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Prep Schools

Prep Schools

We need a system that prepares kids to create their own jobs—and we need it now.


Yong Zhao has an unusual and provocative take on the state of education globally. The University of Kansas professor, author, and thought leader argues that all education systems squelch creativity.

Luckily for us, the U.S. just hasn’t been very good at it.

When it comes to enforcing bureaucratic norms of any kind, we’re half-hearted amateurs. The Chinese, on the other hand, have mastered the art of squelching. As a result the Chinese are world leaders in test scores, while the U.S. has to console itself that it leads in the creativity that drives entrepreneurship and innovation.

Never content with an apparently good thing, education reformers and elected officials of both parties in this country have joined the global test-score race — with only one guaranteed outcome, claims Zhao—“a very homogenous workforce characterized by mass mediocrity.”

Which is exactly what we don’t need, Zhao points out. “We have entered a new economic age in this country, in which people have to create their own jobs. You can already see the evidence everywhere you look.” That new age demands a new kind of educational approach. “But it will take some very harsh conditions—a crisis—to convince people that this isn’t a choice. We have to adapt.”

What we do need, urgently, is “a system that prepares children to take advantage of the opportunities created by tech and globalization. We need to look at every child and treat her or his uniqueness as an asset. Today talent is suppressed if it isn’t in an area identified by the system as important. So we have a mass-manufacturing system in education … we have specs for the product and if you meet these specs you pass quality control—you’re an okay product. Otherwise your talents are actually considered deficiencies.

“And those specs,” says Zhao, “they were created more than a century ago.”


“We have entered a new economic age in this country, in which people have to create their own jobs. You can already see the evidence everywhere you look.”
— Yong Zhao, University of Kansas School of Education


So how do we begin the process of boldly reimagining education?

“To begin with, we think too much about teaching and care too little about learning,” says Zhao. “And too much about teachers and too little about curators and guides, especially given the power of the internet. Kids in rural India have been learning amazing things from the internet on their own. Check out Sugata Mitra and his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments.”

Zhao reels off a list of start-stops that he believes will gin up the process. Schools need to:

  • STOP using standardized test scores to judge the quality of teaching or the achievement of learning
  • START breaking down the traditional grammar of schooling. For example, why do we force all children to take the same course at the same age. We know children develop differently in different domains, why don’t we have mixed age grouping or personalized courses?
  • START to allow children to take more control of their own learning, through MOOCs (massive open online courses), online options, educational friends they find via Skype
  • STOP dictating what language each student will learn. There are abundant language resources out there
  • STOP those horrible, boring worksheets for homework. Instead have students imagine themselves creating something—ideas for products or services, a poem that people will actually read. (Not just the teacher, for a grade.) Creating a poem for a grade? Really?
  • START looking for every opportunity, large and small, for knowledge transmission beyond the traditional boundaries of a school. No single school can provide resources for every individual student. At the same time, kids need to learn networking. It is not a natural ability that everyone develops. The internet allows them to find others — students, mentors, guides — who can help them learn and develop passion about certain topics
  • START encouraging—and allowing time for—making things. Kids can’t learn how to create things, and discover the psychic pleasure that perhaps only comes from making things, from a book, with a teacher, in a classroom

These changes aren’t incremental, and so far a few of them are happening, Zhao says. “You need brave leaders, institutions to show that this can work. Once we see that there are viable alternatives, there will be real competition. Right now there’s just not enough pressure to change, except in small incremental ways.

“I had hoped that the entrepreneurial foundations with real money, from Gates and Zuckerberg, would fund some bold new programs, but until now they’ve been very timid, funding variations of the same old models. And charter schools have not used their autonomy to test new models.

Maybe because they’re still held accountable, or feel accountable, to prove themselves using the same traditional outcomes.”

What to do? Zhao urges local leaders not to attempt to standardize new approaches. “We need lots of small-scale tests and experiments right now. As we begin to see things that appear to be working, this in turn will encourage more experimentation. Eventually there are enough promising alternatives that it breeds real competition in the market.”

▸ Yong Zhao is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. He is also a professorial fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Victoria University in Australia as well as a Global Chair at the University of Bath, in the UK. He is the author of Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes, among many other books.

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