By Jennifer Coburn
In a rare trip to San Diego, education futurist Dr. Yong Zhao made a one-day visit to the Central Library in Downtown, and its charter high school e3 Civic High, to address educators, students, and parents about the future of education.
The world-renowned thought leader said he chose to visit e3 Civic High because he was impressed by its future-forward approach to learning, which stresses critical thinking, objective analysis, and problem solving.
“Traditional modes of teaching are becoming outdated, obsolete, and in some cases, even harmful,” said Zhao. “There are ways to teach math and science that are more relevant and engaging to today’s scholars than what has worked in the past. Just as the world is evolving, so must education.”
Founding executive director of the high school, Dr. Helen Griffith, said she was honored to learn e3 Civic High had merited this visit from Zhao.
“We pride ourselves in preparing our scholars to be tech-savvy, career-ready leaders ready to solve the complex issues of the world they inherited,” Griffith said. “We know we are succeeding because our scholars are engaged and excited about learning, but we are so proud to have this affirmed by Dr. Zhao who has spent 30 years as an educational leader.”
In his afternoon session with the 400 high school students, Zhao advised young people to use their passion to add value to the lives of others. Whether students launch their own businesses or work for someone else, they benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to solve real problems. He uses the example of eighth-through-eleventh grade students he mentors who developed a series of children’s books that teach English to primary readers in China. “These students are meeting a real need and solving a real problem,” Zhao said.
When considering whether or not an idea is worth pursuing, Zhao challenged e3 Civic High students to answer three questions venture capitalists ask start-up companies seeking support:
- Does this solve a problem worth solving?
- Why are you the person to solve it?
- Why is now the right time for this solution?
Zhao told the students that a key to their success is creating a unique, individual, and authentic profile. This is a long process, he explains. But the result is “the right mix” of passions, skills, and attributes that enhance the quality of life for others in a meaningful way.
That evening, at the Shiley Special Events Center, Zhao had a message for parents and educators in attendance. Every student possesses his or her own unique greatness. He said, as adults, we must help students identify their passion and facilitate learning rather than insist that students conform to a traditional, one-size-fits-all model of learning. Schools should not be like a garden where flowers are selected and planted in formation. He said not only is that type of homogeny stifling to creativity, but in a garden, weeds are uprooted because someone has characterized them as undesirable. Instead, Zhao suggests schools be more like nature reserves where there is beauty and value in biodiversity.
“The current educational system is designed to perpetrate an achievement gap,” Zhao said about traditional performance differentials between students in different socio-economic and racial groups.
“Differences have to be seen as valuable and every talent has to be valued. Every school should be able to identify unique talents and help students develop them rather than trying to ‘fix’ kids,” Zhao said.
When asked about the logistics of creating individualized learning plans for 30 students, Zhao said that the traditional model of teacher-led education was not in the best interests of students.
“Teachers need to step back and help students get the information they need to learn on their own,” Zhao concluded.
—Yong Zhao is a Foundation Distinguished professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. He is also a professorial fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Victoria University in Australia as well as a Global Chair at the University of Bath, U.K. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He has published more than 100 articles and 30 books.
—Jennifer Coburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.