Half a year can be spent practising rote verbal exercises, a mind-numbing method that can kill youngsters' enthusiasm for learning, said a former English teacher from China who's seen it firsthand.
Such a teaching style has evolved to meet institutions' needs for generating high scores in standardized testing, but Yong Zhao said the same harmful effect on Chinese students may be happening in British Columbia.
Zhao is now a top international education consultant based in Oregon who was invited by B.C.'s Education Ministry to spell out his vision for upgrading the provincial school system.
"My extreme advice, we should do away with all of (standardized testing)," Zhao said in an interview after addressing the forum that convened more than 150 educators and interested business and community leaders.
"It's a waste of money, very little value, destroys parents, destroys schools too, and puts students and teachers in a bind for high-stakes testing."
The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child's individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.
"To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics," Zhou told the room. "But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people's interest."
His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province's education minister announced a new education strategy.
Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning.
"We're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water," Fassbender said. "And as Dr. Zhou said, there are great ideas but if we try to go from here to here we're going to scare half the population."
The minister said development of the "K-12 Innovation Strategy" will be ongoing but avoids a top-down approach and instead encourages students to explore what's relevant to their own lives.
A working group will be formed to connect school districts, participating schools and interested organizations such as the B.C. Teachers' Federation and associations representing superintendents, principals and independent schools.
The ministry also released an updated B.C. Education Plan, which better articulates the concept of personalized learning and proposes to further examine a suite of student assessment tools.
Forum participants sat at desks situated in concentric circles while peppering each other and several keynote speakers with questions.
Zhao, now a professor at the University of Oregon who studies global educational policy, told the crowd that the world's established education systems drive creativity down and discriminate against students with diverse abilities.
He said children already have a tremendous capacity to soak up foundational skills — so long as the learning methods are engaging. He suggested teachers should provide less explicit instructions and instead give students broader ownership over their learning, placing more emphasis on developing individually-meaningful skills while making better use of global resources.
Teachers' federation President Jim Iker welcomed Zhou's vision as a "breath of fresh air."
The union has long argued general, cognitive-skills tests don't help students learn or teachers teach.
"Workplaces want young adults who are able to be creative, who are confident, who are self-reliant, who've got social skills," he said. "That's an important piece that's not part of a standardized test."
Grade 11 student Marnie Klassen from Abbotsford, B.C., said she's interested in the concept of personalized learning, but believes the current, test-based system already suits her needs.
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