Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, may be the richest man in China, but he had stepped back from his e-commerce empire last year by returning to his roots as a teacher.
His formula, however, is not to focus on curriculum or accountability, but on students’ capacity to love. He said, “If you want to be successful, you should have very high EQ, a way to get on with people. If you do not want to lose quickly, you should have good IQ, but if you want to be respected, you should have LQ, the quotient of love. The brain will be replaced by machines, but machines can never replace your heart.”
Ma’s key message was spotted on: we’ve spent a lot of effort on how we feed people, that is, the education they receive, but not enough on what we feed them.
In the future, he said, everything had to be on the table: teachers, classrooms, and students. Classes will not be in discreet 40-minute units, teachers will not be the ones with all the knowledge and educators will emphasize asking the right questions, not just getting the right answers. If you focus on standardization, machines can replace everything.
Many educators dispute this approach, arguing that knowledge should not be undermined and that schools should focus on discipline and high academic expectations.
Ma professed himself an “amateur” educator. Back then, he said, people who failed at traditional achievement – top universities – became teachers.
He further added that teaching imparted important lessons he adopted as a CEO – he even dubbed his job “chief education officer” at Alibaba. “I learned everything I learned from being a teacher,” he said. “Inspire students. Trust students. Believe in students. Enable them.”
What needs to be fixed
Ma suggested investing more in early childhood, when kids are building skills and values, and less in universities, when values are already set. “Please put more resources on the front and not to the back,” he commented. Kindergarten and primary schools have tremendous advantage to shape kids. He also advocated by supporting teachers more robustly. “If we respect teachers we respect knowledge and we respect the future,” he said. Increase their pay and help headmasters with leadership training, because 60 percent of teachers leave the profession because they do not like their headmasters.
He expressed that education needs to change its key performance indicators, namely exams. He often asks students why they work so hard for their exams and they always say it is to get into university and go on to get a job. Yet at Alibaba, they have to retrain university graduates to do their jobs well.
“University does not mean you are guaranteed a job,” he said, adding that he does not hire from MIT and Harvard because of the names, but because the people come “ready to learn their whole lives.” In a memorable zinger, he stated that a university degree was nothing more than a “receipt for the tuition paid.”
He joined the zeitgeist by calling for kids to better confront failure. “It is not natural for people to help you,” he continued. “You need to learn to be rejected and refused.” Indeed, he was rejected from Harvard 10 times.
He recommended education had to become more global, and more focused on teamwork. (China, he noted, was terrible at this: it succeeds in individual sports but not team ones.) The way to accomplish this is more arts and dance, painting and team sports. He started a school where there is no after-school tutoring but there is after-school sports.
Last century, he mentioned was won by muscle, while this one will be won with wisdom. Or as he put it another way, “last century we win by caring about myself, this century we win by caring about others.”