Sunday, August 08, 2021

The Future of Education in China, Singapore and the ROW

Last week, the Chinese government decided to overhaul its USD100bn tuition industry by declaring that education and tuition companies should be strictly non-profit and will not be allowed to use the now infamous VIE structure to raise capital from foreign investors in foreign markets. Tuition stocks subsequently crashed as exemplified by New Oriental Education crashing 70%. There is no money to be made here. It is unclear if these companies can stay listed. If they do, great, maybe you might be able to make 100-300%. But if not, then you will never see your money again.

New Oriental Education from >USD50 to USD 17

There have always been qualms about how capitalism should not encroach certain sectors like healthcare/hospitals, public services such as waste management and, needless to say, education. If these institutions are run for profits, then they could just go full throttle to make money and fail to provide the necessary public services. In China's education landscape, this has happened. Or rather, it was structured to happen because the rich can always pay up and get their kids onto the best platforms or employ the best tuition teachers for their children. 

Hence the Chinese government decided to do something - by clamping down on education (and also property and internet giants). In this way, you can level the playing field if not the current generation, then for the next generation. The next step is to get the nation's kids off "spiritual opium" - additive mobile games that has glued all our children's eyeballs to those screens. As such, Tencent is also falling like a brick. 

Actually, Singapore and the rest of the world are not that different. Our tuition industry runs into billions of dollars despite our population and economy being only a fraction of China's. Kids from lower income families are losing out in our highly competitive, elitist education system. And mobile games, that's every Singaporean parents' nightmare. We are all smoking "spiritual opium".

Spiritual opium

Addiction is as old as civilization. Our brains are wired to respond to incentives and it requires a lot of willpower to abstain. Think prostitution, tobacco, alcohol, gambling which has caused so much problems despite everyone knowing their harmfulness. What are our odds now to beat addiction when the lures are now right in our palms. It is a huge social problem as with our global education system.

Yes, (*sigh*) the global education system.

It is well-known that our education system is very outdated. When we look at our lives across various aspects, it is really hard to think of system that has not changed. The way we communicate across distances have changed so many times that we don't even know where to start counting. Broadly, maybe it started with human messengers, then letters, then telegrams, phones, emails, whatsapp and now zoom but in between we also had pigeons, pagers, car phones and SMSes. It is a similar story the way we work, the way we consume music, the way we commute and run our governments and so on and so forth. Everything has evolved. It is amazing how the classroom has not changed. 

Classrooms have not changed for 100 years!

Is this really to best way to learn? I have written a lot about Singapore's education system. But as I learnt about other education systems across the globe, the bigger picture remains bleak. Not only has learning not changed much since humans rode horses, it is totally inadequate in preparing our children for the connected future. What is the point of memorizing Shakespeare when you can always just google it? The other day, my kid just asked me did I ever use the solution to the quadratic equation in my adult life. I did not answer him.

Learning has to be made fun, multi-faceted and more about harnessing creativity. It is no longer about memory work and brute force. How do we incentivise our kids to learn when screens, games and Netflix are competing for the same eyeballs? There are no easy answers. It doesn't help when the best brains have also gravitated to work for Facebook and Google to write algorithms that will capture those eyeballs rather than staying in schools to teach.

It's at uphill battle. We desperately need better teachers. We also need to better use media to teach in fun ways and ensure knowledge is retained. Parents have to play even bigger roles. We also need to make sure our kids can learn to relearn, because knowledge keeps getting updated. I remember my periodic table was much simpler!

Today's periodic table

Learning is also about discipline. It takes effort to force the brain to rewire itself as it learns new knowledge so that it gets stronger. Games, Tiktok and Netflix do none of that. It is a different state of mind. It's inducing artificial dopamine kicks after dopamine kicks without the effort needed. As such, Our kids are increasingly addicted, getting used to the effortless lazy mode. In future, they might find it way much harder to get in the "flow zone" of focused studying or training. 

The joy of learning is being taken away.

Learning is for life. It doesn't stop after we graduate. I learnt what's most important in life way after school: human psychology, value investing and valuable lessons from best selling books such as The Selfish Gene and Bill Gate's How To Avoid a Climate Disaster. We are not teaching these in schools. At least not yet. It is pertinent that our schools emphasize that learning never stops. The twelve to thirteen years of core education simply prepared us for the important tertiary learning and then ultimately the University of Life. If kids are taught that learning is about brute mugging and exams and they have to find dopamine kicks from "spiritual opium", then all is lost. 

As parents, perhaps we have to step up and encourage holistic education, induce a home environment of learning, replace spiritual opium with physical stimulus (more sports and physical activities, it's the Olympics fever after all) and enforce the mindset of learning to relearn, discipline and help our kids discover the joy of learning. 

If China is doing something, Singapore should follow.

Happy National Day! Huat Ah!

1 comment:

  1. It is the “kiasu” spirit that resulted in what Singapore’s education scene. Just look at how many parents are requesting for “MOE trained” tutor for private tuition.

    Students are trained to take exam and no longer for learning. Sad