Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, retired from the Chinese e-commerce giant in September to focus on education, which he calls the “most important and critical issue” of our time. His concern: the world is changing fast, but education is not.
His formula, however, is not to focus on curriculum or accountability, but on students’ capacity to love.
“If you want to be successful, you should have very high EQ, a way to get on with people,” he said at an OECD conference this month, using the shorthand for emotional intelligence. “If you don’t want to lose quickly, you should have good IQ,” he added. But “if you want to be respected, you should have LQ—the quotient of love,” he concluded. “The brain will be replaced by machines, but machines can never replace your heart.”
If this sounds a bit corny, it fit well with the theme of the day at the conference in Paris, where the OECD released the latest results of its worldwide test of 15-year-olds and discussed how to move education systems from traditional exam factories to places where kids learn content, but also self-knowledge, empathy, teamwork and agency.
Andreas Schleicher, the reform-minded head of the OECD’s education unit, applauded Ma’s “radical” approach. Educators talk about the need for holistic reform a lot, but business leaders more often focus on education as a means to train future workers (rather than nurture well-rounded humans). Schleicher said Ma’s key message was spot 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, Ma 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, everything can be replaced by machines,” he said.
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. But he is not without experience: he failed his university exams a few times and eventually got into a teaching school. Back then, he said, people who failed at traditional achievement—top universities—became teachers.
Ma said teaching imparted important lessons he used as 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.”
Ma offered some ideas on what needs fixing. He 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 in the back,” he said, suggesting kindergarten and primary schools have tremendous leverage to shape kids. He also advocated 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, since 60% of teachers leave the profession because they don’t like their headmasters.
He said 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. But at Alibaba, he said, 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 doesn’t 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 said 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 said. “You need to learn to be rejected and refused.” Indeed, he was rejected from Harvard 10 times.
Finally, he suggested 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’s started a school where there is no after-school tutoring but there is after-school sports.
Last century, he said, 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.”