LAWRENCE — Traditional pathways of education are restrictive and resistant to reform, yet many possibilities to improve learning exist beyond the borders of the classroom and other traditional structures, according to a new book from a University of Kansas professor.
Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education & Human Sciences at KU, has written “Learners Without Borders: New Learning Pathways for All Students.” The book illustrates how, despite decades of reform, traditional boundaries of education — graduation, curriculum, classrooms and schools — remain in place. And though society has changed greatly in the past century-plus, education remains in the control of mindsets of the past. He argues for moving from that improvement mindset to a transformational agenda, to make students owners of their learning and that pandemic disruptions can help make learning global.
“If you are a student going to school today, there are several pathways you have to take. For example, grades. Very few students can say, ‘I don’t want to go to school for 12 years.’ The COVID-19 pandemic has kind of changed the way we look at schooling and made education more flexible,” Zhao said. “In this book, I argue you can learn without borders, students can find resources to learn on their own — they just don’t always have the opportunity to do so — and we can help students be global learners.”
Students in Nepal, a small, poor country located in the Himalayas, provide a prime example of global learning. In the book’s introduction, Zhao shares the story of how Nepalese students have used massive open online courses, known as MOOCS, to learn English and take high-level STEM courses. They also learned to work independently and guide their own educations through resources and ideas from beyond their immediate environment.
MOOCs are not the answer for everyone’s educational challenges, just like any other educational strategy will not work for everyone. But, Zhao wrote, they do provide an example of how students can guide their own learning and how teachers can assist via technology in breaking out of traditional ruts. In the early chapters of “Learners Without Borders,” Zhao outlines the failure of educational reform models, how the world is changing and how those changes can provide hope for new educational models. He also addresses the borders of schooling and how the model of one educational approach for many is dysfunctional.
While the pandemic forced schools to shift to online education, many focused on learning loss and problems the shift presented. Zhao said it also presented a unique opportunity to transform how we approach education and showed schools should not drop their online models when returning to the traditional school building.
“Traditional schooling does not have to stay this way. Teachers don’t have to only teach, they can bring in resources and guide students in using technology or determining what they want to learn,” Zhao said. “School had problems before, so how can we go back to the same schools to solve the problems?”
The book goes on to examine how pressure is often placed on the wrong parts of education, such as letter grades and testing, and how today’s students’ relationship with technology puts them in a prime position to find their own resources for learning and to focus on often-overlooked skills like entrepreneurship. Zhao also outlines possibilities for rethinking, breaking out of and changing the school pathway, and developing new paths personalized for the interests and skills of each student.
Throughout the book, Zhao shares examples of schools, teachers and students who have successfully broken out of the traditional paths of grades, curriculum and learning within four walls at a certain time of day. The intent is not to provide a blueprint, per se, but to show that such change is possible and to inspire others to consider their own ideas.
“I want to reach teachers, parents and students and any educators who are willing to try something new,” Zhao said. “I encourage people to ask kids, ‘What would you like to do and learn?’ Anything can lead to math and reading. Just don’t force it. Work with every child and respect them.”
Zhao, who also has written about how the pandemic presents an opportunity as well as a trap to fall into old habits in education argues that instead of trying to fill in the “learning gap” caused by the pandemic, educators should view it as an opportunity. Instead of implementing new assessments to gauge math and reading, which would be expensive and ineffective, schools would do better to examine what went right in virtual learning during the pandemic and consider how that could be adapted for the future.
Examples of learning environments from around the world, such as those in Nepal, where schools have broken out of the old mold are included throughout “Learners Without Borders,” as are resources for creating school environments that expand opportunities and provide personalized learning approaches. However, the book’s main argument is not to show people how to change but to show them it is possible and encourage them to find their own ways to make it happen.
“I give examples showing you could do this, but you also need to think of your own possibilities,” Zhao said. “I’m trying to take a stand and say, ‘This is possible, but you have to have courage to do it.’ I want to inspire people to think the impossible. I don’t want to improve; I want to transform.”
Top right photo: Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education & Human Sciences at KU. Credit: KU Marketing Communications.