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Yong Zhao’s NPE Speech, Transcribed– Part IV

May 10, 2015

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, University of Oregon education professor Yong Zhao gave a keynote address at the second annual conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Zhao’s entire 55-minute speech can be found here.

This is a phenomenal speech, filled with insight and worthy of preservation in transcript form. So, I have been transcribing Zhao’s speech and posting it as a series of five segments. (Click here for parts III, and III.)

In this post, I offer Part Four. Here Zhao continues with his Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer analogy of student differences, with special attention to the “foggy Christmas,” a concept he uses to bring this excerpt full circle.

In this part, Zhao also discloses his conditions for accepting the Common Core.


But I have to tell you that the “foggy Christmas” has arrived for everybody. You know, we start thinking about what we have as students. Look at every individual student. Every individual student is unique, unique in many different ways. They’re unique in terms of their cognitive or general abilities. We now accept the idea about multiple intelligences. We accept that.  People are talented in different domains. That’s why I never go [to] try to get a football scholarship for myself. I won’t even try. [laughter] I know what I’m good at, you know? People are differently talented. Talented means they have different possibility or aptitude [to] acquire different things.

People are differently motivated. They are motivated by different kinds of things. For example, some new theory explains some people are motivated by power. J. Edgar Hoover and people I don’t want to name you know, you know, [in this same] movement. Some people are motivated by independence; some, by curiosity. Some, by order: That’s the ones [if] we go home [and] put your book in the wrong place, your spouse will yell at you. [laughter] And, uh, some people [are] motivated by physical activity. But if you do not accept the different kind[s] of motivators, you will be very hard to understand. If you are motivated by one type [and] others motivated by others, it’s very hard for you to explain. For example, I never understand why people go skiing. [laughter] It’s torture. Why would you do that? [laughter] I [am] happy to stay [by a] fireplace, enjoy my warmth and comfort. You go skiing, pay a lot of money and risk getting killed. [laughter] Why would you do that? Now I know: They are just born to be motivated by physical exercises.

Now, everybody has a unique profile of motivators, unique profile of talents. Then you add something else: Education. Nurture. You are born in different environments. Even if you could be talented in music, if you had no access to music, you cannot develop. [36:02] You wouldn’t even know that. I could have become a Justin Bieber [laughter]. But I never had, I never had the, I never had a chance. I couldn’t do it. I never had access to music. So, imagine when you cut music, you might have kind of destroyed, well, Justin Bieber is not a good example, [laughter] but, you might have destroyed somebody. Don’t you know this process?

And then, we have another issue, too. [We all get] good [at] different time[s]. We all know this: If you do not put effort into something, you will never be good at it, even if you are talented, interested, but you have no effort. You cannot be born to be great. It’s a ten thousand hours, five thousand hours, whatever you’ve got to put on. But human life—do you not notice that you don’t have many “ten thousand hors.” If you spend time on this, you won’t spend time on something else. You can’t develop this. Now, you cannot be great; you can be mediocre. So, now, think about this: If you happen, if we happen to spend the ten thousand hours on something that you are good at, something you are interested in, you get great talent. But if I force you to spend time [on] something you have no interest [in], [that] you hate and something you are not good at, you at best become mediocre. Michael Phelps would be a great example. The great swimmer, Michael Phelps? You know that? If you force him to read, or write, and, you know, say, “Before you can swim, you must get your literacy, your reading up there,” what would have happened? He would still be “hooked on phonics” in some basement. [laughter] That’s how it could have happened.

Now what we have to think about, why did we, in [the] education system, what has happened here? And why do we do this model in a traditional way? The model, this traditional model of education is trying to homogenize people because we are preparing people for [a] different society. So, this model, this is something I want to really encourage [you to] think [about], produce[s] better scores, if you are good at this thing. Imagine: Same curriculum, same teaching, you exclude people who are not good at this thing, you have good scores. You have narrowed the variation. But has tremendous [what I] call “side effects.”

When we talk about education, we think most of them are simply innocent. Like, Common Core. People say, “Oh, it’s better math scores, better math standards, English standards. That might even be true. Might even be true. But it consists of two subjects [to] judge everybody, everybody goes through a system, is wrong. That’s why I’ve debated with many people. [applause] Not over the, not over the subject standards themselves, but over the philosophy of two subjects. To me, I’ve [argued this] I am not against standards. I’m not even against the Common Core if they are not “common” or “core.” [laughter] It’s a, if they are not “common” or “core,” I am fine. But to make something “common” or “core,” that’s the problem. It’s called “side effects.”

You know, in medicine, we always talk about side effects. That is, when you gain something, you lose something. You know, when you buy Tylenol—by the way, you should always read those warning labels. [laughter] The warning label says, “Cures runny nose but may cause a bleeding stomach.” [laughter] Right? Did you read those things? You read? In education, in policy and practice, educational research, have you ever seen a warning label accompanied with a book, a program? When vendors come to school to sell you this and they show you all these charts: “Look, we close [the] achievement gap this fast, and we do these things.” All of the early reading programs I’ve seen, they should come with some label like this: “You know, this may increase your testing scores in reading but may make your children hate reading forever.” [applause] And [there is] enough evidence on the global scale of how, when you choose something, you lose something, so when you celebrate this rise in test scores, ask, what did you give up? Did you cut out other curriculum? Did children lose something else?

Here’s an example: I love to show this, this statistic. American students– I don’t have to embarrass you any more– have always scored worse than Asian students. 2003 was no exception (referring to slide on screen); this is TIMSS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. American students, as usual, scored way below Asian students—Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan. But, on the TIMSS, they ask another question called “confidence”: “Do you feel”—basically it says, “I always do well in math.” Strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree. As you can expect, American students [respond], “We may be stupid, but we’re very confident.” [laughter] That, all good. All good. We “out-confident” everybody. We out-confident people. We’re pretty good. We love this stuff. [continued laughter] By the way, this is not only American students. This is ah, ah, actually, it is a global trend. (Cartoon on screen: Picture of a student telling his teacher, “It may be wrong, but it’s how I feel,” in response to writing on board, 7 x 5 = 75.) Cultures that produce high test scores have produced less confident people, students. Less enjoyment. It is not just one time; it’s historical.

This is 2003. In 2011, we have found the same pattern: Look at all the East Asian countries, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan. Shanghai did not participate in TIMSS, but, uh, their scores are much higher than US, England, Australia. It’s basically, I can this is, I really want to call, a “utensil effect”: Use chopsticks and score very high. [laughter] If you use a spoon and a fork, you may not. [laughter] But at the same time, you look at confidence and interest. [42:00] You notice that? (slide on screen showing inverse effect of test scores to confidence level) Now, puzzling. Puzzling. This by the way, is not only on the TIMSS; it’s on the PISA test, as well.

The PISA test has the same thing. For example, Finland. You know, Finnish students lack interest in science. They have high scores. PISA has the same negative correlation of cognitive test scores and non-cognitive variables. And when people look at this data, this is how we explain why we are pursuing the wrong goal. We look at this test data, American politicians and researchers, so-called researchers, I would say, they say, what do, how do you explain this? “Basically, it says American students are too happy for their own good.” [laughter] “They are confident, but they are bad.” So, why are they so bad but they are so confident? “Because they don’t know how bad they are.” Why don’t they know how bad they are? “Because we have lower standards.” That’s the, remember, that’s the logic. “So, I notice we don’t test them enough. We’ve been lying to our students”—Arne Duncan’s line—right? “We’ve been lying.” That’s the argument: “But that’s why we ought to raise standards, we want to test more.”

We really want to tell our kids, “You’re bad. You’re worse. You’re worse than people in your neighborhood school. The other countries, you know, you’re worse than kids in countries that don’t you don’t even know existed.” [laughter] That’s why we are now, it’s very dangerous. I hope we can watch this one: This country, US, trying to, bringing PISA for every state, as PISA has a school program now. This is very scary.

And now, Asian systems do not take this very seriously at all. They look at the factors, they interpret in a different way. They said, “How come our children score so well but have no confidence?” If you haven’t enough of confidence, you cannot be creative. You cannot be entrepreneurial. That’s what they want. All Asia said, “If you are not interested in science, it’s like, less likely for you to become a true scientist. So, that’s what Asian countries’ worry about. That’s why they have this reform; they want to change it.

And this change has become extremely important when the “foggy Christmas” has come. [44:05]

Stay tuned for more about that “foggy Christmas” in the last of my five posts– or feel free to watch Zhao’s entire keynote via the video linked here if you cannot wait for that fog to lift.

foggy christmas



Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has her second book available on pre-order, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, due for publication June 12, 2015.



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