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A global view for education

Nationally renowned academic Yong Zhao left members of the Mercer Island School District scratching their heads last week, and in a good way. The professor with a Ph.D. in education asked the district to consider three big questions: What knowledge is of most worth for our children? What unique talents are we growing that other countries do not have? How are we preparing our students for a new, virtual world?

Speaking to a packed auditorium on May 14, Zhao encouraged the room full of teachers, administrators and community members to rethink their definition of education. Standardized testing, he emphasized several times, is no measure of success in today’s world.

“It is almost impossible to say that any test scores can predict a person’s future,” Zhao said, citing graphs that showed the disparity between international test scores and countries’ economic clout.

Zhao argued that high-stakes testing has a negative effect on education.

“High-stakes testing causes huge damages,” he said. “First of all, it causes cheating ... and discrimination. Nationwide, it is those kids who are not good at math and reading that are not allowed to participate in other activities.”

Zhao is a university-distinguished professor in the department of counseling, educational psychology and special education at Michigan State University. Acclaimed for his forward-thinking ideas on teaching, he has built a reputation as a motivational speaker for educational organizations across the country.

The Really Big Idea Committee, a new venture organized by the School District and School’s Foundation, will be using Zhao’s insight to develop a vision for the coming year.

According to Prady Misra, a member of the Really Big Idea Leadership Committee, Zhao’s two-day visit was more to inspire than to facilitate.

“He was very clear that he wasn’t offering a prescription or formula,” Misra said. “He was there to give his perspective. He was sharing what he has learned.”

MIEA President Mike Radow, also on the Big Idea Committee, echoed this point.

“Everyone wants him to provide the answers, but that’s not his business. He has the ideas and we will do the practicalities,” Radow said.

Yet some points that Zhao brought up in his speeches -- in particular, moving toward virtual education and away from standardized testing -- caused concern with his audience.

Several parents in the community were worried about Zhao’s observation that much of today’s youth “live in a virtual world.” Explaining his statement, the professor showed a short video clip about youth in Asia who earn real money from selling virtual products for popular computer games.

According to School Board President Pat Braman, some parents were worried about encouraging such trends in the public classroom.

“The piece about kids living ‘virtual lives’ -- a number of parents expressed concern about that whole experience,” Braman said.

Addressing this issue at the Key Communicator’s meeting, Superintendent Gary Plano said he believed that Zhao was not so much condoning these trends, but rather making the public aware of the Internet’s influence on youth culture today, according to Braman.

Yet the overall message Zhao communicated was “inspiring and timely,” Plano said. He gave the Really Big Idea Committee plenty of ideas to follow in its aim to bring Island academics to the next level -- even if this does mean following a path less taken.

“Zhao’s ideas were provocative and he’s ignited interest among teachers and parents about our vision of the future,” the superintendent said. “Part of his job was to help stimulate our thinking, and I think he did an excellent job of it.”

As Zhao pointed out in his speech: “Schooling does not mean the same as education. We need to think. Technology redefines talents.”

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