Zhao on Entrepreneurship, the Common Core, and Bacon

By Catherine A. Cardno — July 17, 2012 8 min read
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I recently read Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Corwin, 2012). The book is an intriguing one, and once I began reading I found it difficult to put down.

In his book, Mr. Zhao argues that the elements of the American education system that foster creativity and entrepreneurship in its students and are most envied by China (including by the renowned education system of Shanghai, with its test-taking dominance) are in danger of being destroyed altogether by current U.S. reform efforts such as the Common Core State Standards. Using the relatively unwieldy metaphor of a sausage-making machine, Mr. Zhao argues that while China’s mastery in turning out identical sausages (i.e. extremely high test scores) is unparalleled, it can never make bacon. America, on the other hand, doesn’t make sausage as well as China does, but every now and again it turns out a fantastic piece of bacon. In this metaphor, he points to Steve Jobs and Lady Gaga as (you guessed it) the bacon.

And who doesn’t love bacon in America?

Indeed, the U.S. dominance in creativity and entrepreneurship (bacon!) is a direct result, he argues, of the fact that its schools are not identical replicas of each other focused on churning out high test scores. However, he argues, the existing American education system is still flawed and needs to be improved.

In his book, Mr. Zhao argues that a new education paradigm needs to be developed to foster creativity, entrepreneurial qualities, and talent diversity. His proposed solution contains three interconnected elements: a personalized curriculum that supports and enhances each student’s strengths and passions; product-oriented learning that emphasizes student’s creation of authentic products; and a globalized learning context that brings together learning resources from around the world and provides students the opportunity to interact and serve a global audience.

Mr. Zhao was kind enough to answer my questions about his proposed education paradigm and its potential impact on teachers, via email. Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for space, appears below.

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You clearly dislike the Common Core State Standards. Why?

Right, I am not happy with the Common Core State Standards. I would be happy if they were not common or core, though.

The common core cannot solve the problems it is intended to—improving quality, narrowing the achievement gap, and increasing efficiency—as past experiences tell us. Since No Child Left Behind, states have implemented standards and high-stakes testing and have not seen improved achievement, narrowed gaps, or increased efficiency. If such efforts did not work in states, which in practice function as national systems, what in the common core would make it work nationally? The differences, proponents might argue, is that the common core is more demanding, more rigorous, and carries higher stakes. But Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute has presented analysis and evidence to show that in the past none of these have mattered at the state level.

Second, the common core distracts us from seeing and addressing the root cause of America’s biggest problems in education: economic inequity and social injustice. It shifts the burden of a persistent social problem to the least powerful group of people—teachers in the classrooms. Teachers can do a lot, some even miracles, but unless America seriously addresses the unequal education achievement as a large societal issue, we will continue to see our poor and minority students lagging behind.

Third, and perhaps more importantly, as I wrote in a recent blog post, the common core is likely to do more damage to our children by homogenizing educational experiences, narrowing the curriculum, encouraging more teaching to the test, and reducing diversity in talents, after wasting billions of dollars and years of opportunity.

What type of teacher—or teaching—do you see as needing to develop along with your proposed paradigm, which emphasizes global learning and creation? What would teacher accountability look like under this system?

Teaching in this new paradigm shifts from knowledge transmission to designing rich and engaging learning environments, inspiring and motivating students to create and make products, organizing resources and activities, and reviewing and providing feedback to students. Teaching is no longer confined to a single classroom with a group of young people but becomes more collaborative and personalized. Teacher accountability is no longer based on student gains in test scores in a subject but based on a broad series of indicators that reflect the degree to which each and every student progress along their chosen path and products.

How important is entrepreneurship in the classroom? Is there any way for it to coexist with the common-core standards?

It’s absolutely crucial. Entrepreneurship is more than a set of skills to develop or manage business. It is cognitive, psychological, and social. It is perspectives, attitudes, strategies, intuition, and habits. It requires alertness to opportunities, creativity, perseverance, risk-taking, passion, confidence, and unique approaches. So it cannot be taught in standardized “entrepreneurship education” programs. It should be part of the education process, in everyday classrooms. It may be able to coexist with common-core standards but only when the common-core standards or any such prescribed content and expectations are in the background and not required for all students.

The conversation among educators about flipped classrooms (where class time is used to engage students in problem solving and discussions, and students can watch lectures on video at home) has been getting a lot of play recently. Do you see your new paradigm fitting into this concept at all?

It does and does not. The flipped classroom is a great approach and it definitely is much better than using the classroom to teach what students may be able to learn on their own. The paradigm I suggest certainly requires that students be more responsible for their own learning and engaged in more problem solving and discussions so in this sense it fits well. But as far as I understand it, the flipped classroom approach has typically taken place in the traditional classroom that is still bound by a prescribed curriculum for all students in the same class. My proposed paradigm asks that each individual student pursue a personalized curriculum so there is no prescribed content for all at the same time. Moreover, students are not organized in the traditional way as groups of 20 or 30. Instead, they would pursue their own learning. As such, the class is not taught by individual teachers. Rather teachers work in teams on projects with students.

I’m curious: Wouldn’t this educational paradigm necessitate well-behaved students in order to work? The Summerhill school, which you focus on closely as a case study in the book, makes it very clear on their website that:

“Occasionally a child who is struggling with their own personal difficulties in life may find the freedom at Summerhill so captivating that they are unable to differentiate between freedom and license and take responsibility for their actions. This can lead to problems with violence or bullying, creating fear in other children. ... In such cases, sadly, the child will have to go elsewhere.”

With your proposed paradigm, however, where do the uninterested, misbehaving students fit into the picture?

This is a very interesting question. But a preceding question is where do “uninterested, misbehaving students” come from? Do we assume that certain children are born to be misbehaving or uninterested? Or perhaps they have been damaged by their environment? In the case of Summerhill, many parents sent their children there because they did not fit in at other schools for bad behaviors. And also some children may have tension with their families. If children come to a school with “bad behaviors” or “bad attitudes” or a lack of interest, Summerhill did not cure them all. And I don’t believe any school or education programs can cure all problems.

But the proposed paradigm is more likely to engage more students because it gives students more autonomy, more responsibility, more freedom, and more opportunities to be themselves and to make a contribution to the society. It certainly won’t cure everyone but has a much better chance than the traditional model. And I believe if children start early in this paradigm, we are much less likely to see misbehaving and uninterested students.

In your mind, what is the biggest challenge in getting your proposed paradigm to take hold in the U.S.? What are the next steps?

The biggest challenge is our mindset about what makes good education and the seductive power of the traditional paradigm. The dominant definition of education is the acquisition of prescribed content and skills, which then translates into test scores and other indicators of academic achievement. This is why we are so obsessed with scores, graduation rates, and credentials. The traditional paradigm presents a very clear picture of the “game” one has to play to be successful: You go to school, get good grades and test scores, you graduate, earn a diploma, and then get a job. The public and parents know the gateways and measures of how well schools and students do on this racecourse. But the problem is that this path no longer works.

The next steps are fairly simple, but extremely difficult [to do]. The United States has to stop pushing standards and standardization and high-stakes testing—even if all students scored above average on the new tests based on the common core or surpassed other countries on the Program for International Student Assessment, our children would not be ready for the future. America needs to take a break from looking at test scores from a few subjects as indicators of success. We need to look at every child as individually talented, and [recognize that] their talents, if fully developed, will be valuable to them and the society. I am hoping that this book will inspire some educators to take action to develop an education that does not attempt to fix children’s deficits but enhance their strengths.

Mr. Zhao holds the presidential chair and is associate dean for global education in the college of education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. You can read the Commentary that he wrote for this week’s issue of Education Week here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.