KU News Service

New book outlines transformation of American education to help every student 'reach for greatness'

Tue, 01/30/2018

LAWRENCE — Every child has the potential to be great, and our schools are full of well-meaning people who tell them just that. Yet, the way we educate young people prevents that possibility for many by focusing not on what they do well, but what they do poorly. A University of Kansas professor has written a new book outlining how supporting each students’ potential and ending the "deficit mindset" can transform American education.

Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Education, has authored “Reach for Greatness: Personalizable Education for All,” a book that advocates for ways to make students active partners in their own education, encouraged to flourish in their unique abilities.

“In this book I argue that every student has the potential to be great,” Zhao said. “I define ‘great’ as having a unique set of qualities that makes you different from others.”

Over the course of the book, Zhao points out how the current educational system encourages homogeneity, explores the potential all children have, why humans strive to be great and how to create a personalized education system to better educate individuals, all with examples of measures that are already happening and proving to be effective.

In the introduction and book’s first chapter, Zhao lays out the problem with the “deficit mindset” in education. Students are relentlessly tested against standards to see what they do, and more importantly, don’t know. Then, nearly all effort is expended in ensuring students below the standard reach it. This not only fails to bring many students to the determined standard of adequacy, it fails to help proficient students excel in many cases. In addition, it creates generations of students who are simply mediocre because they were only encouraged to reach a minimum standard of competence instead of their full potential, Zhao writes.

In the introduction, Zhao shares how he was fortunate not to be held to rigid standards. Born in a rural Chinese village, he was expected to become a farmer like everyone else. Yet, he proved to be well-below average in the physical nature of farm labor. Instead of forcing the issue, his parents realized he would not make a good farmer and allowed him to go to school. There, he was also fortunate in that he learned to read and had access to a wide range of material in his community that exposed him to far more than a strict curriculum ever could have, he writes. He also benefited from Chinese policies that allowed him to study English at university, even though he had very low math scores. Had he been forced to conform with the community, social and educational standards of China at the time, he never would have become a successful university professor in the United States, he shares.

“Education’s Big Lie” is that all students can “reach their full potential,” “be themselves” or “follow their hearts” to success. “With very few exceptions, schools generally do not ask what students are good at, interested in or passionate about. They do not allocate resources based on students’ talents or passions. Virtually all resources are allocated to implement the predetermined predefined curriculum, to meet the requirements of the government or other governing bodies,” Zhao writes.

Even worse, the educational system “actively suppresses individual talents and passions by defining what educational success means and convincing students, parents and the public to accept the definition,” he adds.

In the following chapter, Zhao outlines how “all children are above the average” with true potential to be great. When basic human needs are met, such as shelter, food and water, human nature is to seek actualization. And by forcing students into the same educational box, many will become dissatisfied as a result of not being able to seek their own passions and interests. Zhao shares the story of Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest internet companies and retailers. Few would have predicted that Ma, a poor math student, would succeed in the tech industry. There are three important lessons to Ma’s story, according to Zhao: There is no need to fix a child’s deficit too early; all children can learn, especially when it is necessary; and all children can be great at something. He goes on to illustrate how everyone can be legitimately considered above average when all are appreciated for their unique qualities.

Further chapters show how education can be transferred from a system of deficit to one that is personalized to help all flourish. Schools throughout the country and world have done so by “taking control” of their education. By removing standardization, the focus can be taken off of preparing all students the same way, which no longer works in a post-industrial society, Zhao writes. Second, by changing the role of teachers from someone who helps students memorize rote facts or meet standards to someone who identifies their strengths and encourages them, they can turn students into owners of their own learning and schools themselves into community-owned learning centers, Zhao argues. He goes on to thoroughly detail the benefits and features of personalizable education and how it can be implemented in American schools.

Zhao concludes the book by examining how personalizable education can be realized. Many barriers stand in the way, which he outlines, but it is possible to change thinking and approaches. Countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom were once looked at as the most successful schools in the world, which also turned out happy, creative, entrepreneurial students who make some of the world’s greatest discoveries and contributions. But centralization, standardization and mechanization have turned schools into tightly controlled environments with little incentive to deviate from standards. As they were results of educational reform, legislation and community reform could reverse those trends, Zhao argues. While many may think making education personalizable is too great a task, it is a worthwhile, and achievable, undertaking if the focus on deficits was removed and replaced with encouragement of strengths.

“Revolution rarely starts as a hostile, overnight takeover. They almost always start as grassroots movements,” Zhao said. “We always tell students what they’re not good at and what they need to improve in. We need to show them that they can be great. In essence, everyone has a gap. But that should not be used to define someone’s future.”

For one KU senior, the sight of a few thousand fired-up students tearing into his hard work isn’t a nightmare — it’…

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