Scholar and Common Core critic Yong Zhao says schools need to rethink use of classroom technology

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Publication Name: Barbara Solow
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HOLYOKE – In author and education scholar Yong Zhao’s view, the prevailing use of classroom technology has failed to improve student learning in America.

“Honestly, today, if you ask yourself has technology transformed education, the answer is no,” Zhao told an audience of some 300 area educators gathered for a Technology in Education Conference Tuesday at Holyoke Community College.

The reason, said Zhao, associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, is that American public education is operating on an outmoded model that does not fit with either the demands or the opportunities posed by a global economy.

“We’re still thinking of education as a factory,” he said. But what today’s economy demands are “creative thinkers and entrepreneurs,” he said.

“Our schools are designed to homogenize people and give them basic skills,” Zhao said. “We’re still trying to produce sausages when what we need is bacon.”

A native of China who has won awards for his writing and research, Zhao was the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s second annual conference hosted by the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services. The daylong event also offered workshops led by local educators using technology to engage students, including teachers in the Amherst, Northampton and Williamsburg schools.

In introducing Zhao, the collaborative’s executive director, Joan Schuman, told audience members they were about to be inspired and challenged. “You’re in for a treat,” she said.

Zhao did not disappoint, starting from the moment he announced he would not be speaking from the podium but instead, from right below the stage in HCC’s Kittredge Center.

Using liberal doses of humor and some sobering slides about unemployment rates among U.S. college graduates, Zhao called for a “paradigm shift” in education that will also mean using technology differently.

“Most technology products have nothing to do with education,” he said, “but with forcing people to acquire the same skills.”

Instead, Zhao said, schools should be using new technology to encourage students to tap their inner creativity. “Every child should have personalized education, and technology is the best way to do that,” he said.

Zhao has emerged as a vocal critic of national Common Core standards, which many states, including Massachusetts, have adopted to ensure that students who graduate from high school are ready for college and careers.

Zhao said Common Core standards, and tests used to measure whether students have met them, fail to capture the problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills needed for success in a global economy.

Further, a Common Core based on a few key subjects “is itself constraining technology” in the classroom, Zhao said, when it should be used to broaden the curriculum.

While policy makers and business leaders frequently point to higher test scores of students from other countries as a sign that U.S. public schools are failing, he believes there is another side to that story.

“In more homogenous societies like Finland and China, it’s easier to do that,” Zhao said. “Here, we are not a club system in education. If this nation continues to lose creativity and the diversity of talent, that’s very dangerous.”

In a workshop after his speech, Zhao offered specific ideas for using technology to boost learning, including:

  • encouraging students to use to technology to produce “actual products,” for example, writing a book review for;
  • exposing students to a wider variety of courses via websites and online social networks;
  • giving students “a voice in their own learning” by allowing them to use technology to design electives or even a portion of regular class time;
  • using online networks to connect students with peers around the globe. For example, have them teach English to students from Spanish-speaking countries.

Zhao also provided the address of a new Web platform he helped create that will allow schools, students and teachers around the globe to share ideas and resources: http://obaworldnet.

Williamsburg Principal Stacey Jenkins said Zhao’s speech made her “grateful to be a part of a small elementary school where we have the opportunity to explore.”

As an example, she cited a “maker’s space” that administrators hope to create once renovations at the Anne T. Dunphy school are completed where students, teachers and administrators can work together on engineering projects.

William Dornbush, data management specialist for Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls, said he agreed with Zhao that the demands Common Core standards place on teacher time are obstacles to “more innovative approaches” to classroom technology.

Dornbush, a former technology director for the Northampton schools, said he planned to share ideas he’d heard at the conference with teachers at his school. “It’s a challenge to educators at all levels,” he said.

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