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If Lady Gaga Can be Useful…

11 September 2011 32,460 12 Comments

If Lady Gaga Can be Useful

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, is no doubt one of the most successful global super stars. She has over 13 millions twitter followers and 40 million Facebook fans. Her YouTube video “Bad Romance” has accrued over 411 million views and estimates her net worth to be about 110 million dollars. Apparently she has something valuable to offer.

But what she can offer is of no value in the village where I grew up. Nestled in the hills of China’s Sichuan Province, the village’s only industry is farming. With all the young people gone to the cities as migrant workers, about 50 people, including my father, live in the village, which once had a total population of over 200. No resident in the village has ever heard of Lady Gaga nor would find her interesting or valuable. When I was growing up, the most valued talent was the ability to handle water buffalos used to plow the rice field, other than physical strengths to carry things such as newly harvested rice or sweet potatoes. I don’t know for sure how good a water buffalo handler she could be, but I am quite sure she will not be able to run on bumpy muddy paths with 200 pounds of sweet potatoes dangling on each end of a bamboo pole.

If she had been born in my village, she would make a lousy farmer. Moreover, what earned her the success she enjoys today would be useless, cause her terrible trouble, and bring shame to her family. To make her useful in the village, her parents would try very hard to educate her: teaching her that meat is for eating not for wearing, singing does not bring home food, no one would marry a girl with wild hair, and fetching water from the village well everyday is a good training course for learning to carry sweet potatoes.

In the same vein, I doubt that Lady Gaga would make a great worker on Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Her eccentric personality and non-conforming style would make it hard for her to follow rules and repeat the same action with precision. She could make a great Halloween appearance, but that is just once a year. So she would have been either fired on the first day on the job or educated to forget her passion, desire, and talent in music, if she could have withstood the training program.

There have been many individuals with the qualities of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta born in villages like mine in human history, but they have been “educated,” in various rigorous ways, to become anything but Lady Gaga. Out of necessity, societies and families must ensure that their future generations have the ability, knowledge, and skills to live a successful life as workers, parents, and citizens. Thus they must have an education, formal or informal, that focuses on cultivating what meets the needs of the society. For a long period of time in human history, many societies have only needed a very narrow spectrum of human talents on a large scale and a very small pool of special talents. As a result, the dominant education paradigm has been to reduce the vast diverse potentials of human talents, interests, and abilities to what the society deems as useful or employable skills and knowledge.

Such a paradigm continues today and in even more rigorous, organized, and forceful ways. Governments and other authoritative bodies work very hard to define useful skills and knowledge through curriculum, standards, textbooks, high-stakes testing, and financial investment. In the U.S., for example, whatever raises standardized test scores on math and reading is useful and valued. This is why over the last decade the majority of U.S. schools have narrowed their curriculum to the two tested subjects, many teachers have aligned their classroom instruction to what is to be tested, students who do not perform well on these tests are considered at-risk and sent to remedial programs, and schools and teachers failing to produce the required test scores are believed to a provide low quality education. This is also why instructional times for arts, music, sports, foreign languages, social studies, and science have been shortened or eliminated.

Lady Gaga proves that such a paradigm no longer works. In addition to her, the hundreds of TV channels, numerous cooking shows, millions of YouTube videos, and the explosion of jobs that never existed before are just examples of the tremendous expansion of possible ways that the full spectrum of human talents and interests can be useful and valuable. Author Daniel Pink in his insightful book A Whole New Mind proposes that traditional overlooked aptitudes–design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning—have become essential in the Conceptual Age. I don’t think these aptitudes necessarily make traditionally valued aptitudes (logic, analytic, verbal, and quantitative) less valuable. Instead they add to the list of useful and valuable talents and skills. In a similar fashion, the frequently talked about 21st Century Skills are another way to suggest that we have arrived at an age when society can make use of the broad range of human talents and interests.

Thus, education should move beyond the paradigm of imparting in our children what government or other authorities deem useful. Instead it should work to support every individual student to become successful, help each individual to reach his/her full potential, and encourage all students to pursue their passion and interests. After all, if Lady Gaga can be useful…

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  • Sunday links. « Fred Klonsky's blog said:

    […] Arthur Goldstein. Educator Yong Zhao thinks about what Lady Gaga means for education […]

  • Tom Hoydic said:

    Wonderful post Yong. It seems that what society deems as “valuable” has become completely perverted. I often joke that if there is such a thing as reincarnation I would like to come back as a rock star, or a professional athlete – something that this society values. Teacher, educator, forget it. The words of Joe Biden (senior) come to mind. “Show me where the money goes and I’ll show your your priorities”. I especially enjoyed your recollection of life in your village. Skills that insured survival were those that were valued. I don’t think that there are many people out there who realize how very close we are to returning to that style of living. As we rapidly approach the elimination of cheap natural gas and oil globally, everything that we do as a civilization that requires readily available gas and oil will be eliminated as well. That’s just about everything that keeps us alive. Experts warn that society will need to contract. Suburbia, as we know it, will die. It’s simply unsustainable without cheap energy. They see us returning to small (sustainable) communities with farms and local schooling. People will need to relearn and reacquire skills like those valued in your village in order to survive. Just finished reading a chilling, eye opening book by James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency”. Kunstler describe the world we are on the verge of creating without cheap, readily available natural gas and oil and how to survive. Needles to say it’s quite frightening and thought provoking. Remember the one room school house and the family farm? Get ready!

  • Does Our Education System Stifle Future Lady Gagas? « said:

    […] model tends to stifle student creativity and innovation in favor of training docile worker bees. According to Yong Zhao, an expert on global education at the University of Oregon, a too-narrow view on what skills are […]

  • Lee Anna Stirling said:

    Yong, Yes, there is value in a multitude of skills and abilities. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences framework is a good description of many. Thanks for mentioning A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, which I look forward to reading.

    Not only is it important for a strong society to offer education that cultivates a variety of abilities, but if we want more students to complete high school and go on to further studies, we need to connect to students’ interests and talents – at the same time as helping students learn basic skills and knowledge.

  • Romanii au talent. Dar valori? | Webcultura said:

    […] If Lady Gaga Can be Useful… [↩] […]

  • Shelley Carey said:

    You challenge us to think about our work with students in ways that would make John Dewey smile — progressive education needs to thrive in this 21st century world. It is about embracing viewpoints in ways that stimulate thinking and doing! While I am not a huge fan of Lady Gaga’s, I can appreciate that she has made some amazing connections with the masses.

  • Christina said:

    Inspired by my mother teaching, I decided to dedicate myself to the teaching professesion; however, the “teaching” that inspired me more than 25 years ago is very much different from the “teaching” I see in classrooms today. Change is necessary and I feel there are many positive changes in education, for example, the technology that is being infused throughout the curriculum. As educators, it is imperative to reflect on past practices, and improve upon them. There are some changes that have occurred that I would describe as less desirable, like the emphasis on standardized testing. Teaching to the test has left little to no room to address or acknowledge “teachable moments” if they do not directly lend themselves to increased student achievement on standardized test scores. Placing such an emphasis on test scores is limiting or eliminating many extracurricular activities that many students thrive within. I believe this to be an equal failure in education, much like the perception that low scores on standardized tests equate to failure in American education.

  • Stephanie said:

    I was immediately intrigued by your Lady Gaga title/reference. I knew I would be amused by your humorous insight and that I would learn something valuable. What overwhelmed me the most as I began to read it, was how deeply sad I felt. I felt temporarily deflated and depressed that as a teacher, I am employed to fulfill the unspoken curriculum of raising cookie-cutter citizens who lack creativity and focus on test-prep.

    It’s SO true that as Americans, we make heroes of the artists, athletes, actors, musicians, and creative technology geniuses. Placed with them on the pedestal of admiration are also the creators of the movies we love and the cartoons our children enjoy. We buy their apps, try to recreate their recipes, and model our homes from their design inspirations. We watch them compete in reality-TV dance, voice, cooking, baking, or construction competitions. Cities fight over Olympic and Super Bowl hosting rights. But school districts are cutting out physical education, home-economics, wood shop, musical and art programs?? Does this make sense AT ALL?

    I am fortunate enough to teach in a unique situation. I have a multi-age gifted classroom. We thrive on creativity, independent choice projects, utilizing technology, and integration of subjects. Students are constantly “creating”. I, no WE, are lucky. I’ve taught for 12 years and I know that this is not how things are normally done. It’s sincerely and deeply appreciated by the administration but NOT accepted by my fellow staff members. But the kids are learning, their parents are thrilled, and I have a classroom of creative thinkers who know more technology now than the students several years older.

    My question is, how do we solve this issue and make American schools different? How do we foster more creativity and get our government on board with these viewpoints?

  • Steph Sage said:

    This article immediately caught my attention. I think it is so true that what is considered valuable in one place may not be important somewhere else, and we need to allow our students to become diverse thinkers. Lady GaGa would not survive the assembly line for a day, and the sad part is I see this in my students too. Some of my “at risk” students are the most creative, outside the box thinkers, and the last thing I want to do is suppress that creativity that makes them who they are. Unfortunately our standardized testing is only one dimensional only showing how well a student can perform mathematical or reading skills on a given day, and our students are multi-dimensional.

  • sunny sun said:

    Hi, professor Zhao,

    I am Sunny from China. I am working at Sterling College. I am doing some videos on Chinese education series, and I found your book and your articles and very grateful to find you. Very interesting and enlightening. I am 100 percent with you. I hope you could give me some advice.

    by the way, I also checked your youtube videos.

    I will follow some books you mentioned to talk about Chinese education. Of course, my videos tend to be truthful and entertaining.
    I find great sense of humor in this blog, great blog.

  • John said:

    And what makes Lady Gaga useful? Truly nothing! Her followers (quantitatively and qualitatively speaking) say nothing to her usefulness. People get lost in worshiping false gods far too easily. Until we take back education, and get the state and standardized everything out of our lives, we won’t go very far! Having lived in China for over three decades, looking at what education here has to offer, and what education in the US of A has to offer, and everywhere else, where “the state” is in control, well, THAT is the only thing it has to offer: CONTROL. The molding of young minds into conformity; the elimination of creativity and curiosity; submission to compliance.

  • On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers** | A Space for Learning said:

    […] our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all […]

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