Over the past several years, thousands of educators from China have been visiting kindergarten through community college institutions across America in search of instructional practices that develop the four C’s — communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.


According to China education expert Yong Zhou, chair of Global Education at the University of Oregon, China’s leaders are sending top educators to the U.S. because they desperately want their graduates to be more like ours: “They want to grow entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and create companies like Google, which is tough to do in a strictly standardized environment. “

The irony, as Dr. Zhou has pointed out, is that the Chinese are trying to find the very type of educational practices we have been stifling through implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“What China wants is what America is eager to throw away — an education that respects individual talents, supports divergent thinking, tolerates deviation, and encourages creativity; a system in which the government does not dictate what students learn or how teachers teach; and culture that does not rank or judge the success of a school, a teacher, or a child based on only test scores in a few subjects determined by the government.”

More than 10 years of an overemphasis on skill-based standardized tests in the U.S. has undermined our most important educational innovations — developing creativity and critical thinking. Despite an overall narrowing of the curriculum across the country, there are still teachers to be found who find ways to resist this trend and engage their students in learning that develops proficiency in the four C’s.

Take Clay Elliot, a science teacher at Savanna High School in the Anaheim Union High School District. Clay teaches a MESA class (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), where students design, collaborate and build projects for the real world. One of the projects his students built was a solar powered boat. They raced the real single capacity boat against several schools from three counties — and won.

What’s really significant about Savanna High School’s MESA program is that it reflects a student body that is mostly low-income and Latino, and yet their students defeated student teams from high-income schools throughout Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

In a visit to Savanna High School arranged through a special Cal State Fullerton-China collaboration, about two dozen Chinese educators were impressed with what they saw and found many examples of the four C’s being practiced, including in career technical education health pathways courses designed to prepare students for advanced study in the health fields.

These courses are vertically aligned with programs at Cypress College so students can continue their studies and applied training in, say, nursing without missing a beat.

I had the opportunity to meet the Chinese visitors, mostly principals and a few district-level administrators from Nanjing, a relatively wealthy urban metropolis of 8 million people, and we spoke in depth about the “Smiley Face” productivity curve, a popular topic in China.

This curve, coined by China expert James Fallows, is described below:

“The curve is named for the U-shaped arc of the 1970s-era smiley face icon, and it runs from the beginning to the end of a product’s creation and sale. At the beginning is the company’s brand: HP, Siemens, Dell, Nokia, Apple. Next comes the idea for the product: an iPod, a new computer, a camera phone. After that is high-level industrial design — the conceiving of how the product will look and work. Then the detailed engineering design for how it will be made. Then the necessary components. Then the actual manufacture and assembly. Then the shipping and distribution. Then retail sales. And finally, service contracts and sales of parts and accessories.”

The graph above of the Smiley Curve was created by Taiwanese entrepreneur Stan Shih, founder of Acer computers.

What the smiling curve essentially shows is the success of a product is dependent on the concept, research, branding, marketing and distribution.

Think about the Apple iPhone, designed, engineered and marketed in the U.S. but made in China. The top of the curve requires specialized and highly skilled personnel who are creative, collaborative, communicative and critical thinkers. This is why the four C’s are so essential if America is to retain its perch atop the curve.

People working in these areas are thus highly paid. So are countries more profitable that engage in the activities on the higher side of the smiling curve. So if the Asian countries want a higher economic growth, they need to be on the higher side of the curve.

These skills are the lifeblood of every top-tier economic power. China knows this, and fortunately so does our governor and state superintendent. This is why they are supportive of a 47-state initiative called the Common Core Standards. These new standards are designed to reflect the skills students need for college and careers and require the four C’s to be integrated into instructional practices. They will be assessed in the spring of 2015, and many districts are in the process of training teachers and administrators.

But we must move quickly. It is vitally important that the public become aware of how education is transforming so more students are truly ready for a global economy.

Unfortunately, there are many school leaders who expect their staff to “teach to the test” and emphasize how to find the right bubble-in answer so test scores will rise. Because the new Common Core assessments require higher-order thinking and writing, the practice of teaching test-taking skills and narrowing the curriculum to what’s tested must stop.

Parents and community leaders should hold school administrators accountable for this shift. They need to demand more of the four C’s right now.

As Savanna High School principal Manuel Colon says: “We need to change school culture so that it focuses on quality instruction promoting higher level critical thinking, speaking and writing. I fear that too many schools across our state are not engaging in the hard work needed at every level so change happens and that we have systems in place that hold us accountable. We need to educate our parents, business and community leaders so they understand and collaborate with us to help make 21st century education a reality for every child.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

North County educator and community college trustee Michael Matsuda is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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