UO Educ Prof Blasts K-12 Schools for Stifling Students

UO Education Prof Zhao is an elected fellow of the International Academy for Education. Education Week named Zhao one of the nation’s top 10 most influential university-based education scholars. His latest book World Class Learners has won several awards including the Society of Professors of Education Book Award (2013), Association of Education Publishers’ (AEP) Judges’ Award and Distinguished Achievement Award in Education Leadership (2013).

UO Educ Prof Blasts K-12 Schools for Stifling Students:
PSU Speech calls for Enhancing, Not Quashing, Creativity

By Lisa Nuss, published in OregonPEN, 5/16/15

“Every child is Rudolph; our schools are the Bully Coach” — UO Prof. Yong Zhao

Our public schools are quashing creativity and attempting to homogenize children that are born unique individuals, according to University of Oregon Education Professor Yong Zhao. In a speech at Portland state University last month, Zhao warned that as long as we in Oregon and the US ignore what we know about how children actually learn, we are damaging children’s psyches and threatening the economic welfare of our country.

Education Week named Zhao one of the nation’s top 10 most influential university-based education scholars. It is ironic, or perhaps hopeful, that he trains teachers in a state whose public schools are amongst the worst performing and costly in the country. Oregon’s sad state of K-12 can’t be blamed on Zhao, but we can hope that his vision can bring about a needed revolution. (Zhao’s many articles and a Ted Talk can be found on the Internet and readers are encouraged to read his original words.)

Zhao, a critic of the Common Core curriculum that Oregon schools began inflicting on children this year, gave a fast-paced impressive speech that ranged from psychological implications of crushing creativity to economic realities of training a workforce that knows only how to sit still and take directions.

Zhao compared the US’s current approach to compulsory education to the downfall of the once powerful company Nokia. Nokia had once been a leader in cellular technology, and then failed spectacularly by failing to modernize. It clung to a clunky operating system and let past successes blind it to the need to respond to new technology needs. Nokia sank while trying to add smart applications to a limited old system, while Apple went ahead and built a smart phone to support smart applications.

The Misguided Readiness Agenda: “Ready for Something”

Zhao noted that the focus our public schools now take is to say they are making kids “ready for something.” The focus trumpeted in Oregon public schools now is “kinder readiness”; Zhao says the notion of “kinder readiness” is absurd – “kindergarten is not a job” he said.

The “readiness” agenda works like a slick PR campaign – and is equally as devoid of content. Yet Zhao said college “career readiness” is a very seductive notion to parents who want to get their kids ready for life. The problem is that model used to work, but it doesn’t any more.

The “readiness” concept, Zhao continued, presumes the only skills valuable are those that can be measured by written exams. It ignores what we know about individual differences, multiple intelligences, and cultural diversity. The current readiness approach quashes curiosity, passion, and creativity.

Zhao showed a slide much like the one below, which depicts how students come into school with

  • individual differences
  • multiple intelligences
  • cultural diversity
  • curiosity, passion, creativity

SLIDE: “Old Paradigm”


And then the official public school system squashes all of that potential into the funnel of homogenized “Schooling”. The entire goal of the funneling is intended to be “employable skills” which at PSU Zhao added “verified by standardized exams.” Our entire schooling system now is designed to measure – and value — only what can be tested in a one-size-fits-all written exam.

This authoritarian model demands and rewards only one very small, narrow type of intelligence and thinking. Zhao said we should sue all the school boards in the country for discrimination – for allowing a curriculum that explicitly discriminates based on interest and intellectual style.

Treating students like widgets has produced a generation of aimless 20-somethings

Zhao emphasized what many critics have long pointed out: the fact that the current industrial, institutional design of factory-style public education was created to prepare workers for the industrial era.

Zhao spent time in Michigan, where Detroit was once the perfect model of “industrial success.” If you teach children only the rote “basics” of  math, reading, how to follow directions, and then they take a job where they show up from 9-5, and are protected  by the union, they would have a job for life. That doesn’t work any more.

Computers do routine jobs now, or workers overseas will do them for cheaper. “Readiness” doesn’t work anymore – we shouldn’t focus on “college readiness”
but “out of basement readiness.”

Zhao’s term “out of basement readiness” is a reference to the aimless and jobless early 20-somethings that our current school system has produced. The only thing the current school system prepares children for is to sit and be told what to do, and being punished for any kind of creative thinking or initiative.

Zhao’s goal is to change our school system so that it rewards independent thought instead of quashing it. Zhao imagines a system where our goal is to graduate students that are independent instead of reliant. He believes schools should change so they can prepare students to be:

  • Financially Independent
  • Socially Independent
  • Psychologically Independent

Now, the boomerang generation just produces children that come home after high school and live in their parents’ basement – and they’re loaded down with college debt. The some parents send them to more school – or graduate school – and then they have more debt.

Zhao said this is a problem not only in the US, but also in Australia, Canada, and the EU. High rates of youth unemployment are a serious problem.

We are educating children for a society that no longer exists

Zhao says we are educating children for a society that no longer exists. Schools are still training people to take routine jobs. He referenced the book, “The Second Machine Age” by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson Andrew McAfee, which details how we must adapt to the changes that automation has brought to our economy. The authors are digital economy experts.

According to the Washington Post, “The Second Machine Age” argues that our transition to the digital economy “could be made smoother if our education system were reoriented from its industrial-era focus on math and reading to a broader set of personal and intellectual skills necessary for working alongside the smart new machines.”

PBS Newshour interviewed Erik Brynjolfsson and he said: “Historically, education in America has focused on getting people to follow instructions, sitting in rows and listening to what the teacher explains, but going forward we’re going to need much more creativity. Simply following instructions is something that software is pretty good at doing, and that’s not where you want to be competing, but we’re going to have more and more need for creativity.”

Zhao noted that automation is replacing workers in factories, the construction industry, even accountants. He also referenced Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World in Flat” for the prospect that globalization is here – yet our schools are still training people to take routine jobs that can be done for cheaper in other countries.

If a skill can be purchased for less in other country, it will be, Zhao said. This is not only happening to the US – now China is losing jobs to Vietnam, India to Bangladesh.

The question is, what skills cannot be replaced by machines or done with cheaper labor overseas? Those are the skills our schools should be teaching. And while the complaint is always that anything will cost too much money, Zhao emphasized how costly the machine of public schooling in the US has become.

Zhao said the US spends more than $100,000 more to educate children in the K-12 years that China or India. (While he didn’t address funding issues in this speech, OregonPEN will follow-up with reporting on Oregon and US public school funding.)

The reality is the US is losing middle-class jobs and traditional education has failed to move high school and college graduates out of the basement.

Every child is Rudolph; our schools are the Bully Coach

Our schools homogenize children instead of recognizing their individuality. Allowing students to express their creativity and their unique intelligence are the precise skills we will need in the digital economy, yet our public schools are designed to quash this creativity. (Sir Ken Robinson says our schools are “crushing creativity, quite ruthlessly.”)

Zhao noted that while schools tends to homogenize, every child is like Rudolph. At first everyone laughed at him, and no one played with him. Then he was sent to Special Ed, an alternative high school with the misfits — all because he had a red nose!

Then it was not until the foggy night did they need him. Zhao referenced what we know about multiple intelligences and cited more research showing that every child has a unique motivational profile.

We are all born with different propensities, and then nurture plays a role. Malcolm Gladwell publicized the theory that it takes about 10,000 hours to make one an expert. Zhao noted that schools ignore all of this individuality and instead force students to spend 10,000 hours on something average and ill-suited for most. “If you spend 10,000 hours on something you’re not good at or interested in – you get mediocrity.”

Zhao mentioned the great Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who has ADHD. Zhao said if Phelps hadn’t had a chance to excel in swimming, he would’ve flunked out of our public schools the way they’re currently structured, and still been working with hooked on phonics.

Stop homogenizing and nurture unique talents and creativity

Traditional education doesn’t value uniqueness; Henry Ford didn’t value “great people” – he wanted a uniform, automated assembly line. Our schools were designed to meet this goal and by continuing to work that way, they take uniqueness and crush it. For most children in schools today, their foggy Christmas never arrived; no one ever realized or appreciated or nurtured their unique talent.

Zhao said the current school model doesn’t work.  Schools continue to homogenize when instead they should fix deficits or support strengths. Kinder readiness is wrong-headed because it measures what a five year-old can do only by a pre-cut set of “standards.” The thinking now is that if you can’t read by 3rd grade, you’re done for – but Zhao says, the thinking should be, if you can’t read by 3rd grade, so what? What else are you good at?

Nurturing unique talent is very important. Some professions are not even in existence yet. If you measure kids only by what we know now, you are constricting everyone’s future abilities. We need children who will grow up to invent new ideas. “We talk about ‘think outside box’ – we should get rid of the box.”

Zhao defines creativity as “combining things to come up with something new.” Creativity exists in all of us, yet creativity is not encouraged in schools – “schools don’t like creative people.”

Zhao showed the slide, below, showing the decline in creativity – which drops precipitously at age five – when children enter public school, and is mostly depleted by the time they reach fifth grade. Most children start with what has been rated a “genius” level of creativity, measured by ability to solve problems – yet this ability is destroyed as they go through conventional schooling.

GRAPH: “Decline of Creativity”


Zhao noted that after schooling has quashed their creativity, many people continue into uncreative lives, and then it’s only in retirement that creativity can bounce back. He commented that even former president George Bush is painting now.

Creativity is not just cognitive, but also psychological and emotional. Zhao says we lose creativity because we learn in our schools to find answers instead of to ask questions.

A study at Berkeley & MIT found that the style of direct instruction used in schools today hinders learning. The study was publicized by Alison Gopnick on Slate.com, in an article titled, “Why preschool shouldn’t be like school” – and Zhao added, “no school should.”

The article’s full title is: “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” It reviews a fascinating study comparing two groups of kids – those who were shown how to do something and then allowed to explore on their own, were far more interested and engaged than a group who were told by the teacher how to do it “properly”.  The ones allowed to discover their own uses played with the items longer, were more curious, and found more functions. Those who were told the proper way to engage with the item did learn the “proper” way faster, so if we’re measuring how fast a child can find the one narrow, expected “correct” answer, then the second group did “better.” But the second group has only learned how to find the one, “right” answer; the first group has learned how to ask questions – they’ve learned problem-solving skills and problem-finding skills.

Zhao says that in addition to enhancing uniqueness and creativity, our schools should be nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit – what Zhao calls a “start-up mentality.” We need children and young adults who think, if they don’t like a policy, they do something about it. And he doesn’t just mean entrepreneur in the business sense, He said we need:

  • Business entrepreneurs
  • Social entrepreneurs
  • Intra entrepreneurs, and
  • Policy entrepreneurs

He noted that 14% of Google’s employees don’t have college degrees – these are people innovating today at one of our digital economy’s most successful companies, and they did it without much formal education.

Zhao noted that the US can’t compete with developing countries for cheap labor, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, we have to create more opportunities. We shouldn’t design colleges that allow our young people to compete, but to create.

Don’t educate the average; educate the individual

Zhao said we need to count what counts. It is easy to damage and hard to regain an entrepreneurial quality. We want young people with confidence, friends, passion, creativity, uniqueness and risk-taking.

We need to move the education paradigm, so that we don’t educate the average, but educate the individual

SLIDE: “New paradigm”


In the new paradigm, schooling takes what we know about learning and instead of quashing, it enhances human talents

Zhao said we have a challenge and an opportunity to get education right. Our current educational reforms – a focus on assessment and testing – are making the same mistake Nokia did; they are trying to perfect the old traditional form, which no longer works. The old platform didn’t work for Nokia and it won’t work for our schools.

Zhao closed with these thoughts – we need to stop trying to fix the past; stop trying to create a one best curriculum for all. We need to follow children’s interests and hire teachers that inspire.  He referenced the “Schools in the Cloud” model as proof that children can learn anything.

Graphs reprinted with permission of Yong Zhao


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