China’s tech industry is far better-known, far more creative, and far more successful than it was ten years ago. But China is still often criticized as lacking innovation. Alibaba founder Jack Ma addressed China’s innovation gap head on in a speech on Monday and a convention in Shanghai, and put the blame on China’s education system, or at least one part of it.
A brief Chinese lesson is necessary to understand one of Ma’s points here, though. The Chinese term for education is jiaoyu, a compound word made up of two characters. The first, jiao, means teach and refers to teaching, pedagogy, and what happens in the classroom. The second, yu, means foster or nourish and here refers to the broader process of raising a child both in and out of the classroom.
From Jack Ma’s speech:
“I want to talk with everyone about innovation. We often say that America and Europe are more innovative than us, that China’s innovation is not good and that the education [jiaoyu] system is to blame. Actually, I think China’s jiao is fine. The problem is with the yu. In terms of jiao, China’s students test better than anyone in the world, but yu is about fostering culture and emotional IQ.
“I graduated from Hangzhou Normal University, but if I’d gone to Tsinghua or Peking University I might be a researcher today. Because I went to Hangzhou Normal University, I got my cultural education [i.e. yu] by having fun. Kids who know how to have fun, are able to have fun, and want to have fun generally have bright futures. We jiao our kids, but we’ve lost the yu part.
“[Innovations] will only come regularly if we rethink our culture, our yu, our having fun, and our sports. Many painters learn by having fun, many athletes learn by having fun, many works [of art and literature] are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”
As I understand it, Ma’s argument is that China’s education system doesn’t give students enough time or encouragement to just mess around, have fun, and experiment. As he implies, it is often in these moments that great ideas are born and great artists discover their true talent, but many of China’s potential innovators are so tied to their books during their student years that they never really get the chance to experiment with that kind of outside-the-classroom learning and growth.