Have you ever thought about how polarized some debates in education are?

Think about it.

Whole language versus phonics.

Direct versus indirect instruction.

Public versus private schools.

My guest today, Professor Yong Zhao, says that these polarized debates result, in part, from research studies that only look at effects – or side effects – of educational interventions. Rarely do studies acknowledge what works and what doesn’t.

Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, argues that educational research should learn from medical science.

Citation: Zhao, Yong, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 79, podcast audio, June 26, 2017. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/yongzhao/

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:


Will Brehm 1:35
Young Zhao, welcome to FreshEd.

Yong Zhao 1:37
Thank you, Will. Glad to be here.

Will Brehm 1:40
So, this may sound like a rather strange place to start our conversation on education research but bear with me for a second. In medical research, what are researchers typically looking for?

Yong Zhao 1:53
Well, typically, I think, we know it is not only typical, but they are required to look for both effects. That is, how it works and what does work, and the side effects, the negative consequences or outcomes that might come, you know, with a medicine or medical procedure.

Will Brehm 2:14
So, this is like why we see possible side effects written on the box of over-the-counter drugs, for instance.

Yong Zhao 2:23
Yes, yes, that is one of the, I think, results is that when you get a bottle of medicine, maybe it cures kind of your headache, but may cause a bleeding stomach. Yes, and things like that.

Will Brehm 2:35
And you said that it is required. Who is requiring medical research to look at this, not only the effects but also the side effects, and make them publicly known?

Yong Zhao 2:46
Well, we know in the US, the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration – any government agency that approves drugs to be released on the market or approves any medical procedures, there is a government always looking for those that require pharmaceutical companies or any kind of medical and I think institutions try to do that.

Will Brehm 3:10
So, in terms of medical research and looking at side effects and effects, what are some of the typical methods that are usually employed?

Yong Zhao 3:19
Well typically, the methods is really we called the “randomized controlled trials”, that is, you randomize people and put them in different groups, then you give some people the medicine, you give some people the placebo – you know, called the “placebo effect” – so,  to see the results. But the important thing is that, when they measure the outcome, they do not measure if it is effective in curing disease, but it also looks at damages. For example, some medicine may cure your liver problem, but it can kill you.

Will Brehm 3:54
So, you would not want to take that one.

Yong Zhao 3:56

Will Brehm 3:58
So, are these random controlled trials found in the social sciences?

Yong Zhao 4:03
Typically, in education, it is not much. That’s why in recent years, there’s been encouragement action to say social sciences should do a lot more randomized trials, but, you know, it’s how difficult it is. You cannot seriously randomize kids a lot, and it is very expensive as well. However, it is growing, because it has been believed that advancement of medicine is due to these randomized controlled trials in methods. And so, it is happening a lot, it is costing a lot of money, and so, here we are. We see a lot of those things encouraged, but I am not sure how that is going to improve education or not.

Will Brehm 4:44
So, what sort of side effects could, you know, be uncovered if this method were employed more widely?

Yong Zhao 4:52
Well, side effects like you know, one thing we could see long term and short-term outcomes. For example, you may be able to push students to memorize math or memorize some historical facts, but that’s short term. You can measure that. In a week, my students have been able to memorize this formula, but at the same time, they might have lost interest in the subject. Maybe the more they learn, the more the hate the subject.  I think that would be a bad idea. We have also seen that some parents maybe like to say, you know, “We force children to memorize, and we’re proud they can memorize so many words now”, but then they’ve lost interest in reading. That may not be a good idea either.

Will Brehm 5:38
So, surely some educational research does look at side effects, right?

Yong Zhao 5:42
I do not think they look at side effects and effects at the same time. I think the challenge is this: There are a lot of researchers who do not like certain methods. They will say, “Okay, our problems are this”. For example, you see a lot of people reporting. I mean, you’re in Japan, so people say, “Japanese education has caused students to lose creativity, curiosity and all those kind of things.” But at the same time, the other side, will say, ” No, we’ve looked at Japanese education. Kids’ math scores are high, their science scores are high.” But they are studied separately. That is the problem.

Will Brehm 6:18
So, they are studied in the sense that one group of researchers will look at one issue without recognizing the side effect to that issue.

Yong Zhao 6:29
Well, yes. In a sense, the proponents of certain methods will say, “Look how effective my method is.” That is what you see people say if they want to go for test scores, “Oh, East Asian countries are doing so great. You get Shanghai, you get Japan, Korea, Singapore, all have great scores.” So, they said, “Let’s learn from them. Let’s learn from Japan.” This is a lot of people saying that. But at the same time, people say, “No, no, no. They’re actually damaging their kids, you know, and so we should never do that.” So, you have two camps of people, then finally they kind of evolve into ideological war; they began to argue with each other, but not trying to say, “Yes, it is the same system.” It is the same thing, it just results in different consequences, but it is the two sides of the same coin.

Will Brehm 7:17
And so, when there is this ideological divide that ends up happening, I mean there must be very difficult dialogue across these different camps, but it also must impact policymakers in a particular way. How do they attach themselves to certain camps over other camps?

Yong Zhao 7:38
Yes, I think that is the big issue is that when they are studied separately, you have these ideological arguments, which does not really help improve education; it does not lead to betterment. So then you have policy makers, if they happen to be aligned with one ideology over the other, they will promote that as national policies or educational system-wide policies, and then you may have another government come in five years later to say, “Oh, look at the damage it’s done. Let’s throw that away. Let’s pick something else.” And the something else also has side effects, so they begin to have this pendulum swing. A few years to say, “Oh, this method doesn’t work.” And then, “Let’s pick something new, because it’s so exciting.” Look at only the positive effects, they, after a few years, some other group comes in and says, “Look at all the side effects.” Then, “Let’s throw it away. Let’s pick something else.” So, there is this pendulum swing. New ideas get recycled. But very few people would say, “Okay, if we look at the side effects, what if we say, “Okay, can we do something to mitigate the side effects?” to reduce that, to minimize that.” Now that represents improvement. So, this way, we do not just randomly throw things away based on ideology and based on one set of data and measurement.

Will Brehm 8:58
So, wouldn’t an example of this be the “No Child Left Behind” Act?

Yong Zhao 9:04
Well, in the US, definitely. Yes. For example, in the US, you know, technically when No Child Left Behind was introduced, it was a good idea. Many people think that you hold schools accountable, you want to raise student test scores, you want to test a lot, and those things actually could and should result some improvement. But at the same time, and we know from experiences in Asian countries, you know like high stakes testing, test students often, is going to result in a test-driven education. Education becomes test preparation. Then your assessed students lose interest. When you hold teachers accountable for raising test scores, and when they actually cannot do that, it’s demoralizing education. And then you need to a narrow of the curriculum, which we know happened in Asian countries. So, if we had known that for sure, we may have found ways to say, “Can we design some other ways to make sure that doesn’t happen?” Or, “Can we make sure that we’re not simply borrowing something wholesale, but at the same time designing something that’s slightly different?”

Will Brehm 10:13
And how would you incorporate cultural differences into the idea of learning from abroad, and learning about the side effects and the effects from abroad? So, for example, in the case of No Child Left Behind, you were saying that policymakers and educational researchers could have easily looked at other countries that have implemented the same sort of test-based accountability measures. But how do you incorporate cultural differences when thinking about, say, the US versus Japan?

Yong Zhao 10:48
Well, that is a fabulous question. In essence, cultural differences or cultural conditions bring out the causes or reasons for some other side effects. For example, some people are more allergic to penicillin than others. So, if, as a body – if you imagine a physical body as a culture – some medicine works for one group of people and not others. We see warning signs. For example: “If you are pregnant, do not take this medicine. You know, take something different.” The same thing, when you import ideas from other cultures, you want to say, “Okay, does it work in this environment?” So, we should really test some of ideas. For example, one thing America is trying to borrow from Japan is something called “lesson studies”. And lesson studies may work in Japan, because of the, honesty, I think, the hierarchical culture in schools. And actually works, you respect the more senior teacher. The senior teacher can have authority over junior teacher. Which actually doesn’t exist in the US culture. So that may not work very well at all. In the US, as you probably know this very well, the flat structure that unionized, it is very hard to put one teacher to be the authority on top of other teachers, and to learn. But also, at the same time, you have to think about: if education is about innovation, the hierarchical culture actually constraints innovation. If you borrowed this whole thing in, if you think teaching is only just trying to become like the senior teacher, that means there is no innovation, right? When do the new methods come out? The new method has to come from people who are not like the senior teacher, who has come from maybe young teachers. So those are, again, the side effects. So that is why I think culture is really very much like a human body. Medicine works for some people but do not work for other people. Some medicine may work for a certain age, some medicine may not work for a certain age.

Will Brehm 12:55
Do you think there’s limitations to the analogy of medical research to educational research?

Yong Zhao 13:03
Well, there is definitely limitations, because these are two different things. However, the idea that the idea of side effects, I think works very well. Because as we know, in anything you do, there is a kind of equal opportunity cost. For example, if you spend time all your time studying math, you are not going to have the same time to go out to play music. That is the kind of thing. So, there are some universals that can go together.

Will Brehm 13:31
And so, in educational research, why hasn’t there been like a demand for looking at both effects and side effects?

Yong Zhao 13:42
Well, I think there are really many reasons. I think one of the primary reasons would be a lot of people trying to think education does no harm. So, we always think of education as a good thing, so we do not really question that. And number two, we talk about side effects. They do not necessarily show up at the same time. Medicine is the same way. Some kind of damage, when you take medicine is long term, it doesn’t show up. But we should monitor that. But in education, you know, we do not. Once you teach kids, if the schools are held accountable for producing good test scores, if you want your children to memorize some math functions, but the side effect is a loss of interest and loss of passion, but that will be showing up maybe five years later, when kids begin to hate schools. “Oh, that was caused …”  then it is hard to draw a direct connection between the two because one is so short term. Another thing, of course, is that, I think, schools have always looked at one type of effect that is called “academic outcomes”. And all academic outcomes are measured in the short term. After one week of instruction, after one semester of instruction, one year. But then the other damages may be done in much longer term. You do not even know those things. And then of course, you know, it seems to be such a common sense, but I have not seen people calling for the study of this so far. This is really what is called a “common sense idea”, and so nobody has done this. I found it is actually puzzling, too.

Will Brehm 15:23
I mean it seems like it would be rather challenging to measure something like “passion” rather than something like how a student is doing on a test.

Yong Zhao 15:33
Yes, apparently. But you could measure it, and also, so like “passion”, “curiosity”, all these things, are much, you know, longer term, takes a long time to lose or to gain. For example, if you are going to school – I do not know, Will, if this happened to you – but it definitely happened to many people, going to school make you feel stupid, for example. You cannot do this test. You cannot do the homework. You tried very hard. Somehow, you are just not as good as your brother or your next-door neighbor. And that is going to make you feel really bad. But feeling bad may be developed over a long time. And actually, most often, we don’t care. Most teachers do not even pay attention to that. And so, you do not even know you were damaged. I do not know; you apparently seems to be a happy guy. I think you might have done okay in school, but you know how many schools … I am sure you have friends who really hated school and get disengaged. And then we do not count them. In our general world view, we really believe all schools are good. I do not know why, going to school seems to be a good thing. We always believe that. It is shocking, right? But a lot of kids get really hurt, but nobody pays attention to them. We blame them. We say, “You didn’t try hard.”, “You’re stupid.”, “You were distracted.”

Will Brehm 16:54
Yes, I must say, I personally very much did not like taking tests. And I think it is the reason that I got into studying education as I got older: To try and understand why it was that I disliked education so much when I was a child.

Yong Zhao 17:14
Well, that is another side effect, right? Hating school may not be a bad thing if you want to, like you, turn this to your attention and say, “I want to know why it’s so bad.” That is another side effect. By the way, side effects sometimes are not all necessarily bad. You know like medicine. For example, I think Viagra was not invented for sexual enhancement. It was really more for something else. Then we discovered, “Oh, it can do this.” Okay, that is cool. So, you know, side effects might uncover a lot more different uses for the same education methods.

Will Brehm 17:52
So, I want to go back to this idea that you said that education can actually do some harm. So other than like students disliking school, what other harm can actually manifest?

Yong Zhao 18:05
Well, for a large scale, if you look at a system level, some education system can be simply a brainwashing, or trying to, I would say, homogenize individuals, getting rid of different kind of talents. Which was actually in many ways was designed to do. So, if you look at Asian countries, I think their systems have done a great job in making sure everybody is alike, think alike, learn the same things. And anyone who is defiant or non-compliant may be kicked out of the system, which results in “talent homogeneity”, which hampers innovation in a long run. But also, then, the effect is that everybody can think the same. That is really cool. But if you think, “Well everyone thinks the same, they are easier to govern.” But at the same time, you do not expect people to be very creative and innovative. On the other hand, in the US education system, it is really horrible in the sense of trying to make sure everybody learns the same thing. Making sure they be obedient. But at the same time, the other side effect is it has resulted in a bunch of people who can think outside the box.

Will Brehm 19:21
So, it seems like a lot of this issue is really about the value of education. Having a debate over what it is that a particular system of education, and I guess it would be what policymakers, or those in power, deem the right effect that they’re looking for. So, if it is thinking outside the box, or if it is discipline, or whatever it is. I mean, so really, it seems like the issue is a lot deeper than just looking at effects and side effects, but it’s actually about having this kind of deeper debate on the different values of education.

Yong Zhao 19:59
Yes. I think that is precisely…Also, for parents and for educators, as consumers… You want to know when it does this, it also does that. So, you have got to weigh over, do you want that? Or do you want this? When you cannot have both. I think people in education, many educators, even researchers, they really hope we can have both. But sometimes you really cannot have both, so you need to know. As we talked about you, when you when you put yourself into surgery, you sign those long pages and pages of risk. It could do this. Are you willing to take the risk? I hope with education, you have sent your children to school to say, “Now okay, I want to know what the side effects has been. What this cannot do. What are the risks of my kids going to your school? What might be the side effects? What are the possible damages you could do to my children? What will my children not get?” For example, you go to some school … I am sure, Japan, anywhere else … You go to a school, you want to ask, “Yes, you’re great academically, but at what cost?” You want to say, “At what cost? Will my children still have time to play? Will my children be happy? Will my children be making friends? Will my children be anxious?” You want to know those things. If that is the case, you say, “Man, I don’t like that. I’m going to go some somewhere else.” Then you go to another, maybe a play-based school and say, “Yes, your children will be very happy. They’ll be playing with nature, all those things.” But they say, so at what cost? And they say, “Well, maybe your children will not be as competitive in taking a test.” So, you as parents say, “Yes, I’m willing to live with that.” So that is the kind of thing I think we need to think about.

Will Brehm 21:47
So, in a sense, are you advocating for something like an over-the-counter drug that is in a box that has publicly and clearly labeled the side effects? Somehow that would work for education. How would parents, and how would teachers, and how would policymakers and principals, how would they actually know these side effects? There is no FDA for education in America, but are you saying there should be one?

Yong Zhao 22:16
I think so. First of I think there should be somebody, maybe starting with the professional organizations and academic journals that publish this research, to really require people, researchers, to report both, to study both. First of all, that information has to be available – to study both. And I am working on the book trying to compile existing findings, but that has to come from both sides, by different independent researchers, both ideological camps. That is going to be the beginning of that. But I would love to say professional organizations, academic journals requiring people to study and reporting known effects and side effects at the same time. And then any kind of new pedagogical methods and new textbooks or new policies would continue that information for the public, for parents and for teachers to understand. I think it is very important to do that. And of course, there are some other kinds of medicine. For example, some generic medicine that may not have as much side effects…but we still need to know. Do they have any other effect? I do not know if you have noticed that, Will, on television now, most of medicine when they promote them, TV ads, I think they read out the side effects for a much longer term than the effects.

Will Brehm 23:46
And really quickly as well.

Yong Zhao 23:48
Yes, exactly.

Will Brehm 23:49
Yes, I guess, for me, education seems so deeply political to, particularly, a nation state. And I would imagine that some nation states would be very uncomfortable making all of these different decisions so publicly available with the known side effects and effects.

Yong Zhao 24:11
Oh, yes. I think, definitely. It’s like in a pharmaceutical companies- many of them try to hide side effects, many of them do not study them, many of them, you know they try to hide. It is very possible, so it is really nothing new in that sense. If you trade from huge, giant pharmaceutical companies as a nation state, they want to hide. They do not want to let everybody know, so that is really possible.

Will Brehm 24:39
But in education, typically it is the nation state that is also producing the education. Right, so it is the nation state that is producing the education and also the ones who are regulating it. So, if they are trying to hide something, it is a little difficult to get some regulatory body to uncover it. There is no kind of …

Yong Zhao 25:04
Oh, yes. I know there are countries who try to hide children anxiety data, children mental health data. Some countries try not to report youth suicide rates, or at least to not make them public. So those are, it is possible. And there are countries who do not allow you to write any kind of critical … which is a measure of side effects. We have one nation state that funds all educational research and they will censor any publication of that.

Will Brehm 25:39
But at the same time, we also do see big companies like Pearson, or all these other for-profit education companies that are, in a sense, acting like those pharmaceutical companies and hiding, or controlling their data and only, you know, releasing the data that shows how great their educational products are.

Yong Zhao 25:59
I do not think these companies in education, like I mentioned before, even study side effects. Again, they are they are busy proving how good it is.

Will Brehm 26:09
Yes, that is right. I mean it seems like such a valuable endeavor to do, and it almost seems, like you said, common sense. But it just seems like it will be very difficult to get educational researchers to do that, particularly because it’s become so ideological for a lot of these different issues in education.

Yong Zhao 26:34
Yes, I think. Definitely. But I think it is a must we have. So that is why I hope with your help, with other people’s help, we can spread the idea. It is actually essential, really, for us to advance this whole field. Because if you’ve been in education long enough, you know we recycle these kind of ideas. Whole language? No, it has to be phonics. Remember those wars? We do pure math and back to the basics. Now we do inquiry-based learning. We argue all the time. And really, we just need to have a clear understanding of what we are talking about. We need to advance. So, the people argue. Like now, you know, direct instruction is back in full swing. I know in Australia, some government said, “They’ve got to do direct instruction because it’s very effective. Children do not need to discover one plus one equals two.” … But at the same time you say, you know that might be simply what I call “unproductive success”. In short term success, but it is not productive in a long run.

Will Brehm 27:43
Well, Yong Zhao, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It was really great to talk today.

Yong Zhao 27:47
Thank you, Will. This is great, and I hope you will help us spread the word. This demand that is required: Study side effects and effects. You know, when it works, it hurts.

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