In a previous post, I mildly criticized my new blogosphere friend Yong Zhao for his comments in an on-line video touting elementary talent shows as a good example of American education’s excellence in educating for talent diversity.    Here now I want to say that Dr. Zhao’s treatment of this is much better in his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way.

The chapter is called Why American Hasn’t Lost Yet, and the subject is what Zhao labels “talent diversity.”    He cites Richard Florida and Amy Chua  on “the increasing importance of talent diversity for national development.”

How does talent diversity work in relationship to a country’s prosperity?  First, different talents complement each other…. For war, you need some who are good at planning, some good at commanding, some good at information gathering… Second, talent diversity breeds innovation and encourages innovators.  Different talents bring different and often fresh perspectives…. Third, talent diversity prepares society for change… To cope with major changes, a society needs a diverse pool of talent to continually lead new development and work in new industries.

Talent diversity– how do we educate for it?  Zhao says “talent shows represent one of the greatest strengths of American education for a number of reasons.”    For me, as I read this, I want to say that as Zhao talks about talent shows specifically, I read him to be using talent shows as a stand-in for a broader category he later explicates to include a wide variety of co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences.

First, the talent show is inclusive. It enables everyone, not only those who are endowed with superior talents, to participate.  More important, it recognizes a broad range of talents… Furthermore, it broadens children’s perspectives.  Through these talent shows, they may discover new talents…. Second, the talent show encourages initiative and responsibility…. Third, the activity sends a strong message to the community that all children are talented in different ways.  Maintaining a broad definition of success in the community is key to to maintaining a diversity of talents in a society  Last, the activity helps all the children to be proud of their strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses.

In this context, the important of celebrating children’s strengths, Zhao offers one of several shout-outs in this box to Jenifer Fox and her book, Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. It is fun for this blogger to see the synchronicity and mutual respect here demonstrated between my new friend Yong and my old friend/colleague Jenifer; Jenifer was my immediate predecessor as Head in my previous headship, at Saklan Valley School in California.   You go, Jenifer.

It is in the last paragraph on page 50 that Zhao speaks with the most significant impact, I believe.  I think this is a very important paragraph.   Many of us in independent schools, and in 21st century schools, celebrate teaching the whole child, and ensuring our students spend their time in widely diverse ways, rather than limited narrowly to narrowly defined academic subjects.  At St. Gregory we celebrate that our students, while taking AP courses, are on three sports teams and in the musical and in the band and  in the robotics club and writing for the literary journal.   But some out there (and yes, I am speaking partly to you, Bob Compton), seem to want to wring their hands that students are not studying more hours in the day.   I am going to quote this paragraph in its entirety:

Talent shows are just one example from American education, which has traditionally created a culture that respects individual differences, endorses individual interests, and supports a broad range of talents.  Other examples include the numerous after-school activities, such as various clubs, athletic activities, music and art programs, scouts, and field trips. In comparison, Asian countries spend much less time on extracurricular activities.  Traditional research has tried to draw a connection between students’ involvement in extracurricular activities and their academic performance, which could be important.  Although the research on the effects of extracurricular activities on academic performance remains inconclusive, what such activities cultivate in a person is perhaps much more important. For individuals, extracurricular affirm the value of their existence, boost their self-esteem and sense of success, encourage them to pursue their own interests, and help justify and maintain their interests.  For a nation, a broader definition of success and of what talents are valuable, beyond academic performance in a few subjects, preserves and cultivates a diversity of talent.  Such diversity is essential for adapting to changing societies and economies.