalating linear approach in schools, Elevate employs a more gradual, cyclic approach. Each subject category is divided into core competencies rather than units. Players begin at a low difficulty in each game, and their performance determines both the subsequent changes in difficulty and proficiency levels. This creates a system that assesses students, reveals the explicit metrics used in the evaluation, tracks trends in student performance, and refines itself for a personalized model of achievement that values constant development.

 

Transparency in Numbers

Elevate shares all explicit numbers with its players behind the details of their performance. In the same way that the game’s design highlights certain objectives, the scoring system explicitly states the different ways students can improve.

At the end of each session, the game displays the base score for completing the game as well as additional bonuses for speed, accuracy, and difficulty. This has several implications, notably, that the game explicitly notes the value of participation by having a base score. Essentially, the game assigns a value in the player putting in time to practice a skill, and the learning that takes place because of it. Next, the speed and accuracy bonuses give players points for finishing faster and making fewer mistakes respectively than what is required of them to complete the session. Finally, the difficulty bonus varies depending on the level; the bonus is negligible at lower levels, but gives substantial (20%) at higher levels.

The numbers also help target specific skills for each subject. For example, the Proportion game asks players to scroll through and match various fractions to their respective decimals and pictorial representations. As players start to improve, they become more familiar with the ratios and are able to complete the exercise faster. Conversely, Retention asks the player to listen to a list of things and answer questions about them from memory. The speed at which the player responds is negligible in value compared to his accuracy because intuitively the skill is developing your memory skills, not the speed at which you can respond.

When you consider assessments in schools, students can’t easily discuss their proficiencies, because they are never explicitly stated. In the course of reviewing homework, or receiving tests and quizzes, both students and educators are made aware of how many mistakes were made, not necessarily what they specifically were or if they are relevant. In order for students to improve, there needs to be motivation, but also clarity regarding the direction. For example, if a test is designed to delineate between structures (multiple choice, matching) instead of subject categories (fractions, graphs), it’s harder for the students to recognize where they performed well, and where they faltered. A student who can see that he missed four graph-based problems is better informed that one who sees he missed two true-false and two matching problems. There are a host of similar initiatives that schools and teachers can utilize by finding synergy between transparent assessment structure and course design. 

 

Tracking Scores and Recognizing Trends

Elevate’s loop structure of Assess > Reveal > Refine > Assess… has another enormous advantage; the structure allows players to track their scores and recognize trends, a sort of meta-learning. 

At the end of each session, Elevate displays a graph of your recent scores in the game and that your high score for the game is. The graph above shows a player slowly developing in two subjects, Reading (Connotation and Visualization) and Math (Proportion and Tipping). If we assume that the design of progression is consistent, then several important points become significant. First, despite Proportion and Tipping both being subcategories of Math, the skill at the onset and development is different. For example, as the difficulty in Proportion increases, the player goes through phases of equilibration, where he adjusts to the new standards, resulting in performance dips. Meanwhile, Tipping shows a slower, but more consistent growth.
 
This information is valuable to players because it allows them to not only gauge their current status, but also how far they have progressed in a given period of time. Next, as players achieve the highest level of mastery in the game, the scores normalize for difficulty, but players can still improve in other metrics such as speed and accuracy, encouraging players to continue playing the game to maintain their skill. Elevate’s goals are much more grounded in application and place less relevance on the consistency of objective metrics; however, the model presented is extremely relevant when applied to schools.
 
Students often don’t have an accurate gauge on their skill level in subjects, and their perception depends on their test and exam scores, due to their value on final grades. Similarly, parents have to rely on teacher conferences to glean their child’s growth, and even these conversations turn out to be subjective depending on parent’s expectations. Finally, while teachers have a general idea regarding the proficiency of each student, their understanding is based on in-class interactions and discrete scores.

Valerie Shute and Matthew Ventura offer the following metaphor. Retail outlets in the past had to close down once or twice a year to take inventory of their stock. But with the advent of automated check-out and bar codes, these businesses have access to a continuous stream of information that can be used to monitor inventory and flow of items. Not only can a business continue without interruption: the information obtained is also far richer than before, enabling stores to monitor trends and aggregate data into various kinds of summaries as well as to support real-time inventory management.

Similarly, Elevate’s model applied to schools can help both students and parents recognize development in various categories throughout the year. Students will have a solid basis for introspection regarding their strengths and deficiencies. For example, a student completes daily homework assignments in a digital or web-based application. Over the course of two weeks, the application points out that while the student has kept up with expected math skills, but his Algebra scores are lower than average. As the student starts to make a conscious effort in the category, the Algebra scores begin to improve.

Teachers benefit enormously as well. The past decade has seen an increase in initiatives to measure teacher effectiveness in the classroom. However, one major criticism of this system that teachers cite is that these evaluations don’t account for the starting level of the students. If a student is too far behind at the onset of the class, teachers point out that it’s impossible to get him to the appropriate standard. Tracking performance data helps alleviate a lot of these issues, by demonstrating student levels at the beginning, as well as their development throughout the year. Additionally, teachers can compare growth rates and proficiencies among clusters of students, helping them tailor content and pace in the class.

This process of data tracking is not simple; it requires both a proper infrastructure and class designed around its usage. Teachers need professional development to be able to interpret and discern relevance from this information and students need to be able to use the tools effectively. But the potential benefits after the capital investment are recurring, both for the teachers and the students. 


Adjusting Pace and Tempo

In order to develop the player skills in its games, Elevate tries to achieve a difficulty range between comfortable and challenging. It does this through an iterative process responding to player performances, and uses the same methodology to adjust player proficiency. 


At the end of each session, you receive a score composed of a base score along with bonuses for difficulty level, accuracy, and speed. The game evaluates your score and adjusts your difficulty and proficiency level accordingly. The graph above shows normalized scores compared to the subsequent difficulty increases. Additionally, the player’s performance in each game also affects their proficiency in the subject. For example, the graph above compares the scores from the game ‘Retention’ to the resulting increases in the ‘Listening’ subject proficiency. In this scenario, the player receives 6-8 proficiency points per session because his current level is Listening is quite high. If the player had a higher or lower proficiency level, the points per session would lower and rise respectively— a novice level player would gain more for the same performance than someone who is an advanced or expert level.

This concept of proficiency is a mastery-based approach to learning instead of a score-based system. Players have a proficiency rating for each subject: 0-1250 for novice, 1250-2500 for intermediate, 2500-3750 for advanced, and 3750-5000 for expert. The formative assessment at the beginning of the game places you at a proficiency level. You now have to do several things, first of which is play different Listening games because mastering and repeating one game will lead to marginal returns in terms of proficiency points. Next, you have to maintain or increase your level of performance in games; otherwise you will begin to lose points. Elevate has quantified breadth and depth of skill or knowledge into its subject that motivates novice players to improve and expert players to maintain their performance. More importantly, this happens at an individually appropriate pace set by difficulty levels that iterate in response to your sessions.

The application of this flexibility already exists in the classroom in the form of differentiated instruction, where teachers respond to the needs of their classroom to cater to specific groups of students or results of recent assessments. Most classrooms contain a diverse group of students with regards to skill level, learning abilities, and interests. Teachers can differentiate content or process to best suit the needs of their class. For example, if the recent assessment shows that the class is behind the curve, the teacher can reiterate concepts or adjust her pace. If current events are of interest to students, the teacher can leverage that to teach concepts, or if the students in the class are technologically inclined, the teacher can use more digital tools to teach. 

The biggest issue with differentiation is that no technique, direction, or process is completely inclusive. Slowing the pace in the classroom inhibits the growth of students who have the potential to learn a greater depth of knowledge through a rigorous, challenging pace. The same theory applies to adjusting process and focus. Digital media, particularly video games, have refined the ability to engage players and develop relevant skills at a pace that is challenging to them. If we are able to extract these elements and apply them to our assessment philosophy, it will help alleviate the stress of having to differentiate from the teachers.

 

Conclusion

Integrating technology in the classroom allows schools to establish some equity in terms of learning and opportunities. The problem is that the efficiency of technologies and digital tools used in schools is primitive in comparison to those used for in every other aspect of the current culture. Elevate shows how the proper integration of design can create an engaging and personalized learning experience that also highlights focus and objectives. For example, the same elements applied properly to standardized curricula of mathematics, literacy, sciences, etc. have the potential to create a more engaging and relevant environment for students. 

The theory of Connected Learning proposes that students motivated by understanding how particular knowledge or skill is applicable to their own lives will yield the most meaningful and sustained learning. However, the current system prioritizes accountability through scores and assessments that determine student’s level of academic achievement. The Elevate Case Study demonstrates that there is a compromise between the two by making the assessments themselves engaging and relevant enough that they produce learning. In order to be practical, this entails realigning the philosophy of assessments from stigmatizing mistakes to rewarding development and redesigning the structure to diversify goals and offer feedback. 

Formative assessments, especially short-cycle ones can help bring about this philosophical shift. Elevate shows how a data-driven approach using a series of short game sessions can provide meaningful information about the learner and personalize their learning. This information can help students focus their learning and help connect parents to the full details of their children’s learning. When this assessment approach is coupled with teacher’s professional development, they can leverage data to compare and track group performances, and employ more efficient differentiation in the classroom.

Our current system of public education is a protracted process of university entrance (later job placement), and as a result, the deeply-rooted culture of comparative assessment is not likely to change dramatically in the next decade. However, we can shift the surrounding infrastructure so that these assessments are meaningful to students, teachers, and parents in terms of development, rather than reductionist measures of judgment.

 

 

 

Socio-Economic Divergence in Schools

During the 1900s, the pillars which characterized social life, such as the church, extended family, and village community broke down. These were replaced by new practices such as capitalist economy, the suburban family, mass communication and scientific progress. Within the last decade, these practices are in conflict with the modern structures of global free markets, individualization, consumer lifestyle, and digital networks.

Today, the individual, as a freely choosing agent, has evolved beyond the need for social structures, and is no longer represented by social institutions, conventions and traditions. Individuals have begun to increasingly take responsibility for all aspects of their life while the ideals of social cohesion, welfare, and community are crumbling.

The implication of this sociological narrative within the discussion of education is that parents and students are becoming more accountable for their own learning and development, and perhaps not rely on public institutions. Parents have already begun investing heavily into out-of-school enrichment programs for their children, a trend that has slowly increased over the last few decades.

Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane’s analysis of consumer expenditure below indicates that upper income households’ expenditures on enrichment activities have nearly tripled from the years since 1972 and 2006, while those in the bottom income quartile have remained relatively constant. Covay and Carbonaro’s analysis of extracurricular activities confirms higher levels of participation by upper income families, and suggests that this participation contributes to some advantages in non-cognitive and cognitive skills.

The enrichment activities mentioned above mostly refer to digital tools and programs that allow students to personalize their learning within more engaging and relevant contexts. The implication here is that the current structure of public education will be even more inequitable, creating a greater disparity between those who have access to out-of-school resources and those who don't.

It’s not clear if the debate between standardization of content-based curriculum and development of skills for the knowledge economy is going to resolve itself in the near future. If anything, the history of curriculum focus shows that as long as society is not at a political and cultural equilibrium, the focus is going to shift again. While schools have to adhere to fluctuations in curricula, they can control the approach to teaching. By integrating elements from out-of-school tools and programs like digital tools and diverse learning experiences, schools can restore their relevance in the community and promote equity.

Knowledge Retrieval

There have been significant changes in how we understand the nature of knowledge and what it means to know. It’s slowly transitioned to a state where knowledge is now perceived as located within particular ‘paradigms’ with their own rules, criteria, and symbolic representations. For example, computer science is a rising topic of study in secondary education, and it requires a firm understanding of logic along with the proper syntax to communicate. Similarly mathematics, physics, literature, or history, each gave their own particular modes of interpretation, rather than the traditional theory-free descriptions of the world. This view of knowledge reflects the values of the knowledge economy, where workers need to be able to think systematically, creatively, and critically. As this discussion transgresses into familiar territory, let’s shift the focus onto knowledge acquisition and retention.

The prevailing thoughts on human learning are guided by a few tacit assumptions. The first such assumption is that learning happens primarily when people encode knowledge and experiences. Our school systems are structured around teacher sharing information or concepts, which the students then store or encode in their minds. A related assumption is that retrieval of this information, defined as the active cue-driven process of reconstructing knowledge, measures the products of previous learning, but doesn’t itself produce learning. The idea behind this assumption is that measuring memory can’t change memory in the same way that the act of measuring a shape does not change the shape. However, Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt’s research shows that retrieval plays an active role in learning.

The figure above shows the result of an experiment where students were evaluated on science concepts after various study methods. In ‘Repeated Study’, students studied the text in four consecutive sessions. In the ‘Concept Mapping’ scenario, students studied the text in one session and then created a concept map of the material while viewing the text. Finally, the ‘Retrieval Practice’ method involved students studying the text for one session, then practical retrieval by recalling as much information on a free recall test. The total amount of learning time was equal to those in concept mapping and retrieval practices.
 
The results of this experiment prove two important things. Firstly, not only is retrieval a relevant metric in knowledge acquisition, it has the potential to exceed traditional study and encoding methods. Secondly, it showed that students are introspectively unaware of their own learning capabilities. Not only did they largely overestimate the value of these approaches, and weren’t able to rank the relative efficiency of each approach. 

Research shows that retrieval doesn’t merely access the stored knowledge in one’s mind and the process of reconstructing information itself enhances learning. Especially when considering the evolving definition of knowledge that values interpretation and analysis, an approach that focuses on practice and application of encoded information seems intuitively synergistic. This new perspective on the human mind opens an exciting set of possibilities regarding the design of new retrieval-based educational activities.

Homeschooling in the United States

Homeschooling in the United States is not the most relevant issue in the context of the institution of public education in the United States with the exception that of the parents that home-school their children, 74% cite dissatisfaction with academic instruction at schools and 91% are concerned with school environment. Additionally approximately 50% of these parents claim one of these two issues as the primary reason for their choice in homeschooling their children. As a result, the 3% of school-age children currently home-schooled are exposed to a unique education, bereft of standardized practices and traditional social dynamics. Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to interview several parents throughout the United States, whose methodologies, motivations, and results, offer an in-depth perspective on the philosophical and heuristic efficacy of the practice

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Charter Schools: A Brief Exploration in Pittsburgh

Charter Schools are conceptually interesting entities in the education landscape. In the United States, they offer primary and secondary education based on a set of principles and core beliefs that drive their methodologies. While they receive less public funding than public schools, they have the advantage of having less rules and regulations. They are generally founded by parents, teachers, or organizations, and there are currently greater than 6000 schools in the United States, accounting for more than 6% of all public schools. However, the perception of charter schools is quite ambivalent, and the efficacy of each depends on how they convert resources into teachers, spaces, and initiatives that best serves their students and credo. The problem in addressing charter schools as one collective ideal is that they are fundamentally very different. While I'll address the broader scope of charter schools in a longer piece, I wanted to take the time to talk about two charter schools in the Pittsburgh area that surprised me with their commitment and depth to their ideals.

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Changing the Focus of Public Education in the United States

Introduction

In the United States, the system of public education transitioned from home-schooling in the 17th century to community forums and apprenticeships in the 18th century. It wasn't until after the American Revolution that primary education evolved in the United States and especially the Northern states to support the rising demands of industrialism. With the concept of public education and the age until which children have to attend them became mandatory, private schools started to emerge to offer competitive programs and entrance to the top universities at the time such as Harvard. The structure of this system was built in a time where the identity of the vast majority of people was linked to their families, religion, and communities. The goal of this system was simply to impart general knowledge and basic skills to the students who on average had a very narrow path regarding the course of their life. Public education has evolved over the last two hundred years to be more inclusive of different genders and races, standardized the educational infrastructure with staff and resources, and covering a comprehensive range of subjects. 

However, the rate of cultural change has been slowly increasing and the introduction of the internet and smart technology has demonstrated that we live in a world that's unpredictable and no one knows what it'll look like in 30 years. Despite this uncertainty, we're supposed to be educating our children for it. Our workplaces value creative and well-rounded individuals. Our political system requires people to take an interest and be well-informed of issues. Our culture constantly feeds us an abundance of information that people need to know how to judge or evaluate. Instead of adapting, our focus has been to overemphasize limited metrics to judge and evaluate students, causing a lot of smart and talented individuals to feel like they are not. I propose that our current system is too limited and inflexible and although it was suitable until the late 20th century, it is extremely inefficient to meet the needs of the current and future generations.

 

Learning over Information

The concept of 'Progressive Education' was proposed in the United States in the early 1900s by John Dewey who believed "to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities" The current system of public education emphasizes information transfer, often without generating interest or establishing long-term relevance for the subject. As a result, a majority of students struggle to connect the importance of education to their lives and accept their time in school or certain subjects as an obligation rather than a worthwhile experience. 

Unless actively refreshed or maintained, most people can't recall specific names from the Civil War they learned in American History or how to perform complicated integration from Calculus, mostly because those skills are irrelevant to most people after leaving the education system. Instead, people should be able to read the current events and understand how the political and economic forces affect themselves or how to decipher statistics and data presented to them in marketing, advertising, and many other forums to identify its relevance. My contention isn't that schools should stop dealing with curriculi and information, merely that the context of how and why we learn is more important than the what because it's more applicable and relatable to our lives. We live in a world where information is readily available, and education should be a institution that helps each student appreciate its value and allows them to work towards their own personal goals.                                                                                                                                

Investing in Educational Change from an Economic Perspective

Public education is an investment made by the society in the next generation, and while previous generations could predict the market with relative certainty, the recent commercialization of technology has introduced a cultural rate that makes it difficult to predict what may happen. The current education system focuses on conformity with regards to curricula, evaluation, and teaching methods. Instead, it should shift the core towards fostering creativity and diversity. This can include many initiatives from offering a wider range of topics, introducing independent learning programs, restructuring evaluation from test-based to project-based etc. 

One common and odd argument against changing the focus of schools towards creativity for economic reasons is that the average person will still have a job that focuses on productivity, rather than critical thinking, and won't see the benefit from this system. The problem with this argument is that the education system doesn't or shouldn't just cater to the average, but instead try to maximize the utility of every individual within reason. In addition, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the majority of jobs with the highest growth rate for people with a Bachelor's degree are engineers, analysts, managers, and software developers. A lot of these jobs are highly diverse that deal with complex issues and require people who are adaptable and creative to fill them. Therefore, it makes sense from an economic perspective to re-evaluate the structure of public education to focus on diversity and creativity, rather than the conformity.


Establishing Unique Educational Identities

The system of public education is often responsible for being the only time during their pre-adult life that children are segregated from their parents alongside others of equivalent status. This separation allows for each individual to form their own social and cultural identities. It is interesting that the same institution that accepts all forms of social and cultural diversity doesn't apply the same methodology to teaching. People are interested in a variety of different subjects for a multitude of reasons, but the current system has a strict hierarchy of important subjects. At the top are maths, sciences, and literacy, followed by the humanities and languages with the arts at the bottom.

Many students in middle and high school are steered benignly away from their interests because what they like to do isn't considered important, or even stigmatized. As a result, the spirit and talent of many students are being ruthlessly squandered, especially because there's no way to accurately gauge the lost potential. In order to encourage creativity and diversity, subjects should be given a more equal status at least culturally, if not financially. The process of having original thoughts and learning is often correlated to multi-disciplinary ways of thinking, and this equality would not only help exceptional students prosper, but also help struggling students appreciate education by having different avenues to express their strengths. 


Introducing Social Elements and Skills

Education originally started in the United States with the premise that it would help students give back to their communities and government. The curriculum-based system of education has left little place for such involvement, and the responsibility of teaching students the merits or even possibilities of community interaction is left to the families. However, the technological surge in the past 30 years has given students many avenues to spend their time without having to come in contact with their communities. In addition, the domain-based segregation has student forming their individual identities and therefore the idea that "every generation has to rediscover democracy" is more true than ever.

But this idea extends to more than just government process and community interaction, there are skills far more important to students than information. One example of these skills is personal finance. Understanding how to gauge their own financial situation gives students the power to better evaluate and personalize their decisions about their present and future. These issues belong in the education system because their importance has been lost while the culture expecting the next generation to know them without giving them the proper channels to learn about or experience them. 


Emphasis on Personalized Teaching

Teaching is indisputably an art-form, but the cultural perception of teaching is limited to transferring information from a source to the student, an idea that is equally fallacious as the one that learning simply involves memorizing and regurgitating knowledge. The interaction between teacher and student is the most fundamentally important dynamic in education, and it's been vastly understated in American society. If we examine the core of education without the modern institution, we can strip away the buildings, syllabuses, principals, textbooks, unions, etc, we are left with a student learning from a teacher. People are vastly different from one another and consequently learn in every way they can experience the world. The role of teachers is to facilitate learning by engaging a diverse audience onto the topic of discussion. 

Standardization is the biggest impediment to teaching because it forces teachers to adhere to information, structure, and topics that may not fit the needs of the group of students. Personalized teaching does not imply reducing the student-teacher ratio, but more allowing the teacher to judge how to best teach each subset of students in the setting. If recent news is dominated by a certain region or lawsuit concerning a mentally ill person, placing emphasis on those topics in World History or Psychology class takes precedence to make the material relatable. If a topic in mathematics or chemistry has been especially engaging for students, it's worth exploring their interest and allowing for organic progression of learning. These are a few situations that demonstrate that teaching can be more effective if it's allowed to be adaptable to the context of their students. 


Micro-control to Increase Flexibility

Dewey's ideas on progressive education were discussed, but rarely implemented on a large scale because they encountered a highly bureaucratic system of school administration not receptive to new methods, mostly because they receive instruction from the state and national sources. The standardization and evaluation of education by the government is extremely inefficient because there are too many cultural and regional differences throughout the United States. Teachers, schools, and school districts are the best people equipped to make decisions regarding their students and keep up with the changes in culture and should be given more control and flexibility. The role of the government should be to monitor the efficacy of local initiatives and use elements from successful ones to help those struggling. 

For example, a school district in Alaska that is dealing with high drop-out rates has a different list of priorities than a school in an upper class neighborhood trying to help students prepare for highly competitive colleges. A community near an urban area with a diverse population has different focus and initiatives than a school district in a remote area where students don't get the same experiences. There are too many contexts for the government to treat the system using a command structure, and should instead allow schools or regions to develop their own standards and monitor their efficacy. 


Personal Interest and Final Thoughts

I attended school in India until the age of 10 before moving to the United States. I spent a few years outside of Boston for middle school, and then outside Philadelphia for high school. After attending college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I moved to Seattle where I've been involved with programs like STEM, Lego League, and the CMAC council. Through my diverse experiences with education, I've noticed that our current system of public education has not adequately responded to cultural changes in the last 20 years. After reading about the various organizations and key figures in progressive education, I want to conduct my own research and add to their work. I personally believe that the creative capabilities and talents of many individuals are being squandered under the current system, but there's no way to quantify lost potential. I will be travelling and speaking with various teachers and school districts throughout the United States in the next few months to gain a better insight into their priorities and see if my thesis has any merit.