Our complacency is jeopardizing the future of our children

Top athletes can make each of us feel like we’re part of a unique, unforgettable moment. When we witness our country’s hero win a gold medal, our favorite player scoring...

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November 28, 2019

In China, the competition to succeed in life is so much fiercer. China’s civil service exam this year attracted 1.4 million applicants to fill just 24,000 government jobs. The annual gaokao - literally ‘high test’ - university entrance exam receives 10 million students every year hoping to get into the best Chinese universities. These exams form the pivot moment for the young to guarantee a bright future. It especially offers those with less privileged backgrounds in the country a shot at a different fate. It is therefore no surprise that Chinese parents will spare no effort or money to help their children to succeed, and have them trained like small athletes.

Studying hard and lots of structure are a given. More importantly, but less talked about, is how these parents attempt to create the perfect environment to foster their children’s education. They often support them like we treat our athletes with personal teachers and coaches; lots of encouragements, love and rewards to stimulate progress; freedom to try new skills and learning methods; and no stigma of failure as long as children do their utmost best. They want to create the perfect conditions to help their offspring maximize their chances at becoming ‘great’ instead of just ‘good’. Due to China’s ambitious, energetic and high-speed culture, its children are therefore developing different skills than Western kids, which will serve them well in future - even for those who didn’t pass the gaokao exam. I don’t believe we will want China to show us how to make our kids study harder, although we probably should, but I hope China could somehow reveal how to stimulate children to become more resilient, hopeful, respectful, confident, entrepreneur-minded and adaptive.

Learning to adapt

Why do we educate our children, as we did a century ago, with course materials to acquire a minimum general knowledge, insights and skills? Does it make sense to still grade according to a ‘normal’ uniformed distribution? In today’s fast-revolving world where uncertainty and change is the ‘new normal’, it feels as if every child will rather have to learn to adapt fast; and acquiring knowledge and skills will become part of a live-long engagement instead of a getting a degree.

Could schools become more like top sports clubs scouting for talent, coach every child with a more personalized adaptive method, in order to foster and train them to reach the best possible outcome needed for a new world that does not exist yet. What are the aptitudes that our children of today will need to excel in the day after tomorrow?

In 2016, Peter Diamandis of the Singularity University, the Silicon Valley thinktank, wrote Chronicles of Education, in which he set out the guiding principles for the schools of the future. Step by step, he explains the basic capacities, curricula, technologies and mentality that will be necessary to prepare future generations for an industry 4.0 cyber-physical world. In essence, Diamandis believes our children will need to possess five basic qualities: passion, curiosity, imagination, determination and critical thinking.

Our children will need these future-proof qualities:

Knowing this, I trust that China is preparing its children better than the rest of the Western world, and China’s children could outsmart us once they grow up. It may sound hard to believe that China, with one of the most traditional education systems in the world, could teach the West anything about how to educate our children. Let’s look at these five basic qualities into more detail.

1. Passion.

Millions of Chinese are full of passion and sometimes have frighteningly clear objectives and plans for their lives and careers. Since the 21st century, they have countless Chinese role models — athletes, entrepreneurs, scientists, innovators — from whom they can draw inspiration. Passion starts with hope for a better life. Since China opened up to the world in 1978, Chinese have fostered hope in abundance. China’s media covers negative news as we do in the West, but they broadcast it together with a lot more positive stories. The power over good news should never be underestimated, as this is precisely how hundreds of millions of Chinese children, employees and entrepreneurs find the inspiration they need that allows them to pursue their own Chinese dream. Finding the right mentality for the future will largely be a matter of finding the right inspiration — and inspiration is something they have no shortage of in China. The world needs more good news to stimulate passion.

2. Curiosity.

The Chinese are by nature an inquisitive people, in part because in Chinese culture it is not impolite to ask personal questions. They think nothing about enquiring how much you earn or reading your newspaper over your shoulder on the train. It is almost as if they never lose the naive curiosity they had as children. Chinese crave for learning more. Curiosity has its roots in a respect for learning. There is no country in the world that has greater respect for its teachers than China, a status that is usually reserved only for doctors in Western countries. China is also the country where parents are most likely to encourage their children to go into the teaching profession, whereas there is an urgent shortage of teachers throughout the Western world. I am afraid that the growing lack of respect shown in the West towards people with knowledge and expertise will soon be revealed as one of the most serious weaknesses in our society, especially when compared with a Chinese Confucian model, which is grounded in respect for teachers.

3. Imagination.

Most Chinese have more than their fair share of fantasies and the patience to turn them into reality. Imagination is about envisioning a better future. There are ample examples of the long-term vision of Chinese. Their government is actively planning for the year 2049 and Alibaba aims for 2101. The Chinese continue to dream bigger, for which they are prepared to make larger efforts. Once upon a time China build the great wall; more recently 26,000km of high-speed train network, a 55km long bridge, and a 632m skyscraper. J.F. Kennedy once said ‘we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ and Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket ocean landing , but these events are becoming ever rarer coming from the West. If we want to instill a higher dose of imagination into our children’s mind, our governments and business leaders should set the mavericks free and lead by example.

4. Grit/Persistence.

Persistence and China are almost synonymous. In my experience, the Chinese are still prepared to make huge personal sacrifices to get ahead in life. This same kind of extreme dedication and overwhelming hunger to succeed is losing its appetite in the West. We enjoy our comfort zone too much and worry more about change than progress. Jack Ma likes to tell the story of how he was refused a job 30 times. We are all familiar with stories of the many Chinese who work their fingers to the bone in factories to give their children and their families a better life. In China, like in Silicon Valley, failure is nothing shameful, whereas giving up is wholly unacceptable. Parents teach their children to try, try, try again and the highest form of success in China is to realize your dream through hard work. The West wants its children to work smart instead, as if working hard means you don’t need to think. In China, people learn foremost by doing, not only by thinking.

5. Critical thinking.

This ability to decide whether or not a statement or a line of reasoning is valid is cited by the Chinese who have studied abroad as an important difference between China and the West. Are these millions of returning students vanguard of a new generation of critical thinkers in China? Is it a coincidence that many of the founders of China’s most innovative companies are returnees after studying abroad? Some cognitive scientists argue the opposite, claiming that repetition and memorization are the foundations for building up a strong neural architecture, a network that serves as a basis for the stimulation of much more complex, creative and critical thinking later on. As it turns out, this theory has much in common with the widespread belief in Chinese culture that you cannot become a great artist in your own right until you have first copied the works of other masters. One could of course argue that China’s censorship and government control is constraining critical thinking – and likely the main reason Chinese still send their kids abroad today despite China having some of the best universities in the world.

Of course, these five basic capacities are not uniquely Chinese. In general, the West still offers a better educational environment for the development of critical thinking. But as far as the other four capacities are concerned, it seems to me that China prepares its children better for the future. My worry is that people in the West complacently conclude that we are better prepared to face the future because we are more critical thinkers. According to Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneurs of the 21st century need to refocus on the importance of mindsets of individuals. He advocates the development of a mindset of optimism and abundance, in an environment where mistakes are tolerated. Can therefore China teach us how to train our children to become more passionate, curious, imaginative and determined to succeed like the athletes we love so much? I believe so.

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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November 28, 2019