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Dr Charles CHEN Yidan’s Take On His Philanthropic Journey Since He Launched the Yidan Prize

31 July 2017, Hong Kong – Like many people who know a foreign language but rarely practise speaking it, Charles Chen Yidan often gets tongue-tied when speaking in English. “My grammar is not bad, but I still find it challenging when I try to speak or listening to English,” he says.

Much to his delight, the 46-year-old man has found an antidote recently. In between his busy work schedule, he brushes up his English with an English-learning mobile app. “There are real teachers responding to me in the cyber space. I get to see them via the app but they don’t see me. It’s great for shy people. They wouldn’t know when I blush!” he quips.

And nor would they know this humble student is the co-founder of China’s internet giant Tencent recently named the country’s most valuable brand, an active philanthropist, and the creator of a private university in China. What those online teachers may gather from their virtual interactions with the anonymous app user, though, is that he is keen to learn. After all, this is a man who believes in the power of education. From learning a foreign language to running a university, many small and big steps Chen has taken – especially since he stepped down as Tencent’s chief administration officer in 2013 – have revolved around education in one way or another.

The most high-profile move that Chen has made thus far is, of course, the launch of Yidan Prize, the world’s biggest education award designed to transform global education. Since unveiling the ambitious project last May, Chen has travelled to the US, Europe, Asia and visited a variety of universities. He met with educators to promote the award, and to glean an understanding of the inner workings of foreign education systems.

“I was excited and inspired after the trip. For instance, teachers in the UK and Germany have a profound understanding of the relations between education and society. In Germany, there are apprenticeship programmes apart from academic programmes at universities. They are important for nurturing talent for a leading exporting country,” says Chen.

Not surprisingly for an entrepreneur who created an internet company, Chen also noted during the trip how technology played an increasingly vital role in education. “I saw how technology was used creatively in some schools in the US to build a student database to monitor students’ progress and address their different needs. At Harvard and the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], I saw how scientists did experiments on online games designed to stimulate people’s intelligence. That was incredible stuff,” he says.

There were also individuals who made the philanthropist feel inspired and enlightened.

“Sometimes it only takes an ordinary person to inspire and move you. In the UK, I had a conversation with a retired school teacher. She believed she could still put her knowledge and skills to good use even though she had retired. So she launched a campaign on the internet to encourage other retired teachers to come together and share their knowledge with the local communities. In the world of education, basically every person can be a shining light and it is all about empowering the community,” Chen explains.

It is not as if the picture is all rosy out there though. The tour also brought Chen closer to understanding the challenges facing the education sector in the West, including a large number of underfunded, poorly performing schools. The need for better management and allocation of resources is clamant. And that is just one of the many education issues that need to be addressed but are not getting enough attention in a world currently preoccupied with a plethora of political and economic challenges.

Which is why Yidan Prize was established. Given on an annual basis, the award reaches out to the world to recognize people with outstanding achievements in education research and development. Each year, it will award a gold medal and HK$30 million (about US$3.8 million) to two research projects that make outstanding contributions to education research and development.

According to Chen, the educational institutions and educators he met during his fact-finding trip responded to the award positively and with excitement, not least because it is currently the most valuable education prize. Yet it is not only the number that matters. The philosophy behind Yidan Prize, which embodies Chen’s commitment to changing the global education landscape – and the world as a whole – for the better, has found resonance among many educators. “The ultimate aim of Yidan Prize is to promote breakthroughs, to find solutions to the bigger issues mankind is facing,” Chen says.

Education, as Chen believes, is at the end of the day the one factor that will lead to social progress and make the world a better place, even though its positive effects take time to emerge. In practice, good and sustainable models can be identified and replicated, leading to positive changes over time. With this in mind, Chen wants Yidan Prize to provide a platform for distinguished education research projects to get the financial support to refine and replicate themselves, and ultimately generate benefits to different parts of the world.

Chen’s faith in Yidan Prize stems partly from the people involved in the project – he is supported by a “highly enthusiastic team” and the award has an international judging panel formed independent and renowned experts in their fields. More importantly though, he has achieved considerable success with an earlier education project in mainland China – Wuhan College, the first private non-profit university in Central China and Shenzhen Mingde Experimental School.

“We are overwhelmed by the encouragement from the community. That is very encouraging. Hopefully it is a model that will get replicated,” he says.

In an ideal world, Chen believes rote learning should have no place and studying should be a fun thing to do. It may sound cliché but not many educational institutions in the world – and still fewer in Asia – are truly capable of achieving that. According to Chen, if the system cannot change overnight, one can at least remember Confucius’ famous words: “To learn and then practise it time and again is a pleasure.”

“Putting what you learn into practice is the key. It is through practice that you make progress. It is a simple adage, but don’t underestimate simple things,” he says.

As a philanthropist, Chen also goes for simplicity in his approach of giving. “When you give away your money, whether it’s a big or small sum, you do it in the belief that it is a good deed that will lead to something good. What comes around goes around. There is no fear but peace in you,” he says.

 The Worldwide Educating for the Future Index 2018

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