In an age when routine jobs can be outsourced or automated, it is creativity that will create a thriving new middle class, Zhao argued.

What is the purpose of our education system? If it’s to produce skilled employees, then we’re on the right path with Common Core standards and assessments, says education researcher Yong Zhao. But Zhao argues that it’s time to rethink that purpose—and with it, our present course of action.

Instead of producing employees who are capable of following directions, U.S. schools should be concerned with producing entrepreneurs, Zhao told attendees of the 2013 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston. And this requires an approach to education that is radically different from the one most schools are taking now.

In an entertaining and thought-provoking keynote speech, Zhao—who is associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon’s College of Education—compared the current U.S. education system to a “sausage maker”: taking a diverse group of students with individual talents and churning out workers with desired skills. But in the process, he said, creativity is being lost.

(Next page: The skills that U.S. schools should be nurturing among students)

“We are born creative and curious,” Zhao noted. “We can either suppress or enhance this.” He pointed to research from George Land showing the decline of creativity as children get older to suggest that our current educational approach is largely achieving the former.

Yet, in an age when routine jobs can be outsourced or automated, it is creativity that will create a thriving new middle class, Zhao argued.

Besides creativity, the skills needed for successful entrepreneurship include confidence, passion, and risk-taking. But Zhao says our testing-heavy approach to instruction isn’t nurturing these skills.

“When you’re punished for wrong answers, it discourages risk taking,” he asserted.

To develop the kinds of skills that truly will matter in the 21st century, students need more autonomy over their education, Zhao argued.

He called for a shift to more “product-oriented learning,” in which students make authentic products that are meaningful to themselves, their communities, or society at large—and technology can facilitate this process, he said.

Produced by ed-tech consultant Alan November and his company, November Learning, the 2013 BLC conference runs through July 26. More information from conference sessions can be found here, and you can follow the discussion about BLC on Twitter at #BLC13.