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Book Review: Yong Zhao -- Don't Stifle Innovation!


In July I encountered a video featuring Chinese-born scholar Yong Zhao who turned the push for global competitiveness in our schools on its head. Rather than focusing on "raising the bar" through tougher standards and more tests, he suggested we had much more to gain by enhancing what is best in American schools - our spirit of creativity and innovation. YongZhaoBook.jpg

This month Zhao published a book, Catching Up or Leading the Way; American Education in the Age of Globalization, which provides solid backing for his perspective. Zhao has an unusual background - raised in a rural village in China, he considers himself lucky that he escaped some of the tyranny of his nation's rigid schooling. He reports firsthand how the Chinese system, rooted in the keju -- the civil service exams developed 1400 years ago, has resulted in a culture that values test performance above all else. The Chinese word for education is dushu, which literally means reading the books. Until the start of the 20th century, this meant the ability to memorize classic texts and reinterpret or restate them. More recently it has meant intensive preparation for the gaokao - the college entrance exam, which has many of the same qualities as the keju.

The result of this emphasis on test ability is a systematic stifling of creativity and innovation.
Paradoxically, Zhao reports, many of those who score highest on tests in school fail to live up to this potential in their careers after graduation. As a society, China has failed to produce innovations in spite of leading the world in manufacturing. In 2005, there were 21,519 patent applications from China, while more than 134,000 originated from the United States. Furthermore, most of the Chinese patents were for changes in appearance, rather than original inventions.

Zhao makes a strong case that uniform tests result in monolithic thinking. In the modern global economy, the passion that results when people are allowed to develop along diverse paths is far more precious than the large scale mediocrity that results from national standards and a test-centered (or "data-driven") school culture.

Asian leaders are keenly aware of these problems, and have launched education reforms that sound much like those being advocated here by the 21st Century Skills movement. In Singapore, Zhao tells us, reforms aim to reduce subject content and increase critical thinking. They are allowing greater autonomy for teachers and schools, and encouraging diversity and flexibility.

Zhao writes:

While the United States is moving towards more standardization and centralization, the Asian countries are working hard to allow more flexibility and autonomy at the local level. While the United States is investing resources to ensure all students are taking the same courses and pass the same tests, the Asian countries are advocating for more individualization and attending to emotions, creativity and other skills. While the United States is raising the stakes on testing, the Asian countries are exerting great efforts to reduce the power and pressure of testing.

Why are the Asian countries, which some American reformers admire, eager to abandon their education tradition, which seems to have resulted in high test scores or academic excellence, and instead learn from America? The answer is simple: because they know very well the damage that results from standardization and high stakes testing.

Zhao makes no bones about the implications of his observations. He concludes:

American education is at a crossroads. Two paths lie in front of us: one in which we destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores and one in which we build on our strengths so we can keep the lead in innovation and creativity. The current push for more standardization, centralization, high stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path, while what will keep America truly strong and American prosperous should be the latter, the one that cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity. As we enter a new world rapidly changed by globalization and technology, we need to change course. Instead of instilling fear in the public about the rise of other countries, bureaucratizing education with bean-counting policies, demoralizing educators through dubious accountability measures, homogenizing school curriculum, and turning children into test takers, we should inform the public about the possibilities brought about by globalization, encourage education innovations, inspire educators with genuine support, diversify and decentralize curriculum, and educate children as confident, unique, and well-rounded human beings.

I believe this book helps illuminate the challenges posed by both Merrow and Ravitch this week. Zhao helps us understand why the US, in spite of the frequent sloppy indictments of our schools, remains a world leader in scientific and creative innovation. He provides a solid defense of the critical thinking skills derided by Ravitch, and warns us of the dangers of the test-centered path we are on. Most pointedly, he questions the contradiction between President Obama's condemnation of the emphasis on tests, and his embrace of "tougher, clearer standards" as the key to reform.

In his afterward, he weighs in on the latest effort to standardize education in the US:

Theoretically national curriculum standards for each subject can be useful, but unless we can develop sound standards for all subjects and knowledge we think our students should have, unless we can develop and implement valid and reliable assessment for all standards, unless we can enable our students to choose from a wide range of offerings, and unless we can attach equal value to a broad range of knowledge and skills, national standards will do more harm than good.

What do you think of Yong Zhao's perspective? What lessons can we learn from China? Which path should we follow forward?

Image provided through Creative Commons, by neuezukunft.


This analysis is right on target. One of our biggest challenges, however, is convincing many traditional parents that the purpose of schooling is not just test prep. Having returned from Honh Kong where I spent time touring schools and visiting with educators lady week, I can say with confidence that perception is alive and well in east Asia. To "shift schools" in the direction of creativity and problem solving skills we need to address parent expectations, and those are hard to challenge in many cases.

There is no question that there are entrenched perceptions at work here, both in Asia and in the US. In Asia they are based in traditions that date back more than a millenium.

Here in the US, we have some countervailing traditions in place. We do create a lot of space in the lives of children to play, and though this has been eroding, we honor the idea that there is learning to be gained from purely creative endeavors like music, art and theater. There are also traditions of inquiry for students of science, and engaging students in investigating history firsthand, and so on. We are systematically undermining these traditions -- which have helped to bring us the competitive edge our economy enjoys. It is up to us to defend the heart and soul of education, for the sake of our children, if not our economy.

While I agree with the article, I live in the midst of a dichotomy. I live in Redmond Washington, home of Microsoft and Bill Gates. It is Gates and the Gates Foundation that has pushed so hard for reforms that include standardized tests and statewide standards. And it is clear to those of us who live here that there is a real change in the air. What used to be a white middle class neighborhood now looks a lot more like a global village. Some of us embrace it but many of my neighbors are scared. Scared that the jobs Microsoft provides will go to other people from other countries and cultures. That those who have lived here as the majority for a few hundred years will now be the minority and their way of life will disappear. Microsoft does not generally interview students from our local schools, saying that they just don't have the skills necessary. This is one of the two 'legs' of school reform. The other 'leg' is the achievement gap between minority students and their suburban peers. But I live it and see it every day. It is not just parents perception but a perception that our education system does not provide the skills to get the jobs of the next century, the jobs that mean being able to afford a home and sending your own child to college. In education today, we need to address both sides of this equation, creativity and skills, since this is the direction the globalization is taking us.

Great quote from the book: "Children are like popcorn. They all pop, some sooner, some later, but in the end, they all pop."

The China leaving exam (or gao kao) is essential for determining who gets into college, which means a life earning bills rather than coins per day. Despite intense building of university cities, their capacity to serve their capable students is still limited, and much of their student overflow is supporting U.S. colleges. The gao kao has them "caught" since if any subject moves off of the test, the students, with parental advice, will ignore that class and focus on what is measured. Supervisors also see it also as total assessment not only of the student, but of the teacher, the school, the teaching materials. But along with South Korea and others who use teach-to-the-test systems, they know the system does not educate for Nobel Prizes although it gets them the top slot in international test comparisons (Science 290: 1866). Their (and now our) assessment systems defeat creativity.

Ravitch is correct to criticize 21st Century (content-less) curricula. Abstract "creativity" is not what built our Nobel Prize winners. Prior to the accuntability reforms, the American teacher had great leeway to decide what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it, and we have turned out many creative students under this system, including 270+ Nobel Prize winners. Those teachers were teaching content. You can't be abstractly creative; you have to have the knowledge base. Today, one third of U.S. patents go to foreign-born scientists who bring the rigor of solid math and science backgrounds to the academic freedom (for now) of U.S. universities. Across the sciences, we are living on borrowed talent, esp. in engineering, chemistry and physics, and as living conditions improve in other countries relative to the U.S., our days of supremacy are numbered...a reverse brain drain is underway.

We are crossing educational paths and they are going the right direction.

John Richard Schrock

I agree. Ravitch is correct to criticize content-less curricula. However, I do not think she -- or other promoters of standardization -- have provided evidence that such an approach is a danger. Most instances of 21st century skills, including problem-based learning and an inquiry approach in science demand that students actively research their subject along with conducting their own investigations. This "content-less" curriculum is a straw man, easily destroyed to make her case for a "back to basics" approach.

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