You were born in China’s Sichuan Province and arrived in the US as a visiting scholar in 1992. Can you tell me a little about where you grew up?

I would tell people that it is perhaps the most extraordinarily ordinary village. There were no famous people, no famous rivers or mountains. There was poverty. In the 1960s people were starving in my village, there was no food. I grew up with three sisters, [and] somehow my father managed to feed us, but people were dying. It was really hard. The school I attended was a couple of miles away, so every day I would walk to another village. It was a village school, it was one teacher who taught all subjects and all the aged kids, [and] it was just one room.

What kind of student were you?

I was actually a good student, because I was so bad at farming. But at the same time, in the village it wasn’t like a formal education, I just happened to be interested in reading and this place was more a sanctuary, giving me a sense of value. My teacher liked me, so I was a good student.

So your father sent you to school because you were bad at farming?

Yes, and that’s the thing about learning, if you were good at something at that time, you would do it, of course ... My father did not think school would get me out of the village, that was not his thinking. That’s the cultural revolution, there was no pathway to college, it was just ‘go do something else’, it really was like that.

What made you decide to pursue a career in education?

One thing with people like us, underprivileged people, we never had the privilege to choose. I think many people, when they work in America, they say ‘oh, I choose this’ ... we didn’t choose ... I was lucky, because in high school, my maths was not good, so I majored in English. My English wasn’t good because I started English when I was 14, when I was at high school, so I could only get into what they call a ‘low status career’. I had a major in English teaching but that was perfect for me, I just happened to like English teaching. So I was lucky to be forced into a domain, and it wasn’t based on choice. I think a lot of the time when we are able to ask people, in hindsight they could claim ‘oh yeah, I chose that and I was so smart’, [but] I was not.

What took you to the US from China?

Education. Curiosity is what drives people and I always wanted to know [more]. When I was in my little village, I wanted to know what was outside, what was beyond those mountains. I was reading and imagining what city life was like. [It was the] same thing when I was teaching in China, I thought, ‘I want to know what American teaching is like’ ... I just said, ‘OK, I will go there and I will study more’ because I was interested in understanding education, I wanted to learn more, how they teach better...

Education there was very different to China?

It offers much more opportunities than others. I think many people who study education in other countries they forget they’re actually studying classrooms, they’re studying instruction. Education is much more than what happens in the classroom, what happens in the curriculum. So many people they go and observe another country [and] when they go visit a school, they say ‘let’s go look at a classroom, how this is done ... Education is the whole system, it’s the culture, it’s how parents feel.

So when I went to America and I looked at children doing the gas stations, after-school clubs, museums, art galleries, the teachers, human relationships – they all differ from China. So [in the US] they respect the individual student as someone who knows something. They do things chaotically. You look at instruction, [and] it’s not efficient, where in another world the education might be better. So I think people confuse education with instruction. That’s such an important point. When comparing education, people look at instruction and don’t look at education.

How would you describe the state of education in the US today?

I think it’s got worse because of people trying to fix it. It’s much more restrictive. Teachers become more demoralised because of too much testing and children have lost a lot of drive as schools have lost a broader curriculum.

How would you like to see that addressed?

People should recognise this happens [everywhere]; over the last 20 years we’ve been following a kind of education reform that focuses on accountability, testing, standardisation ... and it hasn’t improved. If you look at any data, America hasn’t seen any improvement, even in the old measure, even in the traditional measures, nothing ... People should recognise that what has been tried for decades has not worked [and] we should abandon that. Instead, we should invent a different kind of education; and the future of education for me is quite personalisable – you allow ... student autonomy, student voice and student co-ownership.