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10 Questions with Dr Yong Zhao

March, 2012
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yong-zhaoThe meeting with Dr Yong Zhao was on a rainy night in Shanghai when he delivered a speech to families of Shanghai American School at the Kerry Hotel in Pudong. In the 90 minutes, the author of the popular book Catching Up or Leading The Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, which was published in 2009, Dr Yong Zhao shared his unique views on the strength of American education, the definition of success beyond test scores, personalizing the education experience for students, and the importance of fostering global competence in children.

LittleStar got the chance to talk to Dr. Yong Zhao after his speech…


LittleStar:With so much discussion, what is education about and what do you think is the best form of education?

Dr. Yong Zhao: I think the ideal type of education today is about helping children realize their full potential. It is about creating a diversity of experiences that provide children with the opportunity to explore the world, experiment with their ideas, and develop their strengths. It is about providing social, emotional, and cognitive support to help children become curious, creative, responsible, and ethical individuals with the capacity to live in a rapidly changing world.


LittleStar: Since you have been to so many schools and so many countries, which education system do you think is most ideal for students? Why?

Dr. Yong Zhao: I have not found the most ideal education system yet. Education systems around the world have their strengths and weaknesses but in general the dominant philosophy is surprisingly similar, that is, to instill in children a set of prescribed knowledge and skills in the hope they will become "useful" in the future. But some systems seem to be more relaxed about the process than others. Thus they use multiple criteria to judge the value of talent, knowledge, and skills instead of a single criterion. In these systems, you may see less uniformity in curriculum and hence more creativity. But at the same time, they may not have the same high-level academic performance in terms of test scores.


LittleStar: How about your own education? Can you compare the Chinese and US education based on your own education experience and that of your son? 

Dr. Yong Zhao: I grew up in China and also taught in China. My own children grew up in the United States. While these personal experiences may provide some basis for comparing the two systems, they are not sufficient. A comprehensive comparison requires a lot more systematic research.


LittleStar: There are some interesting discussions about test scores. Test scores are perhaps too narrow to define a student’s performance; and it looks like students with high scores feel less confident. But testing is an important way to show the students’ learning abilities and to evaluate the quality of teaching. Many parents still look seriously at the scores when they choose a school. What do you think is the right attitude towards test scores? 

Dr. Yong Zhao: Test scores may indicate some aspects of quality of education of a school or teacher, but they certainly do not reflect the overall education experiences a child has in a given school or classroom. More importantly, test scores may not even measure the most important aspect of education.  


LittleStar: You talk about Global Competence in your book. What does global competence include and do you think international schools are best prepared students to provide it?

Dr. Yong Zhao: In a nutshell, global competence means the attitude, perspective, and ability needed to live in the globalized world. It is about understanding the interconnectedness and interdependence of human societies. It is about tolerating cultural diversities and differences. It is about being able to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. And it is about being mindful about ourselves not only as members of local communities but also as citizens of the world. I think international schools are in a perfect position to help cultivate global competence because of their diverse student population, faculty composition, and their locations.


LittleStar: Do you think international schools are leading the way for the future of education as they feature learning about diverse cultures, languages and international collaboration between schools?

Dr. Yong Zhao: Not necessarily. Many international schools have yet to take advantage of their unique advantages. They do not necessarily actively explore the cultural diversity in their schools and do not interact enough with the local culture and people.


LittleStar: One word you emphasized in your speech is PASSION. Why do you think most students are losing their passion? What should a school do about it?

Dr. Yong Zhao: Passion is lost when children are forced to do what others want them to do, so learning becomes a job. Passion is also lost when children see no connection between their interests and what they are asked to do in school. To help retain passion and curiosity, schools should create opportunities for children to express themselves, to support the pursuit of their interests, and to respect their autonomy. 


LittleStar: Can you comment on the recent LINSANITY? Jeremy Lin, an American Taiwanese and a Harvard student, became a rising NBA star in New York Knicks overnight. Is that a good example of being passionate or is that the result of education success? What can a school do to ensure different talents are nurtured?

Dr. Yong Zhao: I think it is a pretty good example. In essence, it shows that schools and families should respect children’s interests and at least tolerate different talents, if not actively promote them. 


LittleStar: If Steven Jobs was born and educated in China, he might not be so successful. Do you think it is mainly because of the education system of China or Asian culture? Does that mean expat families should be more careful when thinking about sending their children to a local Chinese school?

Dr. Yong Zhao: Yes, because the Asian culture values harmony and conformity. Jobs others like him are about innovation, creativity, deviation, disruption, and challenging the status quo.


LittleStar: You concluded by saying that good parenting is to support children and not to interfere with their dreams. Can you give some concrete ideas on what parents should do?

Dr. Yong Zhao: Well, I think a parent should at first recognize that they cannot program their children to success, but they can support and guide them. So the most important thing for them to do is to create opportunities and provide resources for children to try out their dreams, which by the way, can change over time. Another thing for parents to do is to recognize their children as individuals and respect them as such. They are not blank slates waiting to be inscribed or slaves waiting to be commanded to do anything. So give them space and acknowledge their rights.


For those interested in finding more about Dr. Yong Zhao and his book, please visit: www.zhaolearning.com

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