Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Prof Yong Zhao speaks to NZEI Annual Conference

On Monday 30 September, the NZEI Te Riu Roa Annual Conference 2013 welcomed Prof Yong Zhao who spoke to us about quality education, national testing, GERM and creativity (as an overview).  He was insightful and funny, giving the meeting food for thought.

Prof Zhao has been in New Zealand for about a week.  He has been visiting schools and meeting with educationalists and business leaders.  He has also met with Education Minister Hekia Parata last Tuesday afternoon.  Prof Zhao has said, "I want to warn the New Zealand Government - you may be raising your test scores, but you may be losing something else, and that might be very important for the future."  (NZ Herald 25 September 2013)

Professor Yong Zhao, the presidential chair at the University of Oregon's College of Education, said a focus on measuring traditional success risked producing homogenous, compliant workers ill-suited for a modern economy - and he explained this in his presentation to the NZEI Annual Conference.

Prof Zhao calls schools traditional sausage factories.  Children come in with their individual differences, their multiple intelligences, their cultural diversity, full of curiosity, passion and creativity, go through the sausage factory of schooling and pop out the other end with "employable skills".   He used the graphic below to illustrate this.
This is the traditional model of schooling since schooling began.  The idea originally was to teach the peasants enough literacy and literacy skills to enable them to perform tasks for the employer and follow instructions.  Some tolerant societies, or economic classes, added singing, dance, music, art to their schooling -  what we can call the sauce on the sausage.
Prof Zhao calls National Standards a competition for making sausages, in the sausage making machine that is the schooling system.  National Standards, or national testing in any other country, aims for all the sausages to be made the same at the same time.  But what if we want more for our children?  What if we want bacon?
Prof Zhao went onto to discuss the great civilisation Easter Island had 1000 years ago.  Thirteen tribes lived in this civilisation doing all the things they needed to do to ensure their civilisation survived and flourished.  But then the thirteen tribes decided they needed to have a competition to get the favour of the gods.  The Easter Islanders abandoned their farming, fishing, etc. to carve giant stones - their version of National Standards.  The Easter Island society fell over because they became so focused on carving the best stones to gain the gods' favour. They took their eye off the ball.
So what do we lose by concentrating on National Standards?
We now have too many sausages coming out of universities and schools.  We tell our children and young people that the measure of success is a tertiary education, a degree.  So they come out of the compulsory sausage factories and enter into the ultimate sausage factories, universities and polytechnics.  They finish up with a shiny qualification and then discover that there are few jobs for them to go in.
We need to expand how our youth are educated, how they become qualified or skilled to enter the work place.  We need to instil creativity.
Creativity as concept was only written about after 1920s.  Prof Zhao used the following passage as an example of how creativity was not valued or talked about until the 1920s.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

New International Version (NIV)

A Rebellious Son

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
Creativity is not mentioned in Bible at all.  In fact, the passage above refers to stubborn and rebellious individuals - demanding that all should obey and fit into the expectations of their parents.  Creative people would have been rebellious in Biblical times. 
The new middle class of today is the creative class. We are in the creative economy. But National Standards is crushing that.  Without the creative economy there would be no use for Kim Kardashian.  She exists to entertain at a low level.  But how many people does she employ?  How does she improve the economy?  What qualifications does she bring? 
An interesting fact to consider is that Facebook only has 6,000 employees.  Are we trying to create workers to work at Facebook where jobs are limited?  Or should we be looking to ways in which we develop the creative people of the future who in turn employ others?
If you are not creative, there is no job for you in today's society.  However all skills have uses - even Lady Gaga can be useful.  Children need to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, to become social activists, to be able to take action.  They do need some "sausage"  -  but with more sauce  -  the creativity.  Our children should not just be consumers of knowledge, but they need to be able to take action, pursue their passion and create.
The graphic above illustrates creativity at age 5 through to age 10.  At age 5, 98% of children entering a sausage factory (school) are creative.  By age 10, the proportion of creative children has dropped to 32%.
Children need these qualities listed in the picture below:  confidence, friends, risk-taking, passion, creativity, alertness to opportunity, global competency, uniqueness and empathy.  But if we squeeze them out of the sausage maker they lose these qualities.
However they can not create without confidence.  When children have low interest/confidence in maths or science you are less likely to develop scientists and mathematicians.  Surprisingly, countries with high test scores usually have students with lower confidence in their abilities; and countries with low test scores then to have students with a higher level of confidence in their abilities.  Below are two graphics used by Prof Zhao to illustrate this research.
We now live in an age of abundance.  We live in the age of consumerism.  Necessity is no longer the mother of invention.  In the age of abundance there is waste.  We spend too much money on convincing people to eat.  Prof Zhao pointed out that research shows that there is an average of 120 varieties of cereals on the average supermarket shelf, that Nutrigrain for example is really only for ironmen competitors but that it is being marketed to you and I, the average "not ironman competitor".  Nutrigrain does not have a lot of nutritional value, it is so processed, and is full of sugar  -  it is not a whole food.  But the more money you pay, the less food you actually get.
This photo shows how through the years the category of employment has changed.  One hundred years ago the largest employer was farming, fishing and forestry, followed by, what was most likely, factory work.  The service and creative industries were small fry.  But the graphic Prof Zhao used shows that farming, fishing and forestry, as advances were made and they became less labour intensive, has had a steady drop off.  Factory work was very consistent until the 1960s and then, possibly again because of technical advances, those jobs have dropped off consistently.  However, service and creative industry positions have continued to rise.  And I guess that is why we now have people like Lady Gaga and Kim Kadashian....
Therefore the future of our children relies on them to have a job in the creative fields.  We need to give children in our education system room to develop their passions and creativity - we need to empower our children to drive their education journey.  The above graphic was used by Prof Zhao to illustrate how learning goes back and forth between these three concepts that a the corner points of effective modern learning.
Professor Zhao has children.  As they have grown he has changed his view on educational success.  And this is his conclusion:  educational success is not living in your parent's basement or attic or garage. 
To protect children's future we can't produce homogenous sausages. We need resilient, independent, creative young adults who can go out into the world and make it their own.
At this point people were able to submit and ask questions to Professor Zhao.  My notes are not a full description of the answers, but my quick interpretation.
How do we help parents see value of creativity?
Teachers are creators of the future society. It's about how we view our minorities.  Teachers set the standards and expectations and provide the structure for learning.
How do we close the sausage factory?
We have to resist national testing and how it is used.  We have to prove the alternative is better.
We are benchmarking to the best of the past by using national testing regimes. We need to be the benchmark of the future. We need to make bacon.
How do we empower teachers?
One of biggest problems for teachers is isolation.  We live in the Google age  -  you don't know something, Google it.  Teachers need to do what technology can't.  Teachers are the reason children Google.  We inspire them.  We teach then the skills to find the answers and to critically review the information, process and shape and present it.  Teachers create discovery opportunities.
How do we start to shift the thinking?
We teachers are also products of the sausage factory.  So we need to recognise it and drive the conversation.  If Lady Gaga is useful, everyone is useful.
Professor Zhao then went on with the following:  Dyslexics have trouble with reading. We treat it as a deficit. But the dyslexic tendencies are great for 3-D art.  Yet we put so much emphasis on being able to read, write and do maths.
Do we need to read?  Prof Zhao asked this question of Hekia Parata when he met her last week - I wonder what she answered.
We live in an age of outsourcing - if you don't know how to read, hire someone to read for you.  Prof Zhao outsourced when he was a child.  He was bullied.  He did not have a brother to defend him.  So in order to have others protect him, outsourcing, he provided a service to those who did protect him - the ability to copy him in tests!!
Prof Zhao created food for thought throughout his presentation.  He brought another angle to the antidote to the GERM infecting our education system.  He validated our New Zealand Curriculum as the tool to empower our young learners and relegated National Standards as a benchmark of the past.


  1. An awesome statement of the realities of our current education situation and future. Zhao is right on the money.

  2. Great summary of Annual Conference. Well done, Melanie!