Saturday, June 07, 2008

Why Yong Zhao is wrong

While working at Apple Computer long ago, I became good friends with Andy Van Schaack, who later received his PhD in Instructional Technology and knows way more about education -- what works and doesn't -- than I ever will.  Since so many educators on Mercer Island seem enamored with Yong Zhao lately, I wanted to know what Andy thinks.  Here's my edited version of his response to the points made  in my earlier blog  post:

1. It’s not the teachers: they’ve all been trained

Baloney. I teach courses on the use of technology in the classroom at an undergraduate and graduate level. And I present to teachers frequently through in-service training. Generally speaking, teachers don't have the first clue about how to use technology to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and accessibility of instruction. I can't blame them, though. Teacher educators and educational researchers aren't much better off. There are exceptions which I will describe below.

2. There’s no shortage of great software

Baloney. The vast majority of educational software is ineffective. In fact, I would argue that the use of most educational software is counterproductive... Companies that develop and sell educational software [ought to] demonstrate how much more effective/efficient their software is relative to conventional approaches to meet the instructional objective. And by demonstrate, I'm expecting good, solid scientific research... [like I did in my dissertation].


IMPORTANT: It is not enough to say your educational technology is "research-based." Anyone can pull out a research study (of potentially dubious quality), point to it, and say, "Our technology is based on this!" So what? Do the experiment, show me the date, and then we'll talk.


This is not really that hard or that expensive to do. I believe the reason companies don't provide this kind of evidence is because their products don't actually work--and either they already know it or are afraid to find out.

3. “computers only help if used less than 3 hrs/day” -- after that it’s wasted.

I'm not sure where this comes from--but certainly it's based on historical data. I'd argue that if the computer is loaded with software developed based on empirically-validated psychological principles AND the software is aligned with the instructional objectives of the school/state AND the software has been validated through experimental studies to produce the outcomes desired THEN I'd use it as much as I could. 3 hours is too much if the software sucks and too little if the software is great. 

4. Need a network of teachers working together, not as individuals

Putting a bunch of uneducated people in a room together is not going to magically produce great tools and/or techniques. (I'm not using the term "uneducated" to belittle teachers, but based on research studies that have examined teacher knowledge of effective instructional practices, most teachers beliefs about what does and does not work in the classroom to produce the best educational outcomes are incorrect. They, very simply, have not been trained well. That's a fault of the teaching colleges/professors, not the teachers themselves.)

5. Connect to existing practices and beliefs

Generally speaking, existing practices and beliefs (i.e. what happens in most classrooms) is seriously flawed. I'd like to see us move away from the current, popular philosophies of education to those that are more grounded in the evidence of what actually produces the outcomes we desire.

6. Find the right niche where technology is natural, not forced

I would never want to force technology into an application where it is not the right solution, but that doesn't mean that the application of effective technology is always going to feel natural. Surgery is not natural, but for many who are seriously ill, it is often the right solution. I don't think teaching and learning should necessarily be "fun." It is work, but you can take enjoyment from work, just as you can be invigorated after a hard workout even though you are sweaty and sore.

Andy suggests two books: "Talks to Teachers" (by Berliner & Rosenshine) and "Evidence-Based Educational Methods" (by Moran & Malott). He also sent some more thoughts on why he disagrees with "the currently popular constructivist philosophy (which advocates that children should independently explore the world in order to create their own knowledge)" versus "the instructivist philosophy (which advocates that teachers should direct the activities of the student through a structured curriculum)".  I've always been sympathetic to the "Where's the Math" campaign, but now Andy's given me a lot more homework that will help me understand more.

As always, I'm eager to hear what you think in the comments.


Your Reader said...

This post is too sloppy for me to understand. It doesn't sound like Yong Zhao believes any of this.

Andy Van Schaack said...

I think it is important to note that my comments are in response to this post:

I watched the video of Yong Zhao's 2005 presentation in Singapore and I believe that Richard reasonably/fairly summarized Yong Zhao's statements.

What are you basing your statement, "It doesn't sound like Yong Zhao believes any of this?" on?

Anonymous said...

Interesting story about all this:

Richard Sprague said...

Click here for the link.

Andy Van Schaack said...

A better summary of the findings can be found here:

You can read the original report here:

Pay careful attention to page 233 where the authors wrote, "As a group, these studies show that the students of board-certified teachers performed better than students taught by nonboard-certified teachers (the magnitude of the differences is on the order of 0.02 to 0.08 of a standard deviation)."

Also, the studies were only conducted with students from two states (Florida and North Carolina) and one district (Los Angeles) and the studies focused primarily on achievement in reading and math for third through fifth graders.

Wow. This is a very, very small effect. (If it is indeed an "effect." We have to be careful not to confuse correlation with causality.) In the field of educational research, an effect size of 0.2 is considered "small." The magnitude of differences in student outcomes here are 10-40% of that. What's 10% of small? Very, very small.

There are lots of educational interventions teachers can use in their classroom that produce large effects sizes. Easily *an order of magnitude greater* than those described in this study..

And recall that the studies were conducted with 3rd through 5th graders in two subject areas...and in only a couple of States. That's not great either. I wouldn't be confident, at all, in generalizing these results to other grades, subject areas, or children in other States.

This is just another case of educational research results that are not interpreted/reported well. (Silver lining: At least I can use this as a case study in my research methods course...)

Anonymous said...

Oy vey. Hate to say this, but I must. Figures a computer geek would be unaware that teaching computer tech is so far removed from most subjects that it shouldn't even be viewed in the same category, light, or even planet with any other subject. It also figures a computer geek would think he knows more about education than someone who has a Ph.D. in Education and is not a computer geek. Cup of Asperger's Syndrome, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Catchy rhetoric is not empirical research. Zhao is successful because he avoids and dismisses his research peers, all the while speaking to non-educators in sound bites and pithy witticisms. It's difficult to understand how this type of personal egotrip is beneficial to anyone but Zhao. It's hardly surprising that impotent agencies like EdWeek and ASCD love his work.