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Tofu is not Cheese: Reimagine Education without Schools During Covid19 (1)

7 April 2020 19,693 8 Comments

What to Teach: Reimagine Curriculum


“Tofu is not cheese” is what I said to a group of educators of ESF Quarry Bay Primary School (QBS), a school in Hong Kong that is determined to turn the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity for reimagining education. Tofu is not cheese so we should not expect it to smell or taste like cheese nor should we need to pretend it is or make it taste and smell like cheese. The message I was trying to convey is that we should accept the fact that schools are closed and we don’t need to pretend we can make online education the same as face-to-face schools. Instead, we should make the best out of the new situation. In my last blog post, I expanded the idea: Online education cannot replace all functions schools play in our society but it can do a lot more than being a lesser version of face-to-face schooling.

During the last few weeks, I have engaged in conversations with educators and education policy makers in many different countries around the world. I have been deeply touched by the universal commitment and dedication to giving our children the best education experience possible during the pandemic. I have been equally inspired and encouraged by the actions of many individuals and organizations to rethink what education can be and should be in the future.

Not to return to the same education after we return to the same school seems to be a widely shared desire among the innovative. But unfortunately the dominant desire outside the small group of innovative educators is to return to the same school and the same education. The majority of governments and education leaders are managing the crisis instead of taking advantage of the opportunities within the crisis. I plan to write a series of blog posts to discuss the opportunities and suggest some possibilities for taking advantage of the opportunities. I start with rethinking the curriculum, the what of education.

Stop and Rethink What’s Worth Teaching and Learning

We have a rare opportunity to examine what we have always been teaching (or trying to) for a number of reasons. First, Covid19 has forced the cancellation of many high stakes examinations students have been subject to, at least temporarily removing the pressure to teach to the test. Second, university admissions will have to rely on other evidence other than test scores and many universities have announced their decision not to use standardized test scores for making admission decisions. This may be temporary for some, but could be permanent for others as Covid19 accelerates the rate of universities dropping requirements of test scores. Third, governments and accrediting bodies cannot reasonably expect schools to comply with their prescribed curriculum during the crisis. Fourth, online education is not conducive to deliver high quality instruction of some traditionally valued subjects. Fifth, it is unethical and unjust to hold students accountable for learning the same things at the same rate and assessed by the same exams because their learning environments are so unequal as a result of their home background. Sixth, during this crisis, parents and the public are more concerned about the physical safety as well as social and emotional wellbeing than academic content, so should educators.

It is thus possible and necessary for policy makers, school leaders, teachers, and parents to seriously rethink: do we need to simulate school and teach everything that is supposed to be taught in school? Is it reasonable to demand that each and every student, despite his/her individual circumstances, learn the same thing at the same time as before? Is it in the best interest of students and teachers to require them to follow the same curriculum as if they were still in school?

“No” is my suggested answer.

New Possibilities: Global and Digital Competencies

This is, however, a great opportunity to teach something different, something that we wish we could have taught but never had the space and time in the curriculum to teach. Global and digital competencies are two examples.

Global and digital competencies have long been advocated as important capabilities for the 21st Century. I made an argument for the emergence of two new worlds human beings would live in–the global world and the virtual (digital) world—in addition to the local and physical one, in my 2009 book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. I believe the two worlds have become a reality in terms of economic activities, political influences, social life and friendship, as well as education. The ability to live successfully in these two worlds is as important as ever before, particularly in light of the changes Covid-19 has brought about to the world. But schools have rarely seriously devoted much effort to these two competencies, despite the wide acceptance of their importance in theory.

My Definition of Global Competency

When I went to back to my writing about global competency, I was surprised that I wrote these words in 2009 in my article published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine:

As I write these words, the world is battling an unprecedented economic crisis and the potentially deadly H1N1 virus. Both battles serve as a jolting reminder that the human race has entered a new era in which geographical and political boundaries no longer serve to isolate its six billion members scattered around the globe.

There are many different definitions of global competency. My definition focuses on the nature of interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity in the global world. Thus my definition emphasize the ability and knowledge required to understand global interdependence, global economics, global problems, and global conflicts as well as the desire and ability to take actions to bring positive changes to the world for all human beings to live in peace and share prosperity.

Increasing Importance of Global Competence

Global competency has gained more urgency amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent years have seen the rise of xenophobia, racism, nationalism, and isolationism in the world. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. The interconnected and interdependent human society faces the danger of increasing conflicts and violence, social instability, probability of an economic downturn, erosion of trust, damage to the common good such as our shared environment, and inequality and injustice. While we can blame the stupidity, ignorance, evil spirit, and greed of some politicians and big corporates for all these problems that threaten human future, it is education that can hopefully lead to positive changes. I hope that through education, today’s students, who are tomorrow’s political and business leaders, social activists, and citizens, will have a better understanding of human interconnectedness and interdependency so that they will be smart enough not to engage in shortsighted actions that are disastrous in the long term.

A Rare Opportunity to Teach Global Competence

In the past few years, interest in global competency in education dwindled as global politics became more nationalistic and protectionist. Now is the time to make development of global competence a central aspect of education not only because it has become more urgent and important but also because the pandemic has created a perfect context for doing so. First, the pandemic provides a universally applicable, extremely rich, and personally relevant context and topic to examine human interconnectedness and interdependency. Second, the reality that students are isolated at home (so they desire social connections) and need to learn online makes learning programs about global competency very attractive and feasible. Third, the format of online learning is much more conducive to creating authentic learning experiences through collaborative learning with peer learners around the globe than traditional academic learning.

Digital Competence: Learn to Live, Learn, and Work in the Virtual World

Digital Competence is much more than the ability to use information technology, which children can and do learn on their own. It is a whole set of knowledge, skills, socio-emotional capabilities, and wisdom necessary for living, learning, and working in the virtual world. This is because, as I wrote more than ten years ago in my book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization:

…the virtual world is as real as the physical world, psychologically, economically, politically, and socially. What happens in the virtual world has a significant effect on the physical world. It is not an overstatement to say that many of us now live in both the physical and the virtual world. It would be a mistake to think virtual world is unreal or imaginary. (p. 128).

I compared the virtual world to a foreign culture. If one wishes to live successfully in a foreign culture, one needs to have the relevant capabilities. But schools, although charged with the responsibility for preparing children to be digitally competent, have by and large not been able to devote much effort to preparing children to live, learn, work, and socialize in the virtual world because of the demand and pressure of the traditional curriculum, which focuses too much on academic subjects. Schools do offer digital literacy or technology courses, but quite often the time devoted to these courses is quite limited. Instead of teaching students to live well in the virtual world, schools and parents often resort to banning the use of digital devices because of the wide spread concern that children are incapable of using the devices responsibly and safely. But banning devices is only counterproductive and moving education online makes banning impossible.

This is a great opportunity to help children enter the virtual world with competence and wisdom. When schools are forced to offer education online, students must use technology. They are forced to learn in the virtual world all the time. To help them become productive learners and responsible citizens in the virtual world, schools should intentionally consider how to make good use of this opportunity to teach digital competence.






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  • Tamo Chattopadhay said:

    Prof. Zhao, thanks for this – could not agree more, this is too big a crisis to waste!

  • Greg Whitby said:

    Well said, Yong. Everything points to the need to embrace new ways of schooling instead of trying to “pimp up”an antiquated model

  • The Trojan Horse – Pocket Quintilian said:

    […] its obligatory implementation so far has been anything other than a stressful muddle. And now, the icing has been put on the cake by one of the high priests of the progressivists, the egregious Professor Yong Zhao (you remember, […]

  • Bianca Koster said:

    Well spoken, Yong!
    It’s my sincere personal belief that the whole emphasise on testing is going to end some how thanks to the Covid-19 situation. Being a passionate PYP educator for over 10 years it has always scattered my heart to know that the curiosity and joy the young kids are having within the PYP is broken down by the time they reach the end of MYP, because ‘otherwise they will not be ready for DP/University/college entries). Take a look at the e.g. Finland’s education to find out it’s all possible!
    Let’s hope that SOFT SKILLS take over of the HARD SKILLS and that Covid-19 will have an impact on decision making related to the role of assessment in any program at any level!


  • Yong Zhao and the DHMO fallacy – Filling the pail said:

    […] has written two blog posts on the idea that, ‘Tofu is not cheese’ (here and here). Taking a glass-half-full perspective, his central argument is that we should embrace the […]

  • Chester Draws said:

    Let’s hope that SOFT SKILLS take over of the HARD SKILLS.

    Said no-one ever about their dentist, doctor, builder, accountant, lawyer or, for that matter, teacher.

    The world is run by people with hard skills. Those people currently scrambling to find a vaccine for CV are our best hope. And they have the hardest of hard skills.

    Fluffy thinking about getting rid of subjects and tests will lead to a world where everyone is good at expressing themselves, but poor at actually doing anything useful.

  • Matt said:

    “I compared the virtual world to a foreign culture. If one wishes to live successfully in a foreign culture, one needs to have the relevant capabilities. But schools, although charged with the responsibility for preparing children to be digitally competent, have by and large not been able to devote much effort to preparing children to live, learn, work, and socialize in the virtual world because of the demand and pressure of the traditional curriculum, which focuses too much on academic subjects.”

    *This got me thinking that in some ways students have been dropped into distant countries, not knowing the language or way of life. Yet, expected to thrive. Or at least be ready for the next test. How great it would be to wash away the fossilized structures and results-driven pressures.

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