ASCD – Yong Zhao


My first session at Yong Zhao started bright and early 8am on Saturday.  Keep in mind this was 6am Pacific, so I wasn’t sure my brain was going to fire on all cylinders.  Fortunately, there was a Starbucks in the lobby of my hotel with a short line!  I was really excited to hear Zhao speak.  Above is an introduction video from the ASCD website.  Zhao also has a second, very interesting video on the Mobile Learning Website.

A few months ago ASCD sent out his latest book, Catching Up or Leading the Way to ASCD members.  Unfortunately, I was not a member yet and missed the book, but my colleague Cheryl has raved about it for months.  In Catching Up or Leading the Way Zhao’s premise is that as Americans we might want to rethink our constant comparisons between our students and those in the rest of the world.  The same theme lead the way throughout his ASCD presentation (downloadable PDF).

Zhao documented how for decades Americans have compared themselves to other nations predicting dire consequences of impending failure.  These comparisons have often led to cries for reform to adjust the American educational system so that it mirrors these other nations.  Ironically, at the same time these countries to are trying to emulate the US educational system.  For example, currently many Americans are concerned that students in China, India, and other industrialized countries are performing better on international standardized tests.  This concern has lead to calls for stronger accountability, more testing, and national content standards.  Zhao cited Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind as simply the latest example of “reactionary policies to the misconception that America’s children are falling behind.”  Meanwhile in countries like China policymakers are trying desperately to emulate the American education system out of concerns that their schools are producing “really good test-takers with limited critical thinking skills.”  According to Zhao China is currently in the midst of implementing the following educational reforms:

  1. Getting high schools to use information other than test scores to recruit and admit students,
  2. Movement away from a core, centralized curriculum,
  3. Incorporating teaching strategies that build critical thinking skills.

As an example of how these international tests might actually tell us very little, Zhao referred to the First International Mathematics Study given in 1964 to 13 year-olds where the United States finished second to last.  Forty-years later (when these 13 year olds were now 53) each nation’s test score was compared with 2002 data points for economic growth, wealth, quality of life, democracy, livability, and creativity.  Interestingly, each of these data points had a negative correlation with the 1964 data, meaning the better a nation performed on these exams the worse they were doing for that data point in 2002.

While the validity of international tests may be in question, the world has also experienced another massive change in the past 40 years – globalization.  Through technology and improvements in transportation efficiency more and more jobs are being off-shored to countries such as India and China where the labor force and raw materials are cheaper.  Globalization really begs the question do we want to be just like our competitors? This isn’t a healthy business practice, so is it a healthy educational policy?  To reinforce this concept, Zhao referred to the following quote from  Tough Choices or Tough Times by New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce:

“Today, Indian engineers make $7,500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. If we succeed in matching the very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science of these Indian engineers – an enormous challenge for this country – why would the world’s employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work? They would be willing to do that only if we could offer something that the Chinese and Indians, and others, cannot.”

Keeping these ideas in mind Zhao referred to the work of  Amy Chua, How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fail, and Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class.  In both of these works what really matters most for a civilization is diversity of talents, creativity, tolerance, technology, and entrepreneurship.  According to Zhao we really don’t have an achievment gap as much as we have a creativity gap.  Bringing all of this work together, Zhao made the following recommendations for America’s schools as we move into the 21st Century

  1. Personalized Learning – Tailor education to each individual’s need, interest, and aptitude
  2. Schools as Global Enterprises – Local autonomy, but with a global market and resources
  3. Global Products
    Global Resources – online resources galore
    Global Market – with online learning who are you teaching?
    Global Staffing – could you hire a Mandarin teacher in China to teach your students with videoconferencing?

  4. Never Send a Man to Do a Machine’s Job
  5. Technology should do things people don’t do well or can’t do – data management, repetition, multimedia learning, classroom response systems, video conferences

  6. Input-Based Accountability – “What educational opportunity am I providing my students?” Might be a more realistic measure of performance.
  7. Education is a faith-based business – what you do today will not show up for many years.  This is very similar to going to church.  We don’t stand up after the sermon and ask, “Pastor how have I grown?” because its not realistic. We should be paying strong attention to the following areas:
    a. Physical Environment
    b. Leadership
    c. Learning Facilities
    d. Teacher Quality
    e. Diverse Opportunities
    f. Tolerance
    g. Student Voice

While Zhao’s session was quite fascinating and an interesting look at globalization and international competitiveness his message is only truly valuable in how it shapes my practice. Reflecting on Zhao’s message I am even more convinced that we have been moving in the wrong direction. Our schools and teachers must move in the direction of helping students become independent, creative, thoughtful and compassionate global learners. This does not mean that we abandon content standards or even our core curriculum. What it might mean though is that we abandon drill-and-kill direct instruction, lock-step fidelity to curriculum manuals and pacing guides, and the solitary focus on one annual high-stakes test. From a more revolutionary perspective it might also mean we abandon our current assumptions of school. Should the school day run from 8-3 for 180 days? Should students only attend school with students in their neighborhood or could we have them attend school virtually with students from all over the world? Why do we have grade levels, would it make more sense to organize students by current abilities? As you can see there are tons to rethink. Ultimately, if I just change one thing though it will be the notion of incorporating these ideas into all trainings I do in the future.  For example, I will no longer show a teacher how to use a wiki unless we also have a conversation about how these tools can help build communication, collaboration, and written communication skills with students from the same class or school…or even with students who live a world away.


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