Last week I attended the New York State Association of Independent School (NYSAIS) Heads of School conference. This conference featured Yong Zhao, an author and professor at the University of Seattle. Zhao’s message focused on the importance of developing an educational system and curriculum that cultivates key skills like creative and strategic thinking, digital learning and problem solving. He was a very funny speaker, with some serious messages. As a son of Chinese farmers, he said he was ‘a failure at being a peasant.’ He talked about how he has lived his life pursuing what we all pursue–“not failing.” He pointed out that he is not alone in that feeling; none of us like to fail, yet in U.S. schools, the focus is on student deficits rather than strengths. This in turn leads to student disengagement. He also described his goal for his daughter, age 15: not to live in his basement. This is accomplished by helping children discover and practice what they are good at, and help them to develop these skills and expertise.
He also talked about the strengths of his homeland, China, and those of India, as being strong test takers. Students in the U.S. have not been strong test takers, even 50 years ago. The strength of the U.S. has to be in creativity and innovation. The U.S. has been concerned about the Chinese exceeding the U.S. in academic skills, and the Chinese have been concerned that their education system will not produce the next Steve Jobs or creative entrepreneurs until changes to the Chinese educational systems occur. That is already happening. In August, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced significant changes in primary school, releasing the Ten Regulations to Lessen Academic Burden for Primary School Students. In order to best prepare our children, Zhou said we need to help them develop entrepreneurial qualities, such as risk-taking, empathy, confidence, alertness to opportunity- soft skills that are extremely important. In U.S. schools we attempt to take curiosity, passion and creativity, multiple intelligences, cultural diversity and individual differences and squash them through a “sausage maker” school system, zapping these qualities into what we think will be an employable worker.
He asked the question, “What is the best way to kill curiosity in students?” Answer: “Give them all of the answers.” Cramming and covering vast quantities of information kills curiosity. He pointed to a study done years ago where children in first grade were asked, “Who in this class is an artist?” and everyone raises his/her hand. The same question was asked in a high school group, and only a few raised their hands.
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. – Albert Einstein
Zhou says that investing in testing will only create good test takers, and test scores are not valid predictors of success. If we invest our resources in tests, we will get good test takers; if we spend our time celebrating and encouraging our variety of abilities, creativity, and diverse thinking we will better help our students succeed. Testing should be a tool, not the focus. Test scores are a poor reflection of what our students could be learning and distract teachers from the real work of helping students to discover, be curious, work collaboratively and interact with each other in meaningful ways.
Interestingly, he also mentioned that his children went to a Montessori school. J