Meta Learning takes a bigger-picture view of what kids really need. If we focused more on it our entire society might be transformed. (graphic courtesy Socos)

We know how to change a life. So much debate and discussion around education focuses on innovation and technology, but decades of research reveals simple interventions that can change a child’s life. It isn’t that we don’t know what works; our problem is that we don’t understand how to implement and share these findings.
In 1986, 129 families of at-risk toddlers in Kingston, Jamaica received weekly interventions by community health workers. Workers guided parents in 1-hour play-sessions designed to promote the children’s cognitive and socioemotional development. The program only lasted two years, but twenty years later those toddlers, by then adults, earned 25% more than their peers who had not received such interventions. Supporting research has even found improved health outcomes years later in kids who benefitted from similar programs.
The research literature is filled with examples of profoundly impactful interventions, ranging from stress reduction to reading promotion to mindset and grit, or tenacity, development. We refer to these collectively as meta-learning, and it can significantly affect life-outcomes such as metacognition, general cognitive ability, socioemotional competency, creativity, and curiosity. The Jamaica study and similar research demonstrates the significant benefits of shifting away from teaching a particular body of knowledge to focusing on meta-learning.
The current strategy of the EdTech industry is to attempt to invent itself out of our current challenges. But we have seen decades of unfulfilled promise. What would the impact be if we simply scaled proven meta-learning interventions throughout the US education system? What would it add to our economy?
At Socos, we modeled the hypothetical impact of meta-learning interventions had they started 25 years ago, taking into account factors such as socioeconomic demographics and regional differences. In the model, we assumed a fixed annual cost based on the under-12 population of the US. We quickly begin to see savings on the cost of education and healthcare, and we continue to reap these gains, regardless of market fluctuation. We found that these changes would results in $1.3-1.8 trillion added to the US economy each year.
While our analysis was thorough, the complexity of demographic change and compounding interest could have led it astray. However, both the New America Foundation and McKinsey have also modeled the impact of improved education (particularly in terms of educational equality) and their results, $1 trillion and $2-4 trillion, respectively, strongly support our much deeper analysis. If we built our education systems on these research-driven lessons, we’d change not only these children’s lives, but also our entire economy.
The solution is simple: we have to be willing to invest in our children for a long-term benefit. If every investment we made into a child’s education were to accrue interest similar to a monetary bond, we would find the payouts reaching far beyond any available interest rate. Instead of a one-time payout, however, these investments would be felt within our economy every year.
For each child that receives these intervention programs, we would see an increase in economic gains, a decrease in health care costs, and a decrease in incarceration rates. If we can achieve a 25% increase in earnings after just 2 years of intervention one hour a week, as described in the Jamaica study, imagine the impact that could be measured by daily inventions, geared towards a child’s unique needs, over 5 years, or even 10. We have both the research and the technology to move the needle in any child’s life. Meta-learning programs can transform educational models and organizations, producing happier, healthier, more productive lives and societies.
Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur who joins the panel on Algorithms and Values at Techonomy 2015. She co-founded Socos, where machine learning and cognitive neuroscience combine to maximize students’ life outcomes.