Like most of my friends and colleagues in the 21st century learning arena, I hold high regard for Yong Zhao.   It is an enormous asset for our movement to have his global perspective and all that he brings from his expertise in Chinese education as a comparison and a warning for developments in US education, and beyond his tremendous knowledge base, it is just wonderful how enthusiatic and passionate he is about unleashing students and celebrating their diverse and creative spirits.

I’ve written about Zhao here before, praising his previous book Catching Up or Leading the Way, and I was grateful to have him join my pages on one occasion, as he added commentary to a sharp debate I was having in several posts and comment sections with Bob Compton regarding his film, Two Million Minutes, the 21st century solution.  (Scroll down to comment number 9.)

This new book carries forward many of the themes of the previous, and indeed, in one section, about the curious pattern of US and Chinese education each seeking to emulate the other,  it feels particularly repetitive.   That said, it is an incredibly important discussion about which Zhao has deep insight, and he has brought it up to date with many new supporting details.

One of those new details regards the bizarre laws the Chinese national government is putting into place sharply limiting, to the point of fines, the number of days and hours students can be in school, in an effort to circumscribe the obsessed workaholic-ism that overcomes so many Chinese students and ultimately, the argument goes, curtails their creativity, happiness, and self-confidence.   In an effort to evade these strict prohibitions, one school, the story is told, bussed its students to a different city to live in dorms and undertake an extra two weeks of study.

What stands out in the new book are three important messages.  First, the Common Core is deeply flawed and detrimental to what ought to be our society’s primary objective for education, to develop creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens.   Second, entrepreneurship is, in of itself, the single best descriptor for that objective, and Zhao takes care to define it and imbue it with his enthusiasm.

Third, and most fully, we can describe the ideal educations for developing this most important objective, and it is a combination of the What: student autonomy and voice; the How, Product-Oriented Learning; and the Where: Globally, in every way we can.

Throughout my reading of World Class Learners, I find myself more conflicted than I expected.    From Zhao’s perspective, and it is a sound one, the US is deeply at risk of having already gone too far, and now accelerating toward, making the deep, fundamental mistake of Chinese education, centralizing it around a narrow set of high, content-oriented, academic standards which are tested in extremely high stakes assessments.   Because of that, he seeks to push back, push back hard against the entire agenda, and he is right to do so.

But at times, this reader fears he takes a bit of a step too far.  We want to free our students from such centralized high pressure testing and we do want to celebrate, honor and affirm our students extraordinary diversity of talents and ambitions, but we also want them to learn deeply, richly, masterfully, an array of essential skills and we believe they will do best in content rich subjects.   I am not suggesting Zhao, whom I’d like to count as a friend, speaks against academic excellence, but whether by design or inadvertently, his book allows too frequently the inference that he is not as concerned as I am about strong academic accomplishment.

As an independent educator (at least to date), I certainly share any and all concerns that Common Core will limit and reduce the professional latitude of educators and the autonomy of schools and districts.     Zhao draws upon the fast changing dynamics of technology and globalism to make his case: if every student around the world is asked to learn essentially the same content, then there is no comparative advantage for any of those students in their careers; because we can’t predict what kind of jobs lay ahead of our students how can try to prescribe what they should be learning; because technology makes possible the “long tail” of niche services and products, it is all the more important for students to pursue their unique and individual talents rather than learning what everyone else is learning, putting them in a competitive commodity market rather than an idiosyncratic, blue-water enterprise.

Compelling, and rich in the international perspective Zhao is always able to add.   But why not say at the same time that perhaps the promised forthcoming revamp of assessment will require students to better demonstrate higher order thinking skills, and that it is overdue for us to have a national and international conversation about how to enhance the mastery of critical thinking and deep, lasting understandings which enable what Wiggins calls effective “transference” to new situations.

Zhao and I both share a deep commitment to educating our students to be original thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and initiative-taking, collaborative, and persevering actors.  Like Tony Wagner and others, I’ve tended to use the term innovator to capture this category, and sometimes expand it to creating leaders and innovators.  Zhao chooses the term entrepreneur, and to my reading, it is 90%+ the same.   In May I delivered a graduation address about social entrepreneurship, arguing that that term captures most of what I meant when I said leader and innovator.

One small caveat to the word entrepreneur to my mind is that it smacks just a tiny bit too much of capitalism, profit-motive, and corporate opportunities.  I suppose that to some eyes the word innovation at moments sounds too much like corporate strategy, but when comparing the two words, I think entrepreneur has the bigger problem here.    It becomes a tad more problematic when Zhao, later in the book, calls for “product oriented learning.”   I’m all for initiative, innovation, and craftsmanship, but “product oriented  entrepreneurship”  doesn’t strike me as the lofty ideal of what we want for our students in their present or their future.

Bridging the discussion of educating entrepreneurs and comparing Chinese/US education is an analysis of the statistical oddity that in comparative national performance,  academic achievement and entrepreneurship are inversely correlated.

PISA scores in all three areas–reading, math, sciences– are negatively correlated with entrepreneurship indicators in almost every category at statistically significant levels.

Zhao is exceedingly carefully not to overly interpret these statistics, reiterating his understanding that correlation is not causation.  But he does tentatively offer one interesting hypothesis:

in developed countries, educational systems that produced high PISA scores have lower perceived capabilities and higher anxiety about failure while the scores are not correlated with opportunities.  “Perceived entrepreneurial capabilities” can be interpreted as people’s confidence in their abilities to succeed as entrepreneurs.

This means that the higher PISA scores a country achieved, the less likely their people believe they have the capability to succeed in entrepreneurship and people are more afraid of failure.

What is fascinating to me here is the way Zhao is able to turn on its head an often criticized aspect of American education.   It has often been noted, critically, that when surveyed, American students expect to do much better on tests than they actually do, whereas students in high performing nations predict much more dismal outcomes.    This has been lampooned and satirized and seen as a negative result of the self-esteem movement.

Zhao turns it around: what is most important for innovative, entrepreneurial societies is confident citizens, and in nations obsessed with testing and ranking, nations where the 99% of the population realizes they will not score in the top one percent and thus perceives themselves as, in effect, a failure in the construct of the game they are competing in, 99% of the population lacks self-confidence.    Less emphasis on testing and test prep leads to lower scores on testing but higher marks on self-confidence, and which makes the most difference in life?

It calls to mind the work of Paul Tough, whose new book comes out next week, and who seems to be arguing that qualities of character, particularly so-called “performance-character,” are what most lead toward success, and among them are optimism and qualities we often associate closely with self-confidence.

All the above is really the prelude and launchpad for Zhao’s articulation of and advocacy for what he calls the ideal school, perhaps most succinctly summarized by Zhao this way:

A community of autonomous learners engaged in creating meaningful products located on a global campus is the image of a world class school following the new paradigm.

Excellent:  This blog frequently makes the case for more student empowerment, voice and choice; for creativity and innovation, project-based learning, fab labs and maker faires; and for global interactivity both online and, wherever possible, in person.

Myself, while drawing upon their ideals, I would have distanced my advocacy for student voice just a little bit more from the practices and policies of Summerhill and Sudbury free schools than does Zhao.   They are inspirational ideals, but hardly workable models for broad-based implementation, I am afraid.  I prefer it when we get more practical examples, such as the discussion of High Tech High’s use of students for new teacher interviews and selection.   As a user and advocate for the High School Survey of Student Engagement, (HSSSE), it was good to see the powerful use of that data to make the case for more engagement, and I agree with Zhao: schools must intentionally design learning experiences which are meaningful for students, challenging and purposeful.   However, I would be wary of taking a position quite as strongly stated as the following:

Only when children learn what they want to learn and being to take the responsibility for learning and living can they stay truly engaged.

Zhao calls student autonomy and leadership the “what” and then moves on to the second section, explaining that making things for real audiences is the “how.”  (I am not sure these labels work perfectly, but it is a small matter). This chapter, happily to my mind, is a case study of High Tech High, and this reader can never get enough writing about that phenomenon.

After a lovely description of the school’s founder’s vision and its program, Zhao then dives into a close analysis of different varieties of PBL, Project-Based Learning, and offers a distinction I haven’t encountered before– and I like to think of myself as rather well informed about PBL.

Zhao claims that there is a sharp divide between the PBL model of Buck Institute of Education (BIE) (with whom I’ve had some small affiliation in the past) and that of High Tech High.   BIE’s is the more “academic” model, with the emphasis primarily upon the academic content and/or academic skills students will learn and master, and the final project/product being of secondary emphasis.  High Tech High, to the contrary, “tends to value the artifact more than the content.”

The three “keys to successful projects” listed in the [HTH publication, Work that Matters] are exhibition, multiple drafts, and critique– all relevant to producing an outstanding artifact.

I am caught a bit short: I see the distinction he is drawing, but I can’t agree with his characterization of each side in their entirety.  I am deeply curious whether High Tech High accepts his labeling of their approach as less academic than BIE’s; I am not sure they’d sign on to that.

Reading this section, it seems that he is labeling BIE as the academic model (which in fairness is not entirely equated with BIE– it is a bit hard to track on pages 198-200, but it is clear that BIE exemplifies a relatively more academic model).  To the extent that he is,  I think that he sells BIE’s model short, is just plain unfair,  when he says that in this model,

the resulting products, if any, are only byproducts, of little consequence… rarely are the products meant for an authentic audience… This model can be used interchangeably with problem-based learning, another PBL, since the product is of no significance.

I wonder whether any of the fine folks at BIE have read this chapter closely and offered a response to his characterization of their “academic” approach.

Zhao offers a framework of three models, the academic (as above), the mixed, and the entrepreneurial; confusingly to this reader, the mixed model references on pages 200-202 both High Tech High and BIE, despite the fact that on page 198 he explained that they are alternate, even opposite models.

Zhao favors the High Tech High side of the BIE/HTH divide, and then takes it a step further, calling for “the entrepreneurial model” of PBL.    This is a model expressly about developing products and taking them to market:

the focus is on the product, not the project….I would like to call this model product-oriented learning to distinguish it from conventional PBL.

Thus, the entrepreneurial model of PBL or product-oriented learning makes the creation and marketing of products the center of the learning experience.

What follows is a fuller elaboration of the model, with what I would view as some fine “design thinking” elements included, such as problem-finding and solution option generating.    The chapter concludes with an inspiring call to bring the ethos of the maker movement into schooling, which I am all for, and to end the culture of consumption in our school-houses.

But, frankly, call me old fashioned, I am not sold on putting “creating and marketing products” at the center of the learning experience, and I don’t think Zhao has effectively sold this to his readers.   I can see this being an element of some project in some grade levels, and certainly there can be found individual successful examples of this approach, but it is an enormous undertaking to do this, as any business owner can tell you, and it is necessarily going to divert and distract students from other, high value learning experiences I want them to have in school.   Surely there are logistical, legal, bureaucratic obstacles as well.   Even if the practical elements can be easily overcome, it taints schooling and learning in a way I am not comfortable with to shift its emphasis so whole-heartedly to product development and sales.

Like his embrace of Summerhill free schooling in the previous chapter, this chapter’s tangent of a sort into “product-oriented learning” is, I am afraid, weakens what is otherwise a very fine study of “world class learning.”

The concluding chapter, “Create a Wold Class Education” is excellent.  The blue-boxed questions he offers are very valuable, and many schools and districts might do well to use them in strategic planning and curricular design endeavors.   The discussion of technology, short as it is, hits exactly the right note and is very well articulated.    I am eager to learn more and observe the growth of his interesting Oba project, an online learning platform and community for global connections and social networking.

Zhao is an incredibly valuable thought-leader and innovator in the work of reinventing learning for our fast-changing times; his commitment to kids, their creativity and emotional well-being, is inspiring and invigorating.    There is an enormous amount to learn from him, and despite what are some small disappointments in this current book, I am eager to see each next step he takes in his leadership of what I like to think of as “our” movement for 21st century learning.