I had the chance to listen to rising star of educational reform Dr. Yong Zhao last week and am still working to wrap my head around what he had to say.

So far, here’s what I got:

  • Innovation creates entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs create jobs
  • Jobs equal higher quality of life
  • NCLB and other forms of testing kill innovation
  • Current US education system is actually pretty good, especially when compared with other countries
  • Other countries such as China and South Korea are working hard to create an educational system modeled after the US
  • The US is working hard to create an educational system that looks like China’s

Mmm . . . where to start?

Many in the US use international tests like the TIMMS to show how far the United States is behind educationally. But Zhao cited statistics showing that countries that scored low on those sorts of international tests have the highest levels of creativity, quality of life, democracy, wealth, economic growth over time. The opposite is true of the countries who scored highest on those types of tests.

Zhao noted that in his State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned that the US has the strongest economy, the most productive workers, the most patents, etc. Zhao asks “If what Obama and others say about our educational system is true, how can our economy be so good?”

He suggested very strongly that we’re worried about fixing things that don’t matter.

Zhao highlighted what the federal DOE and others are attempting to do to “fix” the current system – things like Race to the Top and Common Core standards. Boiled down, these efforts are designed to:

  • centralize the system
  • standardize the system
  • make the people in the system more accountable

Simply stated, all of these attempts to “fix” our system are designed to improve our chances to compete with others like China and India. And Zhao says that’s stupid.

He pointed out that Asian countries started with this sort of system and discovered that it doesn’t work. Zhao cited all sorts of documents that demonstrate that China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore are working to de-centralize and de-standardize – with the goal of increasing creativity and innovation.

Chinese concerns have included:

  • Overemphasis on simple knowledge transmission
  • Too many required and uniform courses
  • Excessive coursework burden on students

In response, China has actually reduced the number of required hours for math and other core classes while increasing the number of hours for art, PE and other elective courses.

South Korea is moving along the same path:

All this energy has been spent on raising test scores, not nurturing creativity of any other aspect of human nature – it’s our biggest challenge.

Lee Ju Ho
Minister of Education, Science, and Technology
Chronicle of Higher Education
January 23, 2011

Among other things, Singapore is working to focus more on “the explicit teaching of critical and creative thinking skills” and a greater emphasis “on processes instead of on outcomes when appraising schools.” Japan has a three-pronged approach focusing on “enhancing emotional education,” creating a diverse, flexible educational system that “encourages individuality and cultivates creativity” and “decentralizing educational administration while enhancing local autonomy.”

Exactly the opposite of the kinds of things that the US is trying to do.

Why is this a big deal?

Because the research on creativity and innovation is pretty clear.

Zhao cited a recent book titled The Rise of the Creative Class that describes why some areas become economically powerful and other places do not. Zhao and the book’s author, Richard Florida, agree that for a place to become economically powerful (or truly compete with China), that place needs to focus on three things:

  • Appropriate use of technology
  • Diverse talents
  • Tolerance of ideas, attitudes and lifestyles

His non-example? Michigan since the 1980s.

Zhao did talk briefly about what he sees as the solution;

  • Teach global competencies including what he calls culture intelligence (knowledge of economics, problems, languages and cultures)
  • Cultivate digital competencies
  • Personalized learning
  • Professional autonomy, support and development for teachers

I agree with a lot of what he has to say. I’m especially intrigued by what he had to say about how a place becomes economically powerful. There’s some interesting tie-ins to Jared Diamond’s ideas. I also like his comparisons between the current US system and those in Asia.

While I’ve read some of his stuff before, this was really the first time I had the chance to hear Zhao articulate his ideas. And I’m still working what he said into my own world view. But I’m pretty sure I’ll find a place to put it.


Update 2/28

Ken Robinson gave a talk last fall that is related to this topic. Feel free to browse through it.


SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend