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What is education?

We all see the desperately ill conditions of Chinese education system. But will a new technology or new company arise to become the cure to the ill? My biggest fear is that advocates on education and education technology will end up being unable to cure the ills of the current Chinese education system, but in fact introducing more burdens on students and families.

However, the greatest premises, and also promises, of personalized adaptive education is its potential to offer education that is individualized, interactive, intelligent at a low cost (with digital reproducibility).

If this doesn’t change the Chinese education system as a whole, at least it should offer a potential to make the teaching and learning more effective.

The greatest drive of every industrialization is its ability to increase the efficiency. This may sound plain and unexciting, but efficiency is the heart of the industrialized revolution.

But I’m unwilling to place education further above that. I don’t believe that any education system, regardless of how optimized it is, can provide fundamental values of human life.

The fundamental value of human life belongs to the spiritual realm which cannot be answered by education. What a good education system can do, and should do, is to effectively assist people in learning knowledge and skills they need. And not much more than that. This a proper and moderate position of education. 

Given the above understanding, I’d still say that high efficiency in education is a great value to a person’s life, even though it is not a fundamental value.

It’s ironic to me that so much of the discussions on Chinese education focus on the so-called “moral education” (德育) when the entire system is completely fixated on producing “exam takers”. To me, this is typical social schizophrenia (社会精神分裂症). 

Morality relates to the fundamental values of human life. Education can’t claim to offer the fundamental values to a person’s life, regardless of however new and efficient the education system is. We can only try to improve the efficiency of teaching and learning. If it sounds less exciting, it is a humbler foundation for education that has a much better chance to actually succeed.

Peter Drucker’s contribution is his advocacy of the “value of people” to business management. Drucker of course was not the only one who advocated people’s values in business, but he was the best thinker and the ablest articulator of the idea that promoting the value of people is not only good for the society but also ultimately good for business.  When companies all believed that making profits is the ultimate corporate goal, Drucker’s advocacy of human values offered a far better version for the society. 

But it’s unclear to me how much the American corporate culture has followed Drucker’s advocacy.  The current economic disaster the world is facing is probably evidence that Drucker was right, but is also evidence that the corporate world really did not follow his advice.

Perhaps the same can be said about education. When the entire Chinese education system focuses on producing winners in taking exams (and at the same time treating the rest as “waste”), the society is crying out for an alternative which allows each student to learn useful knowledge as much as he can and to develop as efficiently as possible a set of useful skills, all based on what is actually needed by the society, not according to the demand of an artificial examination system.

The question is, how will we help to accomplish that goal?  Will it be just a well-intended grand idea or ideal, or something that actually works, even if only at a much humbler and a smaller scale?