Why smart people say stupid things: a response to Jack Ma

//Why smart people say stupid things: a response to Jack Ma

In case you’re unaware, I’ve just published a book that explains the role of knowledge in thought. Rather than rehash the arguments in depth (there are a series of chapter summaries here) suffice it to say that no one, no matter how intelligent they believe themselves to be, can think about something of which they have no awareness. It’s literally impossible, but I’ll pause for you to give it go if you’re unconvinced…

We can only think about things we know, and, the more we know the greater our capacity for thought. It therefore follows that if we want young people to be able to think critically, creatively and collaboratively they need to know more. We could just complacently pat our selves on the back that all the information they’ll ever need is conveniently available on the internet, but anyone who believes children will use their time to learn about abstract, difficult problems without considerable input from knowledgable adults to patiently explain and redirect wandering attention either hasn’t met any children or is unscrupulously optimistic.

Children – especially teenagers – have a motivational bias away from the abstract and the culturally specific towards the concrete and the universal. (See here for a detailed explanation.) Left to their own devices they’ll mess about at the margins of human culture and be unlikely to learn much from the accumulated wisdom of the tribe.

Why say all this again? Because despite repeating these arguments tirelessly, no one seems to be listening. In the space of 24 hours we have had the TES reporting primary school headteacher, Andrew Hammond as saying, “AI can regurgitate facts, so why teach pupils to do it?” and Chinese business magnate Jack Ma at the World Economic Forum saying… pretty much the same thing.

Here’s what Jack says:

Education is a big challenge now. If we don not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble because the way we teach – the things we teach – our kids, are the things from the past 200 years – it is knowledge based and we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines – they are smarter. Teachers must stop teaching knowledge, we have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us. These are the soft skills we need to be teaching our children: values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others. These are the soft parts. Knowledge will not teach you that.  That is why I think we should teach our kids sports, music, painting, art – to make sure human are different. Everything we teach should be different from machines. If the machine can do better you have to think about it.

I’m sure Ma is a very bright man and there’s no way I’d risk telling him how to go about being an entrepreneur. When it comes to business, Jack Ma knows far more than I ever will. In the domain of business, I’m an idiot. Sadly, in the domain of education, Ma is shockingly ignorant and because of this he strings together emotive buzzwords which, from a distance, look a little bit like a logical argument.

This is how expertise works: the more you know about a subject, the greater your store of knowledge, the better your judgement and intuition. The more likely you are to see creative solutions, to solve intractable problems and to think critically about unreconstituted nonsense.

Let’s take a moment to examine Ma’s comments. There are some things I agree with: we should definitely teach children about sport, music, painting and art. And, in a world where algorithmic learning can out compete human being in many areas we must be mindful of how young people will find meaning in the future. But there are somethings he says which are wrong. First, machines are not smarter than people. Machines are dumb precisely because they don’t possess knowledge; all they can do is process information. Yes, they can do this bewilderingly quickly, but they know nothing. It takes a human being to make sense of a machine’s predictions, to decide whether to put them into operation or whether they’re meaningless. For a clear-eyed critique of the concept of artificial intelligence I recommend reading Gary Smith’s The AI Delusion.

Instead of teaching the knowledge of the past 200 years, Ma would have us teach the soft skills of “values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others.” Well, like everyone else, I want children to care for others, be able to work in teams and to think independently. I’m less sure about values and belief because these depend on what we value or believe in. Everyone, no matter how depraved has values and beliefs. I think what Ma might means is that he wants young people to share his values and beliefs but this seems contrary to the desire for them to be independent thinkers. The danger of teaching children to think independently is that they’ll end of disagreeing with you.

But let’s agree that independent thinking, team work, caring for others are universal goods that we all want. How do we teach independent thinking? What are children going to think independently about? As we’ve seen, you can’t think about nothing. Does it matter what they think about then? Would MA be happy for them to think independently about the narrow confines of their immediate experiences? If, as I suspect, he’d prefer children to think independently about more important and pressing concerns then they’ll need knowledge of the world. You cannot outsource the contents of your mind to a machine and remain independent. To be independent we must have the resources we need inside ourselves. If resources are external then we are, by definition, dependent on something outside ourselves.

Teamwork’s a bit easier though. Working collaboratively is a biologically primary adaption that humanity has been capable of for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. We’re so good at it that no one has to explicitly teach it to us, we just pick it up from interacting with others. If you want children to work together on organising a football match or a party, just leave them to it. But, probably, Ma would like young people to be able to collaborate of projects of greater significance. He’d probably like them to work together to do stuff like cure cancer, eradicate poverty and hunger and reverse climate change. Sadly, to be able to work together on these sorts of projects children are going to need lots of knowledge – the very stuff Ma would like us to stop teaching.

But caring for others: surely that doesn’t require knowledge? Well, that’s an interesting question. Caring for others who are like us, is something that comes pretty naturally. In fact, so naturally that it comes with well established downsides. Our ‘groupness’ is at the root of all compassion and most evil. Having empathy for people like us usually comes at the cost of making us less empathetic for people we see as not like us. (For an enlightening discussion on this I recommend reading Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion.) The only antidote to this kind of parochial thinking is, you guessed it, knowledge. The more we know about other people – how they live, what their concerns are, how they’re like us – the more we’re likely to care for them.

If we want a world like the one Ma and Hammond imagine, we really are going to need to change both the way we teach and what we teach. We need to understand more about how children learn and think. We need to understand the crucial importance of knowledge and stop uncritically trotting out the tired cliché of “regurgitating facts”. No one wants children to rote learn lists of unconnected facts. Instead, if we want children to thrive in an uncertain world we need them to know as much of the vast legacy of human culture as possible and to be practised at using it to think critically, creatively and collaboratively.

I pause for a response.

2019-01-24T14:36:07+00:00January 24th, 2019|Featured|


  1. Huw Sayer - Business Writer January 25, 2019 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Thank you – this is a valuable push back against the glib calls for thinking differently. Particularly agree with your point about belief and values – whose belief and values? How can we think properly about belief and values if we don’t know about different beliefs and values? Glad to have found your blog – will check out the book.

  2. Sumowitch January 25, 2019 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    I pretty much agree with all you have to say but it’s worth taking Ma’s words in the context of the Chinese education system he experienced which has more homework than anywhere else in the world and the highest stakes exam: the Gaokao. Both have been recognised for the toll they take on student’s physical and mental health with many kids and parents crying out for a change in educational policy.

    There’s a lot to be said for some aspects of Chinese curriculum especially in Maths . However, it’s worth noting that the entirely knowledge based gaokao contains questions such as this from the compulsory politics exam:

    China adopts the policy of freedom of religious belief and actively leads religions to be adapted to socialism. This means religious figures and believers are required to
    A) Arm themselves with Marxist theory and scientific cultural knowledge
    B) Interpret religious teachings in keeping with materialism
    C) Obey and serve the best interests of the country and nation while practicing religion
    D) Love the motherland, support the leadership of the Communist Party and socialist system and comply with national laws, regulations and policies

    Given questions like this, I’d be more than happy for a bit more soft skills, creativity and teamwork.

    That said, I think Ma should quit lecturing teachers and spend a bit more time encouraging ‘independent thinking’ in the newspaper he owns the South China Morning Post: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/11/13/i-will-no-longer-write-south-china-morning-post/

    In addition, being a high profile member of the Chinese Communist Party, perhaps he could spend a bit more time encouraging his comrades to ‘care for others’ such as the up to one million Uighurs they are currently holding in prison camps.

    On a more positive note, having worked in schools in China, it’s amazing how much knowledge school kids there have about British culture: I’ve seen kids reading not just Harry Potter but Dickens, Shakespeare, the Brontes and Sherlock Holmes. I doubt many British teachers know their Lu Xun from their Li Bai, let alone the kids. I would suggest any knowledge based curriculum includes as much cultural knowledge of the rest of the world as possible.

    Should you be interested, the answer to the Gaokao question is here
    and some of the more interesting Gaokao essay questions are here.

  3. Michael Pye January 25, 2019 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Sumowitch I believe your argument reinforces the idea that the debate shouldn’t be about teaching knowledge or skills but instead about which knowledge we teach. An argument Hirsch, David and others have made.

  4. Mark Patterson January 26, 2019 at 8:11 am - Reply

    How anyone can disagree with the notion that thinking well requires a good foundation of knowledge is beyond me! The irony is that all of the people ranged on both sides of the soft-skills-versus -knowledge-debate are themselves possessed of a good knowledge base; we tend to be ‘well-educated’ graduates.

    Skills are layers of knowledge, honed through practice, so all skills – with the possible exception of base motor skills – depend on knowledge. The more we know, the stronger we are. Knowledge really IS power!

  5. Mark Featherstone-Witty January 26, 2019 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    One immediate thought: If, as David says, you can’t think about what you don’t know and the more you know the better the judgement. Putting to one side the tricky question about how to maintain an open mind (so not confirming one’s own bigotry), why do we put politicians in posts outside their areas of expertise? Come to that, why, in 30 years, have we had 14 Secretaries of State for Education? And only one had actually taught in a school?

    • David Didau January 29, 2019 at 9:12 am - Reply

      The best way to maintain an open mind is to know more. The more you know about a subject the more you realise you don’t know. True experts tend to be cautious and tentative about making truth claims in their fields.

      As to politics, the reason we put elected representatives in ministerial positions is to maintain the standards and precepts of parliamentary democracy. It’s also the reason we have a civil service full of people who have been become relative experts in their respective departments. I for one prefer this approach to having unelected ‘experts’ foisted upon us in an undemocratic and unaccountable manner.

  6. […] suggest the debate is all a confection, or perhaps even a conspiracy. However, when you look at the unthinking guff pumped-out worldwide about education and the groupthink that bodies such as the Organisation for […]

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