Expert calls for 'personalizable education'

Adam Troxtell / The Transcript

Dr. Yong Zhao discusses his idea of "personalizable education" to attendees Thursday at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Before Dr. Yong Zhao discussed his idea of "personalizable education" to overcome the current problems of preparing children for college and the workforce, he first explained what it is not.

Zhao's ideas -- which he presented to a room of current and future educators at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on Thursday -- differ from the "personalized education" model that has become popular in some public schools. That method of online-based curriculum that lets students learn a subject at their own pace has supporters and detractors, and Zhao seems to be the latter.

"Many schools are spending money buying those personalized learning products, and that's fake," Zhao said. "That's a waste of money."

The University of Kansas Foundation distinguished professor said he favors something more revolutionary. He said it's about making a change he says is long overdue to the way children are taught in schools that utilizes technology, adjusts the roles of teachers and enables the students to identify and focus on their own strengths and how to make them valuable in today's economy.

"This idea that people need the same kind of knowledge and skills to be successful is ingrained in our brains," Zhao said. "And we assume all people have the same opportunity in life and require the same traits. Both of these ideas are wrong, and yet we continue to pursue them."

Zhao was the speaker for this year's Cathey Simmons Humphreys Distinguished Education Lecture series hosted by the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma.

The idea is to bring in really thoughtful and engaging speakers and introduce them and the ideas they have to local superintendents, principals, teachers," Dean Gregg Garn from the College of Education said. "If you looked in the auditorium, there were a number of students from the college of education, from across the campus and a number of faculty from multiple disciplines."

In an hour-long session, Zhao spoke dynamically to the audience, using pictures, graphs and well-timed humor to explain why teaching children in the same way for so long has either led to or perpetuated some of society's biggest problems. And it all started about 30-40 years ago.

The way it has always been is this: children go to school, they learn core subjects and meet certain standards by certain grades. Those standards are tested, and by the end of it, the idea is everyone has the knowledge necessary to go out and be successful.

There's just one problem, Zhao said: this knowledge doesn't bring success to everyone.

"The old paradigm of education is a factory to produce losers, because only a few people can succeed in it," he said.

There was a time when this worked, because many decades ago, the majority of workers America needed could be produced by this process. There were more factory jobs, and service jobs fell into a specific mold.

But Zhao said that has changed. He pointed out the loss of manufacturing and factory jobs since the 1970s, and the subsequent increase in other job categories hasn't really kept up to replace them. So basically, the type of education children receive is preparing them for a working world that no longer exists.

And the situation will only get worse, he said. The same automation that began taking those old jobs away is pressing ahead.

"Many of those jobs were not outsourced. They were purely taken over by machines," Zhao said. "At that time, we needed a different education. We're sending kids to college, but they are still underemployed. That's why right now, with new industry coming up, not many people are benefiting from new technology. So that's why we should have done this a long time ago."

The answer, Zhao said, is to make education more personal.

Because the career field has become more diverse, so, too, must education. The key is to try and identify what each individual child excels in, and then focus on that.

"An apple seed cannot become an apple tree without the right amount of nurturing," Zhao said. "But, no matter how much water, sunlight and nutrients, that apple seed can never grow into an orange tree."

The next step beyond that is helping that child find a way to make their skills valuable to society, because, as Zhao said, the ultimate goal is to keep children "out of the parents' basement" when they become adults.

It matters less now what exactly those skills are, as he explained through a topical reference.

"I asked my daughter 'Who is Kim Kardashian?' And she told me, 'She's famous,'" Zhao said. "I asked 'Famous for what?' And she said, 'Nothing.'

"Kim Kardashian is famous for nothing. But, she is not in her parents' basement."

And to facilitate this, the role of teachers in the classroom must change, too. Teachers are still very valuable, he said, but the act of actually spreading knowledge would become less important compared to helping students realize what that knowledge can mean for them.

"We need to move away from teachers as the knowledge holder and translator," he said. "This has been replaced by technology. Teachers need to become more human. They will become more like life coaches and counselors."