Yong Zhao’s idea of a world class education (ISTE12 keynote)

Message delivered by Dr. Yong Zhao, University of Oregon, at ISTE12 in San Diego.


Last Tuesday I attended the ISTE12 keynote by Dr. Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon. He is a deeply interesting, funny, and motivating speaker who clearly has a wealth of knowledge on his topic of what it means to deliver a world class education. He has written World Class Learners and Catching up or Leading the Way along with many dozens of articles.

Here I will try to summarize the main points of his talk in a unified essay. As far as I can recall, the points below are his; I wish I could take credit for them, but I can’t.

Choose the right goals

He considers the story of Easter Island (as recounted by Jared Diamond) to be a good metaphor for what is happening with educational reform. The Easter Island residents seemed to think that their rock carvings were a sign of prosperity of their carving, so each family dedicated all their resources to carving bigger and better rocks. They neglected farming and everything else that was needed. Eventually their society collapsed not because of external influences but because they had chosen the wrong goal.

He came back to this again and again: If you choose the wrong goal by which to measure yourself, no matter how good or efficient you are you will never get to where you need to go. Actually, the more efficient you are, the more quickly you will disappear (or at least become irrelevant).

He likens the above situation to education reform in the US, Australia, England and many other places around the world. Here in the US we have the following:

Common Core
He says that he is not against standards, but he would like this one better if it weren’t common and if it weren’t considered the core of what is to be learned.
No Child Left Behind
Sometimes it is good if a child is left behind. For example, what if we are all going in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t you like if it that child was able to choose to go in another direction?

(This is among many others.) He says standardized test scores are like the giant stone heads on Easter Island. They are really beautiful and seductive, but they aren’t what we need. Using technology to raise our test scores is the wrong use of the technology. He mentioned this saying:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.

You cannot judge technology by its ability to improve test scores. This is not what it’s really good for.

The leaders in standardized testing

When the 2009 PISA test results (gold standard of education results) were released, China took #1 in all three categories. Obama said that this is the Sputnik moment for us. Arne Duncan said this is a wake-up call. Everyone wanted to know how these countries did so well. However, when these results were announced, China did not celebrate. Why not? Well, they are looking for different talents:

Wen Jiabao
“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
Kai-fu Lee
“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China…unless it abolishes its education.”

Why were these Chinese leaders worried after seeing these results? Well, it has to do with the innovation and leadership disparity they saw. For example, in patent filings in 2008, China had 203k while USA had 400k and Japan had 500k. Given the difference in populations among these three, China should have had significantly more than either of these. Also, while Asians make up 5% of the US population, and 15-25% of the student bodies in the Ivy League (and other top schools), they make up only 2% of the board seats of Fortune 500 firms.

So, the Chinese were not satisfied with their educational system because they perceived something lacking in it as the underlying engine for their economy. At the other end of the spectrum, tthe US was (and is) really dissatisfied with its system.

History of bad test-taking

You hear that US education is in decline. The College Board says we’re crumbling. Professor Zhao says that US education isn’t in decline — it has always been bad. He wonders why the US is still among the leading countries

He brings up several points when emphasizing how bad our educational system has been. It was bad in the 1950s. Remember the whole Sputnik thing? There was a special issue of Life magazine in 1958 titled “Crisis in Education.” In 1983 we were comparing our educational system unfavorably with that in Japan. Again, the US was at risk, this time from Japan. We have a long history as bad test takers. In 1960s we were 12th out of 12 in math. In 1970s-80s, we then were 12-15th out of 15 in math. You could actually say that we are doing better now than we ever did.

Explanations for the bad scores

All sorts of explanations have been put forward for why the US has such bad test scores. First, it has been found that there is an inverse relationship between test scores and perceived entrepreneurial capability. He isn’t saying that the perceived entrepreneurial capability is causing bad test scores; however, given that we are so high on this dimension, it then makes sense that we would have low test scores…even if it is still unclear why this relationship exists.

Second, he points out that all sorts of surveys have shown that we are very confident in our math ability even though we are really bad. Our political leader have said that this implies that we need higher standards, and that these standards need to be clearly and frequently measured by tests so that we will know just how bad we are. This will then cause us to be sad and to work hard at raising our scores. Or so their thinking goes.

Third, in the US most teachers care more about children than math. This is apparently a big problem here; he said this with a huge sense of irony in his delivery.

The professor made it clear that he is not particularly satisfied with any of these possible explanations. Actually, he is not even satisfied with the question because he doesn’t think that the scores matter at all.

A “Lady Gaga” curriculum

What he is really interested in is whether or not it is possible for a school to develop a curriculum that could churn out a whole lot of Lady Gagas. No matter how you judge her music, he said that it is clear that she is talented, entrepreneurial, and creative. Would it even be possible to create a Lady Gaga curriculum? A Common Core for Lady Gaga? Does this even make sense to think about?

When creating a curriculum, we are placing a bet on what’s going to be important in the future — what will make us “college-ready” or “ready for our career.” The predictions that we place are based on the past. The question becomes what really makes people rise to the top?

Amy Chua, in Day of Empire says that tolerance is the key. Richard Florida, in The rise of the creative class, says that it is technology, talents, and tolerance. It turns out that tolerance gets us diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurship, which are the things that an economy needs to thrive. Whether or not you believe that the resulting creativity can be taught, it is clear that an education can help kill it. Maybe it’s the case that US schools kill creativity less successfully than other school systems.

What education should be

The professor poses three important questions for a school system:

  • What matters to you: test scores or confidence?
  • Do you allow exceptional talents to exist?
  • Are you taking advantage of the resources that you have?

The structure of our current educational system was to support our industrial, manufacturing-based economy. While it is true that the average profit per Apple employee is $400,000, they are not the ones putting the devices together. This is being done (mainly) by Asian companies who are much less profitable. Today a company (and an economy) needs unique workers with special skills, and you have to be great because this is a global society.

Further, the economy needs entrepreneurs off all types: business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, policy entrepreneurs. These people, when they are unhappy with a situation, comes up with a solution to make it better. When enough people are working on a problem, and when those people think about things in lots of different ways, then problems get solved and economies advance.

These so-called “black-collar workers” (who he named in honor of Steve Jobs’s turtleneck) don’t wait for someone to create a job for them; they create the job for themselves. He has identified qualities that are common to these people:

They have to have an innate confidence in their own abilities.
A supportive network of friends help them persevere.
A sense that risk-taking is acceptable, or even desirable, gets them to try important and difficult problems.
A passion for their efforts helps them keep striving in the face of difficulty.
This allows them to try different approaches when the first 100 fail.
These people have a real inner drive to solve these problems and to make a difference.

We should all abandon the idea that US schooling can produce employable skills. Kids turning 13 this year, if they work until they are 72, will be retiring in 2071. Think about what has happened in the last 10 years. People make a living working for Facebook, writing Angry Birds, and tweeting. Was that predictable 10 years ago? What makes you think that you can predict that we know what skills will be “employable” for these people in 2071? Remember, our predictions are based on the past. Well, no matter how perfect a horse wagon is, it will never make it to the moon.

Education should involve student autonomy, a global campus, and product-oriented learning. They need to make real things. Schools need to focus on the individual strengths of the student. They need to turn the students into makers of things and not only consumers. This can only happen beyond the school’s walls; the world must become our campus. The people of the world are our collaborators, investors, and customers. Work with them, not against them.

He concluded by saying test scores should not apply to everyone. They don’t reflect your student’s, your teacher’s, or your school’s abilities. A great education allows each child’s maximum potential. Design your class with that in mind.

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