Success in traditional education finds itself frequently stymied by the narrowness of its ability to provide students with diverse interests and learning strategies that deviate from the norm. This leads to a lack of academic environments appropriate for cultivating talent in those areas, and creates hurdles for students attempting to develop talent in unconventional and perhaps non-academic fields.

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The Status Quo

Because of the current educational system emphasizes methods of visual learning through things such as textbooks as well as the presentation style used in the delivery of academic material, not all students may feel compelled to learn.

Some may even feel marginalized with their inability to adapt to such an system in  comparison with the rest of their peers. Such comparisons of intellect and talent between students – which are arguably generated from an arbitrary system of measure – can be damaging to self-esteem and hamper creative potential or enthusiasm for student in a certain subject if they continuously fail to do well.

In a New York Times article, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter” Dan Hurley argues that the relationship between fluid intellect and working memory may suggest that intelligence can actually be trained and improved upon. Given the basis of fluid intellect as deriving from working memory, and the ability of certain tasks to broaden one’s working memory, Hurley contends that employing memory games may benefit the development of fluid intelligence in children. The purpose of education is to achieve understanding and an ability to practically apply concepts and critically think in order to troubleshoot difficult application.

Thinking More About The Problem

Primarily, the problem with education, as outlined by Hurley and in relation to its purpose, is that not all individuals can learn or achieve understanding equally well with the limited range of teaching methods that traditional technique and even new political designations promote. Consider how Hurley describes the present state of the federal education requirements as a failure in stating,

In a town like Chicago Heights, where only 16 percent of high schoolers met the Illinois version of the No Child Left Behind standards in 2011… (1).

In addition to the variation in learning styles, difficulty in learning may be further compounded by economic disparities between communities. Hurley comments on this extensive failure of the current educational system on the basis of the above inefficiencies in teaching and available resources, allowing him to suggest his solution: improve the working memory of children in order to facilitate the development of a skill set that makes learning in the classroom easier. Hurley pushes the effectiveness of a set of memory games and programs aimed at training and improving this working memory.

In his analysis, Hurley cites a variety of studies and their convincing conclusions in order to push the idea that aspects of fluid intelligence can indeed be enhanced through cognitive exercises:

Compared with those who received no training, those who participated in 100 daily one-hour training sessions (both young and old) show significant improvements on tests that measured reasoning, working memory, perceptual speed… and episodic memory (4).

Such results pave the way for additional research to be funded and for more exploration into this idea of targeting the more central issue of underdeveloped working memory in children to promote understanding in education. If a strict, reliable, and effective method of improving fluid intelligence can be developed through research, it has the potential to further the goal of education by helping guide understanding of concepts and the development of critical thinking in students.

A Personal Perspective

Moreover, in regard to the barriers or obstacles faced by children in impoverished communities and the widening achievement gap between the different classes in the United States, I want to relate a personal anecdote recounting my own experience with these children in order to highlight how the issues that Hurley lodges with the educational system more viscerally.

Spending time in the summer volunteering at a church after school program aimed at connecting younger students in lower class areas with college students as a method of supplementing the education of these children, I experienced firsthand the wide difference in the level and amount of understanding of academic material that the children in these areas and the children within the elementary schools of my hometown possessed.

For instance, the child I was paired with Michaela, was a third grader. However, Michaela had not made the complete connections between consonant and vowel sounds with each of their respective letters, and the idea that a letter was associated with a specific sound was not an intuitive concept to her. She also struggled slightly with multiplication in mathematics, a skill that many of us have polished through the repetitively practicing multiplication tables in early age and a skill that feels like second-nature. The inability of education to be adaptable and dynamic enough to address the learning styles and differential environments and backgrounds in the variety of its student body represents a serious problem that prevents the development of understanding and critical thought, vital skills in adult life.

A Vicious Cycle?

The challenge of motivating students in a way that is genuinely appealing to their preferences in order to impart important ideas to these students during their academic career continually plagues even the researchers conducting these experiments on the extent to which fluid intelligence may be modified.

As one passage notes:

In Chicago Heights, the magic was definitely not happening for one boy staring blankly at the black cats in the Mac Lab. Sipping from a juice box he held in one hand, jabbing at a computer key over and over… (Hurley 5).

In this example, even when a child is selected for a relatively intuitive game with less academic framing, he still struggles to understand or grasp the objective of the game, gradually becoming more bored and discouraged after each failure.

Though Hurley’s objective towards the modification of fluid memory to improve understanding and the ease of learning represents a noble intent and plausible solution, it does not address the bigger issue of the variety of attitudes towards learning in a student population. It is very difficult and practically impossible to ensure a high level of homogeneity in the way that different individuals perceive and approach one concept or problem.

Truly, one of the biggest solutions to correct for this issue of variation in attitudes are well-informed and competent teachers that can perceive and empathize with the viewpoint of their students in order to guide them towards the right method of thinking or direction in order to solve a problem. The difference in resources and the availability of talented educational staff are the most direct issues related to schooling.

Ultimately, in order to find a method to promote understanding and critical thought through education, it is important to search for methods that reach the broadest proportion of the student body in their ability to engender better grasping of academic material.

The innovative and new solutions that Hurley offers, in combination with efforts to close the achievement gap and account for the differences in educational resources between communities both represent major directions which reform can take in order to remedy apathetic attitudes towards learning academic material created by continued failure.

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