We are delighted to share Dr. Wendy Oliver’s interview with world renowned education scholar, Dr. Yong Zhao, where we learn about key points from his recent article about thoughts surrounding learning loss. Dr. Zhao has been recognized as one of the most influential global education scholars. Currently, he is a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas and a professor in Educational Leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. He previously served as the Presidential Chair, Associate Dean, and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon. Dr. Zhao has published more than 100 articles and 30 books that focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education.
In his article, “Build Back Better: Avoid the Learning Loss Trap,” which was published on March 4, 2021, he cited a lot of recent research on lost learning over the course of the pandemic. Some of the studies estimate that students may have lost months’ worth of learning in the spring of 2020. This leads to the point of what Dr. Zhao calls the “trap” – that grim-looking projections can cause educators and policy makers to make some wrong decisions about what to do next.
What Have We Really Lost?
One of the areas specifically called out in the article is that an emphasis on remediation in narrow subject matter, such as reading and math, misses out on the whole child and the various losses students have suffered in other areas. These other areas of importance include social-emotional well-being, interactions with friends, attitudes toward learning, and more. When asked why he sees these areas as so important to our “education recovery” from the pandemic, he responded by stating that learning loss is largely a guess right now and is something that has gained the attention of policy makers and parents. Dr. Zhao states that the concept of learning loss is a lie in many ways because you can’t really lose something you never gained. The curriculum is made by human beings and it should be adjusted. He goes on to say that he thinks the most important thing we need to worry about is basically the purpose of education. There are a lot of more important things than the narrow subject matter. We need to look at our students’ creativity, resilience, curiosity, and theirs overall growth as human beings.
The pandemic has created a very unhappy environment for a lot of children. They’re isolated, they’re not going to school, and they’re not talking to friends. But at the same time, we probably should pay attention to see how they have grown. Human beings learn from experiences. These experiences have changed our children in different ways. Perhaps now they are better at handling adverse situations. They are now better at making friends online, which is essential in today’s life. Maybe your children are becoming more independent in learning? These are the types of things he stresses we really need to focus on.
Another big problem with learning loss that Dr. Zhao is very concerned about is the thought of government and school systems bringing back standardized testing so they can assess what children have lost or have not learned. He states that standardized tests will actually hurt our children instead of helping them. We know that standardized testing puts children under pressure and causes anxiety. It’s also important to note that any testing and discussion about learning loss is really about math and reading. But our children as human beings are much more than math and reading.
What Works May Hurt
Dr. Zhao cautions against spending more time on just a couple of subjects. As described in his book, What Works May Hurt, if you spend all of your time learning the so-called academics like reading and math, you won’t have time for other things like interacting with society. When children grow up, they need to know how society works. If you spend too much time memorizing knowledge – things you will likely learn anyway – it’s a loss. Social experiences, making friends, and understanding what information is valuable are things that are not measured in our testing but are critical in child development.
When the focus is on grades and test scores, the long-term educational outcomes are being ignored. An example he uses is confidence, an attribute Dr. Zhao believes to be extremely important. If your children grow up confident, they can probably learn what has been tested fairly fast, if they wanted. Another important attribute is curiosity. If you’re curious when you’re growing up, you can learn. “I think we have over-emphasized the short-term learning outcome measured by testing without understanding the other big outcomes like - what I call them - educational outcomes.” We focus far too much on instructional outcomes without thinking about educational outcomes. It’s very simple. If your children are focused on math and they don’t meet a certain benchmark by the end of third grade, that causes them to lose confidence. It makes them feel like they are not good at anything, and as parents, you must ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” It’s very hard to recover confidence. It’s much easier to recover some knowledge. The important thing for parents to understand is that schools do not give you a score of your child’s progress as a human being, they only give you a score of the immediate short-term instructional outcomes.
Becoming self-determined learners
When asked about his book, Teaching Students to Become Self-determined Learners, he begins by first thinking about what makes a child successful. Children need space to practice their learning and to realize that schooling and learning is for them. They are not forced to learn things they don’t want to learn. It’s important for them to have the space to be open and not be oppressed or pressured into learning something.
Dr. Zhao’s second point is that parents need to give the decision-making power to the children. Parents and teachers are there to guide them and help them develop their abilities and this creates a culture or environment where children take on tasks. When they take on tasks, what are the consequences? When they make decisions, what are the consequences? The lesson is that freedom and autonomy come with responsibilities. We want our children to understand that piece. It’s an important process for children to identify their goals and what the outcomes may be. They need to understand how to identify problems to solve them. “I’ve always said it’s not about solving the problem; it’s about identifying the problem. But today, many of our schools, many of our children, are basically taught existing answers to existing problems and asked to recite that. That is not what the future needs.”
Our children live in a digital world. Dr. Zhao’s sentiments are that we cannot deprive our children the access to technology. You can try to control that aspect of your child’s life, but that could be a big mistake. Covid-19 has changed the way we look at everything. Many things are now done remotely. People are running businesses online; our children are learning in school online, and making friends online. He states “I hope our parents understand that we need different competencies. It’s not a computer course for you to be digitally competent. It is your experience. It’s the reflection. The second thing is that I think the remote learning done by some schools, not every school, has proven that we can expand learning time beyond school time.” Before the pandemic, we thought learning occurred during school hours from 8 to 3:30. But now, online learning makes it possible for our children to learn all the time. Why shouldn’t they learn all the time? And why shouldn’t we combine this? Some concerns we hear from parents are that their children are getting addicted to video games, or encountering bad influences on social media. There is no way to get rid of that other than reflecting and educating our children on how to manage that. Blocking them from access is not the best way and it leaves them ill- equipped to deal with problems in the future. We need to teach them how to manage this aspect of their lives because it is always going to be there.
We are so grateful for the opportunity to interview Dr. Yong Zhao. Be sure to listen to the full podcast here: https://www.edisonlearning.com/newsroom/yong-zhao-avoiding-avoiding-learning-loss-trap-episode-23