Book Review: World Class Learners by Yong Zhao


Cover of World Class Learners by Yong Zhao

Subtitled Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners makes a strong case for avoiding standardized learning and embracing a more free-form style of education in America’s classrooms. He’s not the first one to make such a case, but he certainly has his ducks in a row. This is one of the few books I have read recently that was so compellingly argued that I put little sticky notes in it to mark important pages and to remind me to go back and study some of the many excellent references it includes.

This is not a book of solutions, at least not of the kind one can take and apply in accordance with some sort of plan. It is a call to think critically about what education should be and a warning that supporters of the Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind are blind to the reality of what has historically made the education system in the United States the envy of the world.

According to Zhao, those who are leading the headlong rush into standardization and high stakes testing must be oblivious to the ample evidence suggesting they are making a huge mistake. The evidence is overwhelming, but for whatever reason (might it have something to do with the good old American rallying cries of “free enterprise,” “privatization,” and “corporate profit?”) the U.S. seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction from what we  perhaps can call “more enlightened” countries around the world.

Zhao’s analysis using well-researched data on the inverse correlation between entrepreneurship and outstanding results in globally normed tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) is an eye opener and he spends considerable time on it. Countries like China, Singapore, and South Korea that do well in math and science on such tests have a very poor record of innovation and invention.

Of particular interest is a comparison between the direction currently in favor by politicians and legislators (but not necessary educators) in the U.S. and that of the Chinese. China’s system has historically been characterized by exceedingly long hours of study, rote memorization, drill, and the delivery of information by teachers to be received by students. It is odd that the Chinese are coming to the realization that this method is exactly what has driven the creativity and innovative powers out of many generations of young Chinese. As is made amply clear, Steve Jobs could never have made it in China. The Chinese want to change all that and develop a system that is more flexible, and that offers more choice and opportunities for authentic learning, while the United States wants to be more like China, at least in terms of doing well on standardized tests. It’s really quite bizarre and Zhao drives the point home with skill.

Although this is not a step-by-step guide for how to make American education more respectful of the natural creativity and innovative powers of the human mind, it does offer up several interesting examples of schools that have been successful at doing so. Zhao also lays out his vision of how project-based learning is critical if we are to kindle rather than crush the innate curiosity, creativity and problem solving abilities of children. Do not be misled by the subtitle, which seems to imply the book is about how to educate students who have some special knack for creativity and entrepreneurship—it isn’t that at all. Zhao recognizes there is great variability in the talent and interests of people and that a lot more of us could do amazing things if we were given the chance to follow our passions rather than a prescribed national curriculum which is exactly what the Common Core Standards are in everything but name.

If you are already a believer in the Maker Movement, Genius Hour, open-ended investigation and project-based learning (or as Zhao prefers to characterize it, product-based learning) you will be rewarded with plenty of information to support your view. Suggest this book to anyone who is a cheerleader for standardized learning and high-stakes testing. It will have a good chance of, if not downright changing minds, at least opening eyes. We need more of that—soon.