National Standards are the Wrong Bet: Interview with Professor Yong Zhao

Yong Zhao
Yong Zhao books

Yong Zhao is a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. He is also a professorial fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Victoria University in Australia. He previously served as the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he was also a Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. Visit his site at: zhaolearning.com.

Terrance Jackson: You begin your book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, writing about Suhas Gopinath, an entrepreneur who started a company at the age of 14. Why is this an important story about education?
Yong Zhao: It is important for three reasons. First, it says that young children, regardless of their background, can become great individuals with a global impact, thus education should focus on helping children achieve that potential. Second, it tells us current education is not helping young people like Suhas to become great individuals, as Suhas became what he became outside school or by not attending school. Third, Suhas represents what we need in the future–entrepreneurially-minded individuals who create jobs instead of employment-minded individuals who keep looking for jobs that may not exist.

TJ: In an 1995 interview, Steve Jobs said:
Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Would you like to comment on this quote?
YZ: Love this quote. I always believe that each and every child has the potential to be great. They do not walk into a life created by others, they are the creators of their own life. This is the point that I elaborate in my upcoming book Teach for Greatness.


World Class Learners

TJ: The first chapter of World Class Learners is subtitled, “Why Common Curriculum and Standards Won’t Help.” Why are national curricula and standards the wrong bet?
YZ: Because they attempt to prescribe the skills and knowledge needed for jobs that have not been created and a world that’s rapidly changing. More important, it is because they continue the same old paradigm of education that assumes everyone needs, can learn, and is interested in learning the same thing at the same speed. The future needs individuals with unique set of qualities coupled with creativity and the entrepreneur mindset.

Sino Outbound

TJ: The EB-5 visa grants permanent U.S. residence to anyone investing a half million dollars in a U.S.-based development project. Eighty percent of EB-5 recipients are Chinese. According to a NPR report, Bryan Withall of Sino Outbound estimates that 70 to 80 percent of families are pursuing EB-5 visas for their children’s education. As “Wang” tells us:
I’m only doing this for my son’s education. He is in a good local school, but all they do is study for tests. The Chinese education system turns everyone into the same type of person.
Chinese students score higher than American students on international tests but many Chinese parents still want their children to be educated in the United States. Can you explain this?
YZ: I’ve written about this in various places, most extensively my book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education in the World. The simple answer to this paradox is that test scores are not good indicators of education quality. In fact attempts to pursue test scores can be counter productive, damaging what actually matters for success in life, such as confidence, creativity, and love of learning.

TJ: In a video, you said, “In order to beat smart machines we have to become more human.” Would you like to elaborate on this idea?
YZ: Education has been preparing children to do routine jobs that will be replaced by machines. In other words, education was about reducing a diverse population of children into a batch of homogenous mechanical devices. As machines take back their jobs, human beings should not and cannot fight for those mechanical, boring, and possibly dangerous jobs. Instead we should focus on being more human–unique, creative, social, emotional, and entrepreneurial. Education should thus shift from reducing and suppressing individuality and diversity to enhancing diversity.

TJ: In How To Fly A Horse, Kevin Ashton wrote:
The vast majority—98 percent—of teachers say creating is so important that it should be taught daily, but when tested, they nearly always favor less creative children over more creative children.
[This] effect is not restricted to schools, and it persists into adulthood. Decision makers and authority figures in business, science, and government all say they value creation, but when tested, they do not value creators.
Why? Because people who are more creative also tend to be more playful, unconventional, and unpredictable, and all of this makes them harder to control. No matter how much we say we value creation, deep down, most of us value control more. And so we fear and favor familiarity. Rejecting is a reflex.
Do you agree?
YZ: This is what I have experienced as well. It takes real effort to appreciate differences.

TJ: In World Class Learners, you wrote:
[J]obs that require routine procedure skills and knowledge are increasingly automated or sent to places where such skills and knowledge are abundant with lower cost. As a result, as best-selling author Daniel Pink observed, what will be of more value is traditionally neglected talents, which he refers to as right-brain directed skills, including design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.
How do schools begin to teach skills such as design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning?
YZ: By reading my book 🙂 Seriously, the first thing schools can do is to give students more autonomy, more agency over what (not just how or when) they would like to learn. Schools should stop fixing children’s deficit but enhance their strengths.

Oprah Winfrey interviewed Daniel Pink in her “Soul Series” webcast. She bought 4,500 copies of A Whole New Mind and gave them to the graduating Stanford class of 2008 when she gave the commencement speech.

TJ: In a conversation with Daniel Pink, you talk about the importance of local control of education. Why is local control of education important?
YZ: I should clarify here. Local control means local control over curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, i.e. the core business of education. It is not local funding, as sometimes interpreted. To ensure equity, we need to take a national approach to school funding. I think local of education is important because it enables more diversity, more possibilities of innovation.

TJ: In that conversation with Pink you also mentioned a Chinese saying:
Pick up a sesame seed only to lose a watermelon.
捡了芝麻丢了西瓜 (Jiǎn le zhīmá, diū le xīguā)
How does this saying apply to education?
YZ: It’s about educational outcomes. In education, policy makers seem to pursue on outcomes such as test scores that don’t matter nearly as much as other outcomes such as diversity and human qualities. Test scores are like sesame seed but the other outcomes are like watermelon.

TJ: Why hasn’t technology improved education?
YZ: In a recent book Never Send a Human to Do a Machine’s Job, my co-authors and I discuss five big mistakes that have limited the positive impact of technology on education that include wrongly construed relationship between teachers and technology, wrong application that focuses on using technology for more effective knowledge consumption instead of for supporting creation, wrong education outcomes, and wrong implementation approaches. Most important, new technology demands a new paradigm of education. As the late Seymour Papert once said and I paraphrase, a jet engine would do much good for improving the speed of horse wagons.

Yong Zhao

TJ: Professor Zhao thank you for your time. Is there anything else that you would like people to know?
YZ: Thank you. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground.
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