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

By Anthony Cody — September 19, 2009 2 min read

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.

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.

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