The state of our education system

Recently I had to opportunity to discuss and analyze the two extremes of education. The bureaucratic, organized side that is run by the ETS and functions primarily through standardized testing like the SAT and GRE (I will concentrate on the later for this). The other side of this is the more idealistic view that believes learning can happen in many environments and can benefit greatly from virtual environments, video games, and other new age ideas. So which side has the right idea, or better idea? Neither.


Both sides have very naive looks at what education is. Video games are a phenomenon. Most people play them for entertainment, and the rest of the population looks at them and doesn't understand the attraction, time spent or benefit. All criticizing set aside, video games have been shown time and time again to have absolutely incredible developmental benefits.  Creativity, problem solving, socializing, and scientific methods are just a few of the benefits that video games may inject into players.


The virtual worlds that are experienced in a game are fantastic and for developing children by provide a plethora of imaginative ideas. They are a spark of creativity, a vital yet frequently overlooked element of our entire lives. Mostly creativity is associated with the arts, a false association since creativity is needed in any field including mathematics, science, engineering, and business. Creativity allows a whole new outlook on problem solving, it provides for new solutions and ideas to be experimented with and tried. A video game is nothing but a massive problem to be solved. Win the game. Win the game by solving millions of problems ranging from the simple path from city a to city b, to the incredible complexity of conquering seven enemies at the same time while researching new technologies, building a military and managing a massive military from a macro to a micro perspective. Academics who study video games and the people that interact in them have noticed some very interesting activities like the application of the scientific method to very informal problems. Not only does a user use the scientific method to win, but they do so socially and collaboratively. Forums have appeared where gamers discuss what they tried and how it failed. Together these communities come up with ideas as to why things failed and what steps to try next. Later, new users try these new ideas and post their results. This is a massive scientific community that builds on the work of previous experiments, sometimes even citing their sources, and providing incredible record keeping and interactivity around an informal science.


Imagine how incredible would it be if every person in industry and academia would have mastery of these concepts and ideas. Video games tend to have a bias towards the science and technology field. The people in these fields benefit most from them as well as learn most from them, while those who play video games seem to get pushed into these fields. Video games are a massive gateway drug into science and technology which are constantly growing fields.


Our education system is not built to handle this entire idea though. Sorry idealists. Professors get fired for saying that they will give the entire class A’s.  The education system is not a very adaptive one and is extremely content based. It is all about the content that education can offer which is needed later in our careers. Video games cannot offer this. Most games that attempted to teach content have failed. Users do not want to be inundated by different information, and the poor quality of these games.


On the opposite end of the spectrum from content lacking video games are content based standardized tests. The general tests of the SAT and GRE test the mathematical and verbal ability of students in a 2-4 hour multiple choice and writing test. Apparently a 4 hour session can tell exactly what kind of an education I have gotten and how qualified I am. At least the education that relates mathematics and verbal skills, since those are the only topics that seem to matter.


The GRE and SAT are scored in the same way, an 800 point scale, and a 6 point writing scale. The most complicated thing on the GRE mathematics section is two variable equations and standard deviations. These questions are in no way different from the SAT math section that was administered 4 years ago. Four years of college is not expected to increase my mathematical ability at all. The English section of the GRE on the other hand contains massive amounts of words like opprobrious, supercilious, and recalcitrant. While these words are great to use, when is the last time anybody wrote using them, or when is the last time you read one of these words? The difference between the SAT and GRE in terms of vocabulary is astonishing, it basically requires massive studying of the vocabulary for four years.


The writing section is a whole other playing field. You get a text box to write an argument about a topic for 30-45 minutes. Topics are uninteresting, and disinterest can be easily shown to create lackluster work and no dedication. The text box is on a computer, yet provides zero spell checking. When I write by hand, I can write slow enough to write every word out correctly. On a computer typing speeds are ridiculous and simple typos get made very day. “i went to teh stor eto buy this.” Nothing official is accepted anymore that is not typed, and edited. Nobody ever has the opportunity to write on a computer without an active spell checker. Even a little task like posting to an informal website gets spell checked by the browser. FAIL on the testing communities’ side.


Finally lets analyze the need for the writing section. It is a demonstration of your critical thinking ability. In 30 minutes I am supposed to think about a topic enough to write a coherent argument. This is without any research, any external information, or any sources at all. Fantastic idea. Let’s prepare our students to argue topics without properly thinking about them, preparing an argument, and performing


What are the properties that GRE’s tests for: talkative students who act before they think, students who do not bother to learn any mathematics in college, and students who learn large amounts of obscure vocabulary and use analogies. This is all coming from a country that has been for the past 10+ years saying there is a large need for students to enter the sciences and engineering fields.


Our education system is incredible flawed. The testing system just screams broken and the alternatives are extremely naive and do not give students the content that every job will require of them.

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