Reframing education outcomes

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 20 July 2016

Yong Zhao is an educationalist based in the United States who has long argued against the idea of rote and rigid instructional learning.

A teacher uses a blackboard to solve a mathematics equation.

Photo: 123RF

Chinese-born, he began living in the US as a visiting scholar and is now the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.

He is critical of China's education system, the dangers of standardising and over-testing students and the role technology can play in learning.

He says the concept of having to get to certain levels in education, or getting through a curriculum in a formulaic way inhibits other things that will be critical in economies and societies we are living in including: motivation, creativity, originality, difference and individual uniqueness.

Yong Zhao has just edited a new book - Counting What Counts - which looks at reframing educational outcomes.

He talks to Kathryn Ryan.

Read an edited excerpt  from their conversation:

What are the latest issues that you and other educationalists traverse here, in the book?

Globally speaking, all governments and the public want to hold schools accountable and parents want to hold their children accountable. The problem is we want to measure something Everybody wants to count something or measure something, but the biggest issue is are we counting things that matter? Are we counting things that don’t really matter. I’m able to do a lot of this work now because my father ignored my horrible farming skills. In my village I was doing poorly in the farming tests – driving the water buffalo. And he said “you are practically useless as a farmer, so get out of here and go to school”. That was how I got out of there. He didn’t try and get me remedial lessons, I was freed from the testing regime.

What was the lesson to be taken from that? The fact that he said ‘this isn’t your thing, go and do something that is’?

I think that’s precisely the lesson to take – is that we should run away from what we’re not good at. And try not to bang your head against something, you may not do something. For instance, I will never try to play rugby, no matter who hard I try I don’t think I’ll be able to make a living playing rugby.

At what point that happen in schooling though? Aren’t there certain basics that everyone needs as foundations?

Of course there are certain basics, but with all basics there should be always be exceptions. I think that’s a very interesting question to ask. For example, when do the floor (or the basics) become the ceiling? Because I think at school you measure so much for children when you hold schools and teachers accountable to certain subjects and numeracy and literacy, they become the ceiling rather than the floor. And everybody tries to achieve that and you’re narrowing the school curriculum. And in regards to literacy and numeracy most people, given the right opportunities can achieve them given the right focus on them.

So how does a school report on concepts, such as literacy and numeracy, rather than having a set piece test or other set piece to measure it?

I think the big thing is personal growth. I think that there should be a very personalised assessment. You don’t judge your child to other children because your child is so different. Your child’s pathway or pace is different. Secondly you look at long term and short term outcomes. A lot of the time we look at short term outcomes, such as whether a child passed the exam or grasped the instructional outcomes.But, in the long run, if your children develop a negative attitude towards that, it’s not really worth it, sometimes immediate instruction can destroy creativity and curiosity so children should be reporting in those things. And the third thing is to give a child space, so you don’t assess too often, because you don’t grow children by assessing them all the time.

How can national standards be used in a way that doesn’t inhibit and in a way that helps children to learn, and will good systems and good teachers do this?

First up I am very radical, I don’t think you can with national standards, because those standards are designed to measure people on one or two on simple bell curves. When we have a bell curve that is literacy, some people are going to be better than others, and individuals flourish in different ways. However, since we have them, there are ways to deal with it. I think it’s up to the educators and the parents to really try to move away from saying that the national standards truly and reliably describe what will happen in the future… I would encourage people to ignore [them]. By national standards becoming the ceiling, or the outcome they actually stifle children's growth.