Sept. 3, 2021

Learning as a Fountain, Not a Drain

Learning as a Fountain, Not a Drain

Dr. Yong Zhao describes a new paradigm for assessment and technology in today's education system.

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Dr. Yong Zhao, award winner and author of hundreds of articles and thirty books on education, talks about the need for a new paradigm for assessment, technology, and the purpose of education.


Dr. Yong Zhao  0:07  
Education is the growth of the human being. Teachers needs to become human educators with machines cannot do.

Terri Novacek  0:24  
Hello, hello and thank you for joining us for the first episode of our second season of element is everything. I'm Terry, no check, and today we hear from award winner and author of a multitude of articles and dozens of books on education. Dr. Yang Zell. I came to know Dr. Dow in his work more than a decade ago when he spoke at the University of San Diego. What made him memorable to me was hearing someone so high on the education totem pole speak of personalized learning in the same way that I think of personalized learning. My colleagues and I walked out of the event that evening, giving each other high fives, we were so excited that someone with such credibility with speaking our language, it gave us hope that customized learning plans were not just for outlier educators and homeschooling parents, that all students could have access to a meaningful and truly personalized education, like a fountain, an education that fills learners up, giving them a sense of purpose, value and encouragement. Well, fast forward 10 years. And even though we are at a place in time in history, when our youth should have the most flexibility to capitalize on their strengths, interests and passions, with plenty of time to reflect, recognize and celebrate their uniqueness. We are still seeing outdated methods draining our youth, such as packets of rote learning assignments in mandatory screentime have little to no value. How can we encourage rather than control learning? What role should assessment play? And what can it look like? What role should technology play? What is the role of today's educator? Dr. Gao has some interesting answers. So let's dive in. So you make a comment in your most recent book assessment is not to evaluate, but to provide information to facilitate progress. Right? Can you explain that a little further,

Dr. Yong Zhao  2:48  
if you think about, let's, let's not even think about assessment, think about you give a grade to a student, if your students wrote an essay, and then you want the students to improve that essay. As soon as you give a grade to that essay, learning kind of stops, the students will not read the comments, they will not revise because they're they've done, you've evaluated them. So they have this evaluation mindset, you are evaluating me, I've done my job, let's move on. So when I advise a lot of English teachers, if you want students to improve, don't give them a grade, tell them what needs to be improved, how you can become better. The same students, younger kids may not get this order kids get a very strong sense of evaluation that goes through the cycles and cycles of evaluation that you tell me I'm a good student of that student did i do well did that the war you know, bad? So that's the kind of mentality instead, any assessment today should be about what's missing? What's good. How can I improve? Remember we treat education as discrete points year one math year two math in a year two reading. That's not like that. The whole education is one thing is the growth of the person. I think schools have been having really fragmented by curriculum, by this piece of knowledge, that piece of knowledge, not by students growth,

Terri Novacek  4:31  
I would agree. And and so along those lines of assessment, I mean, so many assessments, so little time. When we sit down with our students to meet them where they are, what do you feel are the priority skills I mean, there's, we all know about the standardized assessment for you know, reading and writing and in math with their social emotional competencies. There's motivation and character and creativity and tech skills and critical thinking, I get exhausted just thinking about it. What do you feel are the priorities as we're bringing kids back?

Dr. Yong Zhao  5:10  
You're really have. We never we think about a student, we're really thinking about at least two parts of the skills. Why is what I call the floor skills and knowledge. Why is called the ceiling of flying skills. So we confuse that a lot of the writers that 21st century skills or they confuse that. So first of all, every person is a member of our society, every person should have some basic knowledge and skills. That's the floor. So that's probably I would say, the most basic things are you are a reader, you know, you can read it, can you do basic math, I'm really talking about very basic. And how about civics Do you understand, do honor risk, understand how to respect others? Basic, you know, history, stuff like that, that's really about participating, as a member of our society, then has to do with flying or selling skills, what makes you, Terry? successful, that's very different. What makes students successful is very different. So I would define that as something that's strength based. That's you. So you construct a unique profile of different skills, and knowledge. You may be good at writing. But are you interested in writing? If you are good and interested in writing? does it serve a purpose with somebody else? So it's not really about creativity, curiosity. They're all very individuals, that we can all be creative. But can it be productive and creative? That has to do with your knowledge and skills, but then non skills compete with each other. If you spend more time on math, you cannot spend the same time on sports. If you spend more time a sport, you cannot spend the same time on art, that's just a very simple thing. So so you know, you need to say, Okay, if my interest is in art, then you need now, are you really good at art? Are you just wasting your time, really, like, you know, you know, we can teach art, we can teach everybody to do art, but you cannot teach everybody to become a Picasso. But would today we need a Picasso, epic, we need everybody who is in that accident domain to be really good. So your flying skills is a unique combination of who you are, what knowledge you have, what creativity you have, what personality you have. So it's really you. And that's not prescribed a cannot be prescribed?

Terri Novacek  8:14  
How would you define success?

Dr. Yong Zhao  8:18  
Well, success, I really mean, what I got really, two things, you can call three things. One, you're able to make a living, this doesn't matter what you do, you're able to make a living, that means you are doing something that's valuable enough for somebody to pay you, they can pay you a lot, they can pay you a tiny but something, whatever that thing is. So So that's just one area. Second thing that is you are a successful member of a society. That is we move into an apartment or a house, nobody kicks you out, is the Associate, you know, the basic social things, right? So you do not make good offend break laws or those things. And third, you have to be happy. I think today you have to be happy. But happiness comes from creating value for others feel a sense of yourself. You know, I think you talked to Michael waymire about self determination. That is you are valuable, that is you are relatable. That is you can have autonomy. And that goes back to my argument about creativity and entrepreneurship is that you can create value for other people and the bigger world. That's genuine happiness. And if you can do that, you can make a living, you can do that you have good friendship in a good social relationship with others.

Terri Novacek  9:51  
I know a lot of your work centers around technology, and I love the title of your one book. never send a human to do machines. job. And when it's funny when I say that title to people, I can see them physically react to that, which so I think that's a great title because of course, now people want to read it. And you're not saying humans will not have jobs anymore. You're just saying humans don't need to do the work of machines, and they don't need to be machines.

Dr. Yong Zhao  10:24  
That's correct.

Terri Novacek  10:24  
Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?

Dr. Yong Zhao  10:26  
Yeah, it's, um, you know, people always been debating about machines and humans, you know, first of all, we invent technology, to replace human beings, not entirely replace human functions, right? So we, if it's a dangerous place, we sent machines to do that, you know, if it's, if human beings cannot get to Mars, we build things to do that, you know, that's the first thing that is supposed to replace human functions. Now, if you take that idea to schools, there are a lot of jobs that teachers do that they shouldn't do. They don't need to do like correcting 100 copies of the same homework. You know, why do you have to do that? You know, you you mark? Oh, yeah, I choose to he has to be just why do you have to do that? Right, that's fine. Then. Another thing is, there's a lot of things human beings cannot do in schools. You know, if you're teaching, let's say foreign language, you want to bring in native speakers in their videos to better than you, there are better actors, but actresses in the whole thing, you cannot do that, right. And we already allowed in science, science, terrific experiments, we're allowing machines to do all a lot of those things. So the whole idea is that is to liberate teachers, from teaching teaching machines, into human educators. knowledge can be acquired fairly easily today, you know, if you're on YouTube, or whatever, Academy Academy, knowledge is easy. So I'm arguing, I just published a new book, it's called learners without borders. The whole idea is that technology can truly bringing you really any learning you want to that if you try that, but it does not bring you education. Education is the growth of the human being. Teachers needs to become human educators with machines cannot do. That's what I was thinking about you relieve the boring, the impossible, the mechanical, their routine, to machines, by human beings, you become human educators, you understand a student's interest, you understand a student's strength, you know, students passions, then you create, you curate rate, you curate technological resources, or community resources for the students. You help them grow. When they're sad, you're there, when they are questioning themselves, you are there. It's a human being cycle. The best teacher is probably like, a life coach. a life coach with you. You know, you know, you probably remember when you were in school, you might be lucky enough to run into one or two teachers who really cared about you, as a human being. They did not care about you getting good grades and test scores. They said you're Terry, you're a human being What are you thinking? What are you worried about? What would you like to do? How can we help you? That is something that machines cannot do?

Terri Novacek  13:46  
 Right? Yeah,connect? Yes, actually, teller. So you talk about a technology as the children's machine, not the teachers, when children own their learning, they can determine how to use tech to support it. I know there are a lot of parents and educators get a lot of anxiety over a statement like that, because of where that technology could possibly take their children. 

Dr. Yong Zhao  14:16  
Well, that idea ran did not think, came from me come from Randy Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who passed away we wrote a book called The Children's Machine, the 1980s. You know that. The idea is this is that children needs to interact on their own. I was actually talking this this morning with someone else about how parents and teachers try to control snack good thing. It is to encourage children to develop a sense of competency, a sense of self direction, a sense of self management of their devices. So you know, a machine Especially this thing about computer, a digital device that can connect with other people at social media, that's also gaming, that's also labs, so many things. It's a children's play field. And it children need to develop competence. So with that, and teachers, you know, of course, you know, you can have your own missions for yourself. But children interact within this space. And they develop new competencies new skills, they develop software, develop websites, they can do, right, they can do art can do so many things. But they need that autonomy, that freedom to do that.

Terri Novacek  15:44  
Do you have suggestions of anything that maybe you've seen that that has worked? One of the concerns around giving children freedom with technology, is that we know bullying has been around forever? And for some reason, it seems like bullying is easier. through technology, you don't have the face to face. Any suggestions for how to?

Dr. Yong Zhao  16:13  
That's not entirely true. Actually. People sometimes find bullying in person easier. Actually, COVID has really liberated a lot of kids who used to be bullied on campus, in schools, you know, a lot of kids that ha, now I'm here with me, I can't ignore you, I don't have to deal with you. I think it's the most important thing for me. I just think bullying is just people have nothing to do, you know, if the if everybody's engaged, doing their own thing you don't see bullying is when kids are bored, they got to find ways to to take joy out of you know, punishing others. I mean, what's wrong with that, and human beings are not supposed to do that. But you know, well, I grew up in a village in China, and I got bullied all the time, you know, because they're bored. And but on the other hand, again, I think people have to learn how to deal with the bully, we have to learn how to do it, I really don't believe in, you can protect that, you know, it's it's like reading pornography. Some people read it, some people don't read it. But you know, if you want to hide it, it's impossible. So what I'm talking about is children develop the competency, and the conscientiousness and the confidence to try to drive that I don't say anything like bully, you can protect this, you know, I just think is delivering the wrong message to our you cannot bully you got the policy, that doesn't solve the problem. The real problem is that you have to do it. Another thing is that why or twice or three times, you know, bully, the kids do not necessarily become the worst case, they actually learn to master how to handle social relationships, if you're behind them, if you're helping them to grow out of it, you know, just to you know, like, my children when they go to school. And I think we're just talking they just they were just home because now they're older. They mean they were bullied, they were not bullied, you know, just it's the same thing. And so they always say, okay, life is just not fair. You have to learn how to deal with you have to be the one to lead a Justice Society. You have to be the lead to help with others, but doesn't mean everybody will do the same for you. So you have to grow out of it. You have a Montessori school. I love Montessori and one of my children went to Montessori. The one of the problems I always joke about as a Montessori needs to go with the technology they need to get into the more technology, more boring things.

Terri Novacek  18:59  
Yeah, we have those conversations in our organization all the time, just because it's not there. I think it's because Maria Montessori is one-hundred years old,

Dr. Yong Zhao  19:08  
I happen to be born at a time without social media or digital devices.

Terri Novacek  19:13  
So you mentioned students at this time need a warm, friendly, welcoming educational experience instead of one that checks on them. And that money should be spent on students learning instead of testing students. And I see this tying in with the bullying. I agree with you. You know bullying comes from boredom. I also believe it comes from I feel bad so if I can make you feel bad that makes me feel better. what ways do you see being the answer to creating those warm, friendly, welcoming educational experiences?

Dr. Yong Zhao  19:53  
Well, human beings are intentional and purposeful. We look for meaning You know everything about bullying? Yeah, exactly. So you know, I'm bored. I don't have anything else to do. So I just go find meaning in bullying somebody, but you know, it doesn't really feel good. So I think the epic things, cannot school create a context within which every child can find something that's meaningful to do. You know, when I go to schools, I always ask about, what are you doing with your bottom 25% students? Do they feel engaged? Do they feel they want to come do they feel that doing something meaningful? I think every school can do that every school can create the opportunity for children, to be creating value for somebody else, to do something. For other people, you know, that somebody else may not have to be in your school, they can be in other countries, they may I mean, your school, for example, could participate in a big project I'm doing is called h IP, human interdependence project, we're looking for schools, for students, to co create, from different worlds different schools around the world, to participate in to co create products that demonstrate human beings are interconnected. If your students are busy creating those things, they won't be bullied, they don't need to be assessed, you know, right now Now the reason I wrote that, is that assessment cost a lot of money, it doesn't really do much, you know, like you kept assessing, you know, what do you get out of it. And children, you know, this, children would like to score high, when they can score high. If they can never score high, you know, score, have a good score, how do you feel, if every time you take a test, if we ever get checked in, you are the worst kid, you are the worst kid, you go to special ed, you got your lifted out, you know, what retaining you? How do you feel, you know, just that's just your basic getting kids to be disengaged? So what why do we do that I noticed when children come back, even from COVID, they aren't going to be different. They've always been different. Schools have always punished poor kids, we've always done that. But men were poor kids are not necessarily poor. I don't mean money, I mean, ability, they can be great in some other areas. In me watching the Olympics, you know, not every kid is a good kid, necessarily a good kid in traditional school, but they're great in some areas. You know, you have few kids who are good at everything. And, but not entire population. So that's why I say don't assess them, create opportunities. So every student can find something meaningful to do that something may or may not be in the curriculum, but something meaningful that they like to do.

Terri Novacek  22:54  
Right, you talk about family engagement. And, you know, we've gotten, in my opinion, the shift has just gotten so strong, as far as the responsibility of schools, it used to be we just wanted all the kids to have a level playing field and be able to read and write and do arithmetic, and now it's everything else. And we just keep taking more of the responsibility off of the parent. But we also know that children spend more time with their parents. And during COVID, with people being home together so much, what I've seen is that's been good and bad. What have been your observations?

Dr. Yong Zhao  23:36  
Well, I think, first of all, parents are a huge population. Some parents are very engaged, some parents cannot engage, they are too busy. They are having to work two jobs, three jobs, you know, some parents are in migration, some parents are struggling with themselves, you know? Yeah, well, I would like to say parents become more involved with their children's education. And there are a population of parents who are in, you know, from my experience, who are very engaged or overly engaged or, you know, helicopter parents, you know, there are parents who buys sideways into University of Southern California or Stanford, you know, they got a very engaged parents. So since a huge population, so, you know, we can't comment on that. But But more important about parental engagement is that student that doesn't give you a new idea. Students can change parents. You know, we used to run experiments in northern Thailand, in poor countries, students become the knowledge person in the village. They take the idea from school, they both go back to transform. We still have a lot of migrant families like that. Children are the bridge, this big English that connect with them. Erica, the brains knowledge and ideas back home. So I want you to think about that is yes, you would like to have more parental involvement. But at the same time, I think we should use students to transform our society. Because we always rely on parents, I think our generation always govern the future generation, but wonder future generation to change that old generation, how that's how paradigm shift can happen, you know, so that's, you know, I can tell you this, I am an educator, but I am very, very little involved with my children's education. I mean, their schooling, I'm involved with their education. We tried a lot about this, we talk a lot about this, you know, for example, they you know, we try to take them out for for travel to either one of the countries and the schools and now you can take take your, your kid out as a no, I am. So that's, you know, so we have different conflict, different views, because I think global travel is perhaps more important than a week's class. Definitely. Yeah. So that's them. I think we're the parents. You get what you get. And we, we encourage them, we want them to be involved. But at the same time, you know, yes, children don't spend enough time in school, we can afford to have that school. But you know, we have what we have.

Terri Novacek  26:25  
Well, okay, and so for this program, we always hope that somebody listens to an episode and walks away with maybe some new strategies or insight, whether I'm an educator or a parent, what do you feel are things that to your point of educate the child, what was adults need to do? 

Dr. Yong Zhao  26:46  
To me children, taking the responsibility for making a living is really important. My children, I think, I never woke them up in the morning for school, they got to come with us up me and my wife, they gotta get breakfast ready, then we're gonna take him to school. You know, that's very simple. Many parents struggle getting their kids up and trying to say, you know, they got an alarm clock, you know, you know, but you can say, okay, the kindergarten first grade, if they miss a day, that's no big deal, but they want to go remember they are excited to go so you want them to get in the habit. You don't want to go look them up, you know, the neck, you know, even if you want marriage, your kids playing, okay, so if your children are watching too much TV playing too much video game, so many parents say well, you can only do 15 minutes 30 minutes a day. So you know, you manage that now is okay, I'll give you three and a half hours per week. You can manage it, then the children can learn manage that, you know, they learn is it Oh, God, I got only three and a half hours, I have to divide myself, you know, I can borrow one I can play 15 and a half an hour a day, or I can play you know, three and a half hours in one day. So you want you want to do you want to do that? I would say give them the opportunity to make mistakes to fail, but they understand what's a good expectation. So they understand it in so so give broad, quite broad expectations. Don't micromanage you know, like you know, your case, okay, then I turn in the homework, but again, don't say okay, you want to say, well, for what reason? Maybe homework is boring. We want to negotiate with teacher, I don't want the homework. Or if the children said, Okay, I did the homework, but I Forgot turn in, they're not interested in this is okay, that's fine. Doesn't matter. You know, I know my kids have kept a lot of homework in their school bag, you know, and they're old now, but, but I still found some homeworks and stuff like, it's all right, you know. So you want to be very careful with what to expect your children to become a decent human being. So I think go high level. Rather than go low level, high level, children can make mistakes. They learn from the mistakes. If you go too low, if you micromanage too much, you're bound to fail, they won't have a chance, you know, because they're not in internalizing the idea. Instead of just following the rules.

Terri Novacek  29:25  
Do you believe that a parent's job is done once their children have become adults?

Dr. Yong Zhao  29:34  
Well, we should be thinking that way. I like to think that way. As parents, this is human nature. Because you know, our genes are passed on to future generations. We keep worrying about them. And but we shouldn't you know what, I think children just pass through our lives. They're not our toy. They're not our possession n us you know, they're not our possession. Exactly, I think it's, and you maintain good relationship with them. And but they have a life,

Terri Novacek  30:08  
whether you like that life that they're living or not.

Dr. Yong Zhao  30:11  
Exactly. I mean, it doesn't matter. You know, some parents are so harsh on their children. But as soon as their children are gone, forget about it right? It was to his children who said, you know, I'm always asking parents to think you work so hard you try to make you should do this to this. What if your child just one day told you? I don't want to do any of this? What are you gonna do? I mean really ? What are you gonna do? There are children who are like that, right? What do you got to know? So so that's what what you want to work with them, you do not want to force them. Plus, we also As parents, we should always self-reflect on our own knowledge, and our own experiences, because everybody, everybody's knowledge and experience is limited. You don't know like, for example, I know a lot about education. But there are so many things, I don't know, I cannot make a judgment.

Terri Novacek  31:03  
Well, I really appreciate the time to connect with you, and your willingness to share your experiences and your perspective on education, and learning. Is there anything else that you feel would be beneficial for parents and educators and decision makers to know as we are still navigating this pandemic?

Dr. Yong Zhao  31:25  
Well, I just wanted to share one thing, which I wrote in the article in the back better athletes, parents, policymakers, teachers, school leaders, whatever you're looking for, in a child at this moment, you should go beyond the immediate outcomes. It means outcomes, like what can you do in math, or in reading, really look at long term? Are your children engaged and interested in doing something? Do they want to take the responsibility for doing something, those are much more important for person, you can always make up your little content. But you cannot make up for confidence. You cannot make up for independence, you cannot make up for a sense of responsibility for others and the world.

Terri Novacek  32:21  
Well said, thank you very much Dr. Zhao.

Dr. Yong Zhao  32:24  
You asked great questions, and you read very well. Thank you so much, Terry.

Terri Novacek  32:28  
Thank you. And so our challenge for the week, follow the doctor's vows advice and think beyond immediate objectives. So maybe you're thinking about expectations of your child, a student or even yourself, identify what feels draining. Now take that and look long term. What does it look like now? How can you encourage a mindset or practice that like a fountain creates energy? How can you capitalize on your strengths and interests? Imagine yourself always growing, never bored, and creating value for others. Imagine yourself in your element.

Joseph Porter  33:30  
Thank you for listening to this episode of Element is Everything. If you found anything in this podcast worth knowing, please share it with a friend, a teacher, a business leader or other decision maker. If you haven't already done so be sure to subscribe wherever you are listening now to be notified of future episodes. We appreciate your suggestions and feedback, which you can provide through the element is everything website under contact. Or you can simply email element is everything at my Our hope is to help listeners discover the path to their element, who will then help others do the same. live life to the fullest. Live life in your element.

Dr. Yong ZhaoProfile Photo

Dr. Yong Zhao


Yong Zhao is currently Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon, where is a full professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership(EMPL). He is a fellow of the International Academy for Education.

Until December, 2010, Yong Zhao was University Distinguished Professor at the College of Education, Michigan State University, where he also served as the founding director of the Center for Teaching and Technology, executive director of the Confucius Institute, as well as the US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence.

His research interests include educational policy, computer gaming and education, diffusion of innovations, teacher adoption of technology, computer-assisted language learning, and globalization and education.

Zhao has extensive international experiences. He has consulted with government and educational agencies and spoken on educational issues in many countries on six continents. His current work focuses on designing 21st Century Schools in the context of globalization and the digital revolution.

Zhao has published over 20 books and 100 articles. His most recent books include Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, the Handbook of Asian Education, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, and Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. He has also developed computer software, including the award-winning New Chengo/ZON (, the world's first massively multiplayer online role-playing game for studying Chinese.

Zhao was born in China's Sichuan Province. He received his B.A. in English Language Education from Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages in Chongqing, China in 1986. After teaching English in China for six years, he came to Linfield College as a visiting scholar in 1992. He then began his graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1993. He received his A.M. in Education in 1994 and Ph.D. in 1996. He joined the faculty at MSU in 1996 after working as the Language Center Coordinator at Willamette University and a language specialist at Hamilton College.