This is what I think will be the last in a series of appreciations for Yong Zhao’s fine and important new Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.   I have previously written about Zhao’s sharp criticisms of the Chinese traditional mode of education, a model which we must be very careful to avoid imitating, and about Zhao’s enthusiasm forstudent talent shows and, more generally, educating for what he labels “talent diversity.”

Here I want to look at the heart of his chapter entitled “What Knowledge is of the Most Worth?”  Many of us are working on what should be the key skills to learn in the 21st century; our school has been giving this great attention this year.   Dr. Zhao draws upon multiple sources to assemble his argument: some are familiar, like Partnership for 21st Century skills and Dan Pink’s Whole New Mind; one is new to me, the European parliament’s “eight key competences.”  The best of the chapter is when Zhao lays out his synthesized five Core Assumptions, which “can be used to guide our decision about what school should teach.”

Assumption #1: We must cultivate skills and knowledge that are not available at a cheaper price in other countries or that cannot be rendered useless by machines.Assumption #2: Creativity, interpreted as both ability and passion to make new things and adapt to new situations, is essential.

Assumption #3: New skills and knowledge are needed for living in the global world and the virtual world.

Assumption #4: Cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking are more important than memorization of knowledge.

Assumption #5: Emotional intelligence– the ability and capacity to understand and manage emotions of self and others– is important.

It is a great list, and a helpful guide.   Some quick commentary:  At St. Gregory, we are putting our initial attention upon numbers one, two, and four.    Our organizing principle will be creating leaders and innovators, believing these to be qualities that cannot easily replicated elsewhere or by automation, and that they require high capacity cognitive skills and creativity.     I would hate to say that or let anyone believe that numbers three and five are unimportant to us, but that they are not our immediate focus as we seek to choose, select, prioritize, and I hope I am not being mistaken.  The NAIS list of 21st century competencies does more closely align with this list of Zhao’s , particularly number 3, in that it includes major attention to global and digital skills, each of which gets its own category.   It is my hope that we will grow and evolve toward a greater emphasis on these things, but we want to start in a way both manageable and where we can concentrate our resources to have a greater impact.

I should add to that when you read Kenneth Robinson or even more so Robert Sternberg, what you find is that creativity is dependent upon an aspect of emotional intelligence that Zhao doesn’t mention: the ability and habit of mind to perservere and be resilient.   Much of creativity depends on the willingness and committment to try something again and again, and not yield in the face of discouragement or criticism, and as we put a focus upon innovation, we are going to hold high the goal of facilitating our students’ growth in resilience.