Spyros Papaspyropoulos/Flickr
Spyros Papaspyropoulos/Flickr

This is the first of a two-part conversation with Yong Zhao about standards, testing and other core elements of the modern system of education, and the assumptions that may be standing in the way of meeting the real learning needs of all children. He is a professor in the college of education at the University of Oregon and author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World and World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.

Education is not “omnipotent,” says Yong Zhao, education professor at the University of Oregon, but it can change the trajectory of people’s lives. Most recent education policies, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core, have sought to better realize this potential by aiming for parity in outcomes, as indicated by standardized test scores. Proponents, including many civil rights groups, see such initiatives as a way to shine a light on inequality in education and pressure schools to help disadvantaged students graduate with the same knowledge and skills as their more advantaged peers, with the goal of better preparing them for colleges and careers.

Zhao says he embraces the underlying goal—to even the playing field for all children—but notes that inequities have been apparent for a long time. Furthermore, he believes that serving the best interest of all students requires a very different approach that starts with a paradigm shift in how we view education. Attempts to standardize individual student outcomes are an unhelpful, if not downright harmful, way to promote the development of human beings, he says. Instead, “we need to start with the individual child, instead of what others think [that child] should become.”

After researching different educational approaches over the years (his findings are summarized in several books) Zhao has concluded that the most fruitful form of education—and the one with the best chance of empowering children to overcome poverty and other disadvantages—offers each child the opportunity to pursue his or her own goals, in a stimulating and supportive environment. Unfortunately, low-income students are least likely to have any of these elements in their schools. It’s this “opportunity gap,” rather than any “achievement gap,” that characterizes unequal education and is fully within the power of schools (and their funders) to remedy, Zhao says.

In the alternate vision, individual differences are not flaws to be fixed; the emphasis instead is on helping all students to identify and develop their areas of interest, and to build on their strengths. Standards, curricula and tests would play a very minor role, as tools to be deployed only when they can help a particular student to progress. Learning would be organized around individuals, instead of classes and grades. And rather than looking to schools and teachers to manage students’ learning, we should “give children autonomy, trust that they want to learn, and let them become owners of their learning enterprise.”

This also means redefining excellence to focus on how well educators support individual pursuits. “Look at what children are interested in or can do, and plan education with that in mind, rather than trying to fix them,” Zhao writes in his book, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” “Expect everyone to be great, and start educating from that angle, and things can be very different.”

Whose Standards, and to What End?

Academic standards—whether part of Common Core or not—are subjective, Zhao says, and don’t account for the fact that children naturally develop at different rates, or that learning is more haphazard than linear. He also doesn’t buy the argument that they benefit disadvantaged children by setting a high bar. “Being able to pass a prescribed test is not a high expectation,” Zhao says. “To become exceptional in an area that you want to pursue—that is a high expectation, and it is about having dreams. By imposing standards, we are not elevating expectations, but perhaps driving down expectations, especially for poor communities. … We are depriving them of the chance to dream.”

Even worse, standards can “cause psychological damage to those not judged as good,” Zhao says. This can set off a vicious cycle, creating feelings of low self-efficacy and disengagement that undermine further learning, because “few people want to stick to a place where they are constantly told that they are not good.” A system based on punitive consequences for not meeting expectations can also backfire: If it gets children decoding letters or adding numbers sooner rather than later, but diminishes their interest in reading and leads them to hate math, Zhao asks, “is it worth it?”

Last but not least, “standards describe the past, not the future,” and reflect the notion that children must “fit into the world as it is,” he says. “We forget that our children are the creators and owners of the future.”

That said, certain types of standards (used with caveats) can be helpful in two ways, Zhao says. They can guide learners, by suggesting a sequence to follow, and describing the knowledge and skills needed in a given field. Such information is dynamic, subjective and personal—those interested in becoming mathematicians might benefit from different math standards than their otherwise inclined peers, for instance. Each individual should therefore be free to decide which standard he or she wants to pursue, whether that means using an established math program such as Singapore math, or the Common Core standards, or developing their own set of standards, Zhao says.

The other useful application of standards is broader, but it is for schools rather than learners, Zhao says: Standards can be developed to define the educational opportunities schools should provide to all students.

Does a Mandated Curriculum Help or Hinder Learning?

Standards (and their associated tests) often drive the design of a curriculum. Placing a lot of weight on test scores in a few subjects has led to “curriculum narrowing,” especially in schools that are under pressure to boost their aggregate scores or else lose funding or face closure. These are usually schools serving low-income students, meaning that “disadvantaged children experience a much less rich education than their advantaged counterparts,” Zhao says, and are therefore less likely to feel a connection to what they’re learning or to view it as relevant to their lives.

But there’s an even deeper problem, he adds: Any set curriculum is counterproductive and also discriminatory, along a dimension that affects people of all incomes and races.

It is counterproductive because the notion that following a set curriculum will make students “college and career ready” is misguided, he says. Not only is college acceptance “an artificial goal, as if life ends at college,” but there are many types of colleges and majors, requiring different sets of knowledge and skills. That is even more true of careers, especially in a rapidly changing world in which many professions will soon become obsolete and others have yet to be invented. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict which course of study will give one a better chance of employment,” Zhao says. “If you want to be ready for a career, you’d better be the one to create that career yourself.” The best preparation for that, he adds, is for students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and chart their own educational paths.

The second issue is that schools that are only oriented toward strengthening students in certain academic areas are imposing subjective and narrow definitions of success on all students and effectively discriminating against those whose interests and strengths lie in other areas, such as music, art, sports and crafts, Zhao says.

Even the basics—the knowledge that everyone needs in order to function in our society—don’t justify a mandated curriculum, he contends. A broad, flexible curriculum that supports children’s individual interests and strengths is more likely to engage them and promote learning, so that truly essential knowledge becomes “difficult to escape—when individuals want to pursue anything, they must learn the basics, so the basics are sought after, instead of imposed.”

A Different Mindset

What all this adds up to is a need to “re-imagine education,” Zhao says. His ideal educational environment (detailed here) would combine the essential elements of democratic schools and certain types of project-based learning programs. This can be accomplished even on modest budgets, he notes; what matters more is mindset.

He recommends questioning all basic assumptions. For example: “Is the teacher the only instructor, or can students help? How about using resources beyond the school, like the community or parents?” (A recent article shows how one school is leveraging such resources.) Technology can also expand access to resources within the wider community.

Another thing to bear in mind, Zhao says, is that schools that provide a learning environment that supports individual needs benefit greatly from harnessing their students’ intrinsic motivation, because they don’t have to work hard to try to overcome resistance to learning. All human beings are born with the capacity and desire to learn, he says, but their environment can either suppress or encourage that drive. “If people are driven by their own goals, that are meaningful to them, and feel a sense of accomplishment and self efficacy, then they really want to learn.”

The second part of this conversation with Yong Zhao about standards is available here.


  • Bruce Smith

    Great post, Luba! I was amazed to see how much of what Zhao says is totally compatible with what we believe at Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley (http://alpinevalleyschool.com). Relying on autonomy and trust, we represent just the sort of “stimulating and supportive environment” that “offers each child the opportunity to pursue his or her own goals.” My 18 years at Sudbury schools (plus five years of conventional teaching before that) support Zhao’s observations on the power of intrinsic motivation and the degree to which young people will rise to high expectations in the areas of freedom, trust, and responsibility. Zhao is quite right — we need a paradigm shift that starts with the individual child — and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say in Part Two.

  • Keri Smith

    While many of the central city public schools have failed students and a “one size fits all approach” to education often does not promote learning, I would be interested in knowing how offering a child to pursue his or her own goals would work. There are certain core abilities (reading, writing, comprehension, math) that are vital to a student’s progress regardless of the profession they pursue.

    How would “giving childrenautonomy, trust they want to learn, and letting them become owners of their learning enterprise” work? How can we even trust that a child has the drive or knowledge to learn if they do not even have the “common core” abilities? (For example: Would any of us have learned
    multiplication/division had our parents or teachers not “kept after us”?) There certainly has to be some accountability in the learning process.

    In our current “technology age”, students rely heavily on their “smartphones”, “computers”, etc. to do the work for them, which (in my opinion)
    has been detrimental to their educational progress (both spelling and comprehension skills have diminished).

    • The point Zhao is trying to make is that all children are born with a drive to learn (as is evident with babies and toddlers), but they are driven to learn what they find useful and meaningful to them as individuals.

      So to use your example, each child would be motivated to learn multiplication or division when/if that child has been exposed to it AND sees it as something that would benefit him/her (either for some practical purpose or because s/he finds it intrinsically interesting). Zhao notes that the collateral damage of being
      forced to learn something outweighs any benefits that might accrue from that knowledge (if it even sticks), and that, on balance, there is far more value to be derived from allowing students to be in charge of their own learning, because of the traits (autonomy, responsibility, etc.) this promotes.

      (The second part of the interview will cover accountability and testing, by the way.)

      • Keri Smith

        I appreciate he feedback and do believe there should be alternate
        ways to promote effective learning. I look forward to reading the second part of the interview regarding accountability and testing.

        While I do believe it is important for individuals to pursue
        their interests, by the same token there is a larger picture / sense of
        community that needs to be instilled as well. For instance, you can’t show up at your employer each day and “pick and choose” the tasks you wish to complete, or you won’t have a job for long. I will read more on this, as I look for ways to reach students in the adult literacy program for which I volunteer.

        I think you need to meet students somewhere in between. You need to show the relevance to why they are learning something. However, my assessment of this learning style is that we will raise a generation of kids that are “brats”, refuse to do anything other than what they want to, and are not team players.

        My comments may be too extreme, and I admittedly don’t know
        all aspects of the “learning style being presented here – but I am always looking for new ways to reach the adult students I serve. The central city schools need to change, I will agree with that. Empowering students to further their education benefits everyone.

        • Bruce Smith

          Keri, I appreciate your wanting to learn more about how this works. It really is a paradigm shift, which means it can be challenging to grasp and communicate, especially if you haven’t experienced it yourself. From a Sudbury perspective, I can say that we regard school as a scaled-down version of the larger world. Whatever is basic to success in that world will be developed in the school, because kids will run into situations where things like literacy, time management, self-discipline, persistence, and communication, interpersonal, and decision-making and problem-solving skills. Basically, they take the incredible drive to explore, learn, and master things that they’re born with and develop that as they grow up.

          And they do grow up with a strong sense of community. Sudbury schools are completely democratic, with students actively participating in everything from making and enforcing the rules to budgeting and personnel. Our schools are more like families than institutions, as I recently blogged (http://www.alpinevalleyschool.com/2015/02/a-family-of-apprentices/). You might also be interested in an interview I did for Liberating Kids on the subject of learning in community (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/liberatingkids/2012/05/16/sudbury-the-wonders-of-authentic-learning-in-community).

          More generally, you might find the FAQ section of Alternatives To School helpful:
          http://alternativestoschool.com/faqs/. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

          • Bruce Smith

            I wanted also to address the points about picking and choosing tasks, and learning to do things other than just what you want. What I’ve seen over the years is that when you let people identify their passions, and when they’re equal members of the school community, they naturally bump up against the fact that getting what they want involves plenty of things they’d prefer not to do. That could be learning math in order to pursue an interest in astronomy, learning to write coherently in order to communicate effectively, or serving on the Judicial Committee, which handles rule violations. (If you’re curious, I blogged about this idea of “unsought learning” for my school: http://www.alpinevalleyschool.com/2014/12/unsought-learning/).

            Thanks to both the amount of play and the democratic structure of Sudbury schools, students appreciate that every situation has rules. Think about it: games themselves involve voluntarily limiting one’s freedom and/or taking on challenges to pursue an objective agreed upon by the players. If you don’t like the game, you can either try to change the rules or quit and find a new game. When the game is one you’ve chosen, then even what other people would find obnoxious restrictions or burdens may just contribute to an enjoyable sense of challenge. And I have found free play and conversation — the staples of Sudbury schools — to be deeply collaborative enterprises.

            It’s hard to recognize what self-directed learners are like, since conventional education often channels, suppresses, and manages the innate curiosity out of kids. What I’ve seen at Alpine Valley School, in contrast, is hundreds of young people blurring the lines between work and play, throwing themselves into things that are difficult because they haven’t lost their love of learning. For these people, the unfamiliar is a novel, welcome challenge, a puzzle to be solved. Kids don’t need to be forced or enticed to learn: their natural motivation is so powerful all we really need to do is be there to support it as needed.

    • Geri Caruso

      I think we have to “remember”… a hated word at the moment… the accomplishments of the past and look at the education that allowed those accomplishments. From this viewpoint, the current number of educational fads is astronomical, “let’s let the kids determine what they need to know” is one of them… we need to step up to the plate and act like adults…. we are supposed to know what kids need to learn.
      I wouldn’t be to quick to think that kids are learning so much from their smart phones or $700 iPads or whatever…. what I see is that while there is undoubtedly much that can be learned… kids are, instead, struggling with their parents about how much time they spend glued to those screens, playing really stupid, or destructive, games and becoming the ultimate thoughtless consumers.
      Failing schools have much more to do with poverty and terrible parenting than they do with who sets the curriculum. We all know this and it has been ever thus… we just can’t bear to admit it and do something about it. There hasn’t been any real help in this direction since Head Start and the other Great Society programs. We are now trying to turn schools into some kind of crazy business venture. Maybe we really don’t know how to fix the real issues and we are just flailing around hoping we hit on a solution.
      Americans are so in love with technology we see it as some kind of solution and not the giant smoke screen it is.

      • Sheila C.

        Sadly, the U.S. had a chance to go with what was proven to work…but they chose something else…and in doing so they have let down countless children.
        Prologue to
        Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System


        Chapter 5 | Contents & Forward |
        For Readers Not Familiar With Project Follow Through |

        I put Chapter 5 of Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System online for two reasons:

        It provides indisputable evidence that DI outperformed all
        other 21 models of instructing at-risk children in Project Follow
        Through; and

        It might spark some interest in DI outside the DI community by
        suggesting that we know something about teaching kids effectively and
        that we don’t destroy kids or their teachers.

        A synopsis of the Follow Through evaluation is that the Feds
        recognized DI as the winning model, but didn’t disseminate information
        about DI because it was the only winning model. So even though
        DI showed that it could greatly accelerate the performance of at-risk
        students, and even though the evaluation cost $30 million, the Feds lied
        about Follow Through and simply asserted that Follow Through failed
        (which they interpreted to mean that all the models failed).

        Millions of needy kids have been robbed of career ladders by the
        Feds’ decisions. Millions of teachers have been professionally insulted
        because information about DI practices never reached them or the
        unfortunate educators who trained them.

        But it happened, and this chapter presents letters from the people
        who made the decisions, showing that they not only understood that DI
        was the undisputed winner in reading, math, language, spelling,
        self-images, and measures of self-reliance, but used these facts as
        their justification for not acknowledging DI. Sound insane? Read the

        As a bonus, we’ve included a snippet from Chapter 6. It shows that
        the lying and deception was not a momentary lapse of the Feds, but a
        deliberate part of a plan to perpetuate a very sick system, which
        prevails in full regalia today.


  • Christine Lowry

    This is exactly the philosophy and “method” that has been found in high quality Montessori schools for over 100 years, around the world, and with a wide diversity of children.

  • Andrew Shortell

    There is so much opportunity to learn from crowd sourcing / MOOCs and such like nowadays
    Young people learn how to access learning at the point of need to know using their devices. They are moving away from being vessels to be filled with useless content to discerning users of content that is relevant to their “now”.
    Many young people have no idea of how to do long division (which inhibits their ability to learn algebraic long division) but many believe “why bark when you have a dog” (calculator). Very few young people choose not to carry a portable computer (smartphone etc) and so why not use it?
    I liked this article an look forward to part two

  • KarenG

    I couldn’t agree more with the power of intrinsic motivation and the worthiness of seeking it for all students. At the same time, I find many assertions in this post troublesome. To begin, standards are about *minimum* benchmarks for all students, *not* the ultimate outcomes. I suspect that any U.S. education policy leader would consider it absurd to aim for a common “ceiling.” Also, a minimum floor for all is only one part of the two-part strategy from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), issued at the time of their recommendation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two strategic parts documented (www.ccsso.org) are to provide for: (1) what *every* child should know (measured by CCSS); & (2) what *each* child should know (personalized). The latter part is all about intrinsic motivators, and unfortunately got lost within the strategy’s implementation. Among the multiple barriers interfering with the visibility and implementation of the personalized part of the strategy: First, instruments for personalized have lagged, and the instruments are plural (not one obvious instrument like the CCSS for the first part of strategy). Second, personalized wasn’t visibly measured. Third, the overall status quo of learning outcomes was so low that the CCSS “minimum” for all became ambitious and all-consuming. The stretch of realizing the new minimum shouldn’t have been a surprise, and it’s unfortunate that a decent two-part strategy has been so fumbled.

  • Sheila C.

    It is amazing what children can learn…if given proper instruction. Ex: See this 1966 video of
    Kindergarteners Showing Off

    Their Math Skillshttp://zigsite.com/video/zig_math_video.html

  • Sheila C.

    My last post had a type on the link…In this post the link should be fixed. It is amazing what children can learn…if given proper instruction. Ex: See this 1966 video of
    Kindergarteners Showing Off Their Math Skills

  • Kaye

    At the suggestion of an educational consultant, Jeffrey Freed, we moved our child to Alpine Valley School, a Sudbury School in Colorado, after suffering through conventional schooling that left my son feeling depressed, sick and unmotivated. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how well this would turn out. It was very scary to trust this model of freedom. He was completely unleashed to self-educate in whatever manner he felt was best for him within this democratic mixed-age community. That was a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. His skills, abilities and most of all passion for learning have far surpassed what my traditional education offered. Even though he is fairly introverted, he is an important participant in the community, taking on roles like School Meeting Chair, Judicial Clerk, Chore Checker and starting a small retail corporate business servicing school members. He has also taught students how to write computer code, so let’s add “teacher” to the list. By the way, all the students and staff are teachers in one way or another. I assure you he has done things he did not want to do. From hearing Alumni experiences, graduates from this type of school rather than being spoiled brats, turn out to be the employees their bosses soon find indispensable. Why? Because they take initiative and solve problems. They’ve had years of experience in figuring out how to learn about a myriad of things and have encountered plenty of obstacles along the way. They do not have to have their hands held every step of the way.

  • Jenn Drake

    I find Zhao’s re-imagining of education refreshing, and
    just what we need. To study the life of the American school system is to realize
    that the vision and methods for implementation have changed little over the
    last 150 years. We keep on doing the same things, while refreshing the names
    and political angles. As the world becomes more global, and competition drives
    us to fear for our children’s future place in the world, we just keep pushing
    for more rigorous standards. But Zhao asks a great question – Whose standards
    anyway? Do we really want our children growing up always trying to live up to someone
    else’s standards? What message are we sending them with that attitude? That
    their interests don’t matter? That what they want to learn isn’t important?
    Isn’t it time to trust, as Zhao suggests, all children’s innate eagerness to

    In some of the comments below, readers question what might
    happen if children were given more freedom to choose their own paths as
    learners. It could well be argued that kids wouldn’t brush their teeth enough
    if we didn’t set that standard for them. What if they knew about the
    effects of not doing so? And figured it out for themselves that it’s
    important? Or dealt with the consequences? I’m not saying let them eat pizza
    every night, or saying that learning basic reading isn’t necessary. Families
    have standards, too, and part of raising kids is living the way you think is
    right. Zhao has a thoughtful response to this, offering that “when
    individuals want to pursue anything, they must learn the basics, so the basics
    are sought after, instead of imposed.” As a parent of a precocious three-year-old,
    and an elementary school teacher, I see this in action every day. Kids learn to
    read because they want to find out about something. They learn to use
    multiplication because solving problems in a story context is exciting. It is a
    reward in itself and supports the growth of intrinsic motivation. This seems a
    worthy goal.

    Shifting mindset requires that we not only let go of the
    standards culture, but also change the outcome. Do we want children to meet our
    imposed, subjective standards and pass the test? Is that the end goal? When
    children reach this goal, are they really prepared for life and career? Or
    is the goal itself the process of learning? Of figuring things out? If we want
    kids to be always searching for new knowledge and skills, always primed for
    learning, we need to show them that we care about their efforts, and that we
    don’t care so much about the outcome (see Carol Dweck’s Mindset). That can seem
    a scary prospect to parents and educators. But Zhao’s prediction that many careers
    will be obsolete by the time our children enter the workforce, coupled
    with the belief that many fields are yet to be invented is reassuring. If I can
    be certain that there’s an unknown future ahead, I get motivated to change the
    current status of our educational system to better encourage my child and my
    students to create their own futures that revolve around their unique passions
    and skill sets.

  • DavidShellenberger

    The real need is to free the education market. As long as the government operates schools and regulates education, the potential for education will be stifled.

    • Adam Heenan

      Evidence has shown time and again that “free markets” in education lead to discriminatory policies against children and school workers when corners are cut to increase profits.

  • James Thompson

    I think education is a basic right of every kid in the world as it sets a core foundation and help him develop his personality in an excellent manner. In today’s modern era it is even more necessary to educate the younger generation in order to open up their minds and broaden their horizons for a successful life. The promise of education must be fulfilled by making it a compulsory for everyone with free, cost effective and accessible education. Thanks for sharing this valuable post to readers.

  • Kanai

    Policies like No Child Left Behind have an extremely idealistic approach towards the future. Those with learning impairment or any kind of disability have to struggle to keep up with the goals set for the betterment of the generation. NCLB makes a great attempt to equalise education, but where does it stand on equity? I don’t believe that it makes sure to understand each child’s struggle and bring them up to a point where everyone’s education can be standardised. Zhao’s attempt to do that is remarkable. I support his idea of designing separate curriculum based on every child’s ability to grow and learn, rather than making it a struggle hat becomes insufferable for them. Angela Duckworth introduced us to the measure called Grit that measures a child’s potential based on their perseverance. This measure helps us reach Zhao’s ideal approach of first measuring a child’s ability and then designing a curriculum that not only challenges them but is an aim that is achievable. That is how an educator is going to be able to instil the love for knowledge in a student’s mind.


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is www.LubaVangelova.com. She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor