Yong Zhao - Every Child is a Rudolph

By Mirjam van den Berg - Mar 29th, 2015

Professor Yong Zhao currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. He has published over a hundred articles and written twenty books. His work focuses on the implications of globalisation and technology on education. He has founded research and development institutions to explore innovative education models and travels the world to spread his vision. Zhao is convinced that teachers need to focus on developing children's strengths, instead of ‘fixing their deficiencies’ and strongly believes that we need a new education paradigm in this globalised world.

We need Rudolph  

As the very first speaker of TEDxAmsterdamED 2015, Yong Zhao tried to warm up the audience by singing a song - Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It felt like Christmas at the beginning of spring. After a few minutes, it became clear why he choose Rudolph as a metaphor. Rudolph was a misfit because of his shiny red nose. But as we all know, later on in the story that same red nose turns out to be a very helpful GPS system for Santa Claus. Our current standardised education systems narrow down all the diversity in talents into employable competences. Meaning that red noses are made plain black, no room for exceptions. This is a pity, because just as we would have missed all the presents that foggy Christmas Eve if it weren’t for the red nose, we are also missing out on developing some great talents in our kids. According to Zhao, individual differences in students are an advantage rather than a disadvantage, just like Rudolph’s red nose. 

 

Why making students alike doesn’t work

Cognitively, physically and emotionally we are all born with unique competencies. Human beings are born in different communities and cultures, and this shapes a child’s talents. When Zhao was growing up in a little village in China, for example, music wasn’t available, therefore he says he couldn’t develop any talent for music. Zhao quotes Howard Gardener and other psychologists, saying, “You can be talented in many domains, but you can not be great in everything.” If you are good at something, you will be bad at something else. Time is a shaping factor in developing talents as well, as Malcolm Gladwell highlights by the 10,000-hour rule in his book, Outliers. You can’t spend those 10,000 hours twice, thus you will not be great at everything. Yet, in our schools, we keep trying to make kids reach a certain average in all subjects and globally, we tend to produce a massive number of mediocre talents. We try to fix the deficits instead of improving their uniqueness. We like all our kids to have the same knowledge, so they can fit into jobs that are long gone. 

 

Implications of Technology

Nowadays, even Rudolph wouldn’t make it. In order to survive, he would need to be more creative and reinvent his nose to make it even shinier. Instead of applying for a job with Santa Claus, he should set up his own business to compete with Santa. As he would now has a GPS and is probably running FedEx and Uber. Technology has replaced practically all routine jobs and yet we are still teaching our kids to be good at jobs that already are, or will soon be, replaced by machines in the future. Zhao warns that our children will have a tough time if we don’t change our educational system now. Global youth unemployment is growing expansively, but these young people are not poorly educated, they are mis-educated, according to Zhao. Mediocrity doesn’t work anymore, everyone has to be great, everyone needs to deploy those unique talents. 

 

A paradigm shift looks like...

Child-centered education, not improved curriculums or testing methods, says Zhao. “We have to follow the child, enhancing their strengths. We ignore the fact that our children are born passionate learners who want to be genuinely good. They are alive, not machinery.” We need relevant, highly individualised learning with emphasis on the child’s passion and natural skills. Technology and globalisation have made it possible for children to develop truly individual talents and for those talents to be valuable on the global market. Letting children invent the future, instead of preparing them for a future that is no longer available is the way forward. In education, we need to simulate our children to be unique, creative and entrepreneurial. “We need a revolution in education.”

 

Photograhy © Victoria Jacob www.victoriajacob.com

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