Transforming Education

Dr. Yong Zhao is a Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas and a professor of educational leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. His research focuses on the side effects of globalization and technology on education. He is a founding host of the podcast Silver Lining for Learning and has authored several books including What Works May Hurt: Side Effects In Education and Never Send a Human to Do a Machine’s Job: Correcting Top 5 Ed Tech Mistakes (2015).

Dr. Zhao strives for his students to develop the critical thinking skills and self-directed learning skills to radically change the education systems in the ways that matter most to them.

The problem highlighted in this brief

This brief focuses on personalized learning and how teachers and teacher educators need to leverage the unique strengths of students and pre-service educators in order to create a creative, curious, and collaborative future.

Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?

Dr. Zhao encourages teacher preparation programs to embrace personalized learning as a way to leverage entrepreneurship. As technology is rapidly changing, especially with the rise of AI, focusing on what makes humans unique is one way to structure education in a meaningful way.

About This Brief

This brief focuses on how educators and teacher educators can leverage personalized learning to create self-determined learners. Dr. Zhao focuses on the human in education and how technology and AI underscore the importance of creativity, collaboration, and communication.

Research and Practice Context

Personalized Learning

With personalized learning (Shemshack & Spector, 2020), there is a focus on the strengths and interests of the learner, with an understanding that learning happens through experience and constructing knowledge (Shemschk & Spector, 2020). Using personalized learning, teachers are able to focus on student's backgrounds, interests, and strengths, and what they want to become, learn about, and master (Zhao, 2022). Teachers should be seen as coaches, community organizers, and project managers, to nurture the strengths and passions students will need in their futures (Zhao, 2022). The five domains that Zhao (2022) states teacher educators need to focus on include understanding and supporting learning through (1) strength-based and passion-driven, (2) students need to be active and have a purpose, (3) being social and community-based, (4) problem-based projects, and (5) involvement in local and global activities.

The following are key insights shared by Dr. Zhao on this research. The interview focused on six questions about personalized learning in teacher preparation as well as recommendations for teacher educators to incorporate these ideas.

Q1: What are the issues that you are trying to address through your research and work with personalized learning?

Watterston and Zhao (2023) question what learning is and how researchers can leverage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning to change and transform the education system in order to create a personalized system that empowers students to create their own learning experiences. It is important to consider that learning and school time are not synonymous, that students can learn without being managed by a teacher, and learning involves much more than the subjects we teach in school (Watterston & Zhao, 2023). Personal traits, that make for better human beings, include problem solving, resilience, creativity, confidence, curiosity, and collaboration (Watterston & Zhao, 2023).

Dr. Zhao: “Are you helping each student to become a problem finder, a problem solver? A creative individual who will be able to survive and thrive in the age of smart machines, you know. Are you helping them make good use of artificial intelligence and other technology to better serve themselves instead of trying to be replaced by them? Also, are we helping our students to become better human beings?”

Q2: How is personalized learning going to address those issues?

The Silver Lining for Learning podcast focuses on bringing educators, innovators, students, researchers, educational leaders, etc. from around the globe to discuss the future of learning (Dede et al., 2021). One example of students driving their own learning is a group of students from Nepal that were guests on the Silver Lining for Learning podcast. They used Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to learn English, learn about dinosaurs, and learn high-level STEM content (Zhao, 2021). Essential skills for these courses included being able to self-direct your learning and being independent learners (Zhao, 2021). The future of learning relies on breaking down the barriers and borders that have kept learning in a box, and instead, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning (Zhao, 2021).

Dr. Zhao “I think personalization of learning should really help individual students to say I am the owner of my learning. I’m self-determined. I will drive this. I understand why I’m learning.”

Q3: How would a teacher preparation program fit personalized learning in their current practice?

As our world is changing, due to AI and other technologies, our reliance on skills such as pattern prediction, memorization, and repetition, the foundations of many curricula, are quickly becoming outdated (Zhao & Watterston, 2021). Students need to be prepared for the future world, they need skills such as social-emotional intelligence, the ability to collaborate and communicate, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, and entrepreneurship (Zhao & Watterston, 2021). Students need to be lifelong learners who strive to add to society, contribute to humanity, and focus on happiness, satisfaction, and well-being (Zhao & Watterston, 2021). This is where personalization fits in. Personalization allows for flexibility in curriculum and becoming self-determined learners (Zhao & Watterston, 2021).

Dr. Zhao: “Right now, we prepare teachers to teach a curriculum to drive students to pass the exams or to give lectures… I think you would change the program as you treat every future teacher… as individuals. What are you going to become and how we’re going to work together. I think that is the beginning of good education.”

Q4: What would you recommend for a teacher preparation program who is just starting with personalized learning?

Personalization of learning focuses on the fact that students are diverse and unique, with different areas of strength and interests. Students are active learners, which a uniform curriculum does not embrace (Zhao, 2022). Dr. Zhao states that we need to focus on creating learners who are self-determined, who are valued for their unique strengths and have the ability to problem solve, which, he feels, will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world (Zhao, 2022)

Dr. Zhao: “I think the big shift to change, that is, to put our students at the center, not the curriculum, not the assessment, you know.”

Q5: Where do you think the research is headed regarding personalized learning?

Among the things that make us more human is creativity. The challenge of adding creativity as a required component of the curriculum is that once it becomes required, standards are developed, which in turn kills creativity (Zhao, 2023). Dr. Zhao suggests that to teach and foster creativity, schools need to provide space for it within the student experience (Zhao, 2023). And, because every human has a jagged profile of strengths (Zhao, 2023), a focus on creativity lends itself well to supporting personalized learning (Zhao, 2023).

Dr. Zhao: “With the rise of ChatGPT, and other artificial intelligence, we truly have come to the point that we have to rethink about what we want to teach our students, what students should learn, what students should be… That is probably a strong message. I think I want everybody to hear in the age of smart machines, we cannot become machines. Human beings have become more human.”

Q6: What else should teacher preparation programs consider moving forward?


Dr. Zhao’s research around personalized learning and educational change questions the side effects of learning, which he explores in his recent books: Duck and Cover, What Works May Hurt, and An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste: How Radical Change Can Spark Student Excitement and Success.  Additionally, Dr. Zhao is a co-host of the podcast “Silver Lining for Learning”, where he and Drs. Chris Dede, Curt Bonk, and Punya Mishra discuss the future of learning using a bottom-up mindset.

In the interview, Dr. Zhao provided resources and technology tools for teacher preparation programs starting with personalized learning.

Duck and Cover

Ginsberg and Zhao focus on ideas that started as seemingly good ideas in education but turned out to cause damage or go against logic and reasoning.

Silver Lining for Learning

The Silver Lining for Learning podcast focuses on bringing educators, innovators, students, researchers, educational leaders, etc. from around the globe to discuss the future of learning (Dede et al., 2021).


Dede, C., Zhao, Y., Mishra, P., & Bonk, C. J. (2021). The Silver lining for learning webcasts as a bottom-up driver of global educational innovation. Journal of Digital Politics1(3), 523-542.

Shemshack, A., & Spector, J. M. (2020). A systematic literature review of personalized learning terms. Smart Learning Environments7(1), 1-20.

Zhao, Y. (2023). How Not to Kill Creativity?. In Creative Provocations: Speculations on the Future of Creativity, Technology & Learning (pp. 183-193). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Zhao, Y. (2022). New context, new teachers, and new teacher education. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education30(2), 127-133.

Zhao, Y. (2021). Learners without borders: New learning pathways for all students. Corwin Press.

Zhao, Y., & Watterston, J. (2021). The changes we need: Education post COVID-19. Journal of Educational Change22(1), 3-12.

Suggested Citation

Goldman, S. & the CIDDL Team. (2023). Transforming Education. The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning.