31 May 2019
Zero to infinity: how education unlocks endless possibilities

The Lee Kong Chian School of Business presented the SMU Visionary Series at Singapore Management University (SMU) on 31 May 2019. The SMU Visionary Series is an opportunity to hear from eminent leaders who have demonstrated the power of ideas to change attitudes, societies and the world as we know it. It will feature some of the most prolific industry players and thinkers, from different spheres of influence, who will share their unique life lessons and insights that will stimulate ideas for a better marketplace and society.

The auditorium in SMU was packed with 300 people for the inaugural lecture, where it saw Dr Charles Chen Yidan, Founder of the Yidan Prize give a talk titled Zero to infinity: how education unlocks endless possibilities.

Speech by Dr Charles Chen Yidan

Zero to infinity: how education unlocks endless possibilities

Dear President Professor Lily Kong, Prof Gerard George, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today. I am honored to have this opportunity to share with you about my vision for education.

Since 2007, I have been in the education field for over a decade. Education has changed my life, and it has become my life-long dedication after I stepped down from Tencent. I wholeheartedly believe in the transformative power of education, and the positive changes education can bring to our world.

When it comes to education, I would like to bring forth an idea of ‘zero’ to ‘infinity’: while the first step is critical, what defines the spirit of education is the effort and growth after ‘zero’.

Traditional Taoism tells us that the Tao begets one, one begets two, two begets three, and three begets infinity. Tao starts from chaos and is the primitive order out of chaos. The progress of Tao is just like the journey of education.

The purpose of learning

Education begins with the individual, but its impact extends far beyond the individual. The teacher-student relationship may be personal. It carries a lineage of knowledge, skills, values and beliefs that is a crystallization of the teacher’s wisdom. But that relationship also carries the hope of society: the hope that by collectively contributing to an outstanding education system, we are all investing in a society’s culture.

None of the major developments we see in our world today are caused by one or two people. Each member of our society, no matter how insignificant he or she may seem, holds the infinite potential for making the world a better place.

I believe that education is the bedrock of modern day civilization. It is the fuel for technological innovation, social progress, cultivating right values, justice and equality. Education is never just about one person; it’s always about every single person. Education carries the hope of elevating entire communities of people.

Ancient Chinese wisdom – mainly rooted in Taoism, Confucianism and localized Buddhism – tells us that education is about knowing right from wrong. Education enlightens us on how society works, and how to live a meaningful life.

When we turn to the West, the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato believed that one key objective of education is to attain knowledge, which was necessary both for the interest of the individual and society, and as such, education was virtue by itself.

In the context of Chinese culture, education means more than just acquiring knowledge. There is a quote from the Confucian Classic The Great Learning: “What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate bright virtue; to enlighten the people; and to rest in the supreme goodness” (「大學之道,在明明德,在親民,在止於至善」).

When we look at the wide range of challenges we face in the world today, it is clear that the purpose of education has gone beyond simply teaching individual students to excel in attaining knowledge. The world relies on education to unlock the potential of turning the limited into unlimited. That’s why I firmly believe that education is the fundamental driving force to social progress.

Education is the mother of innovation

One of the biggest achievements of the modern world is increased literacy and the widespread implementation of basic education. This solid foundation is what gives young people, especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, the self-esteem, confidence and opportunity to connect with the fast-changing world.

It is also this solid foundation that gives rise to the infinite possibility of innovation.

Innovation is not only the engine of economic growth in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, but also the way that will lead us to the solutions of the biggest crisis facing us today.

On an individual level, it is through learning that we are able to break through our personal boundaries. Teachers help, guide and empower young people to take a risk by removing any real or perceived barriers. Through learning we develop an inquisitive mindset, the capacity to cooperate and collaborate, to self-learn, to experiment, to experience failure and to find the perseverance to try again.

Innovation requires an open mind, burning curiosity and the resourcefulness to put ideas into action, and education can instill these qualities in us. A research conducted by scholars from Ghent University and the University of Cambridge found that as individuals participate more in education, they develop a more open mindset, which in turn increases a country’s innovation potential. Based on data collected from 96 countries, education is shown to increase the pool of talent equipped to promote innovation.

On a policy level, the decisions of educators and government policies are critical. Nurturing innovative human-capital and increasing inventive skills through well planned educational policies and interventions have the potential to spur a wide range of innovative outcomes. A study from Finland Helsinki Center of Economic Research suggests that innovation can be encouraged through the right education policies, resulting in more inventions. Investment into subjects such as engineering and science has a direct link to the number of patent registrations. A university STEM education increases the net gains of innovation and induces more people to become inventors.

The important task facing policy-makers, investors, researchers and educators lies in understanding how their work and decisions will shape the innovativeness of future generations.

In English there is a saying: “necessity is the mother of invention”. Today, in a world where many people’s basic needs for survival have been met, it is no exaggeration for me to say: “education is the mother of innovation, and innovation is the modern-day necessity”.

The education ecosystem: inputs vs outputs

Innovation is never a solo endeavor. When we think about innovation, we have a mental picture of a single lightbulb moment, but the truth is that innovation is a collaborative transformation of an industry or field that’s never achieved by one person or one organization. Great innovation does not take place within one field of expertise but is the product of cross partnerships between different domains.

That is why if education is to fulfill its role as the mother of innovation, educators and policy makers need a clear picture of what inputs are being fed to the education ecosystem. How do we create a collaborative environment that supports visionary new ideas? We need to increase cross-pollination between industry, academia and the public and third sectors. We need to create a pipeline of young people who are ready to take the lead in an increasingly interconnected world.

Innovative ecosystems in the education sector comprise evolving multi-party partnerships in which schools are able to tap into advanced tools and technologies from their partners for the benefit of students. 

Education technology promotes student engagement and enables pedagogical innovation which in turn creates a learning environment that fosters innovation. When innovative ideas are then fed into the technology sector, a powerful, creative synergy is born.

The chemistry between Stanford University and Silicon Valley is a perfect example of how schools and the private sector thrive together and reinforces innovation in each other’s DNA. Stanford has been described as the ‘farm system’ for Silicon Valley. Its Office of Technology Licensing has licensed 8,000 campus-inspired inventions. Some believe that as many as 5,000 companies can be somehow traced back to the Stanford faculty and its students, including household names such as Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Netflix and LinkedIn.

An entrepreneurial spirit allowed Stanford to forge a symbiotic loop with the tech sector of Silicon Valley, nurturing a diverse body of students, encouraging learning for the sake of learning, risk-taking, trying new things and discovering unknown terrains. We can look to these as the key inputs that will cultivate an innovative education ecosystem.

Highlights of the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index 2018

But Stanford and Silicon Valley is only one success story. We need many more of these innovative hubs for the future generation to flourish. We can see that in Israel, Singapore, and some regions in China, educational innovation initiatives are also gathering momentum. Preparing the fertile soil for young people to blossom into innovative leaders of tomorrow requires many questions to be answered.

Since 2017, the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI) was founded by the Yidan Prize Foundation, which commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit to write and produce the index on an annual basis. This study seeks to facilitate an actionable way forward for a better, more equitable future: a future where young people are ready to tackle the evolving challenges of work and society.

The theme for our 2018 index was “Building tomorrow’s global citizens”, covering 50 economies, representing nearly 93% of global GDP and 89% of the world’s population.

The goal of the index is to provide a useful benchmark, comprehensive data and independent analysis for policymakers and educators around the world. The index measures three pillars of education systems: policy approaches, teaching conditions, and broader gauges of societal openness. It remains the only major ranking to assess a wide range of inputs to the education ecosystems, instead of a narrow focus on outputs such as examination results.

The index is not designed to offer a ranking of superior education systems, but a tool for assessing the complex functioning of the key ingredients that make up a future-proof education ecosystem. This is how the success of one country’s work can benefit many.

In 2018, small, wealthy, globally connected economies like Finland, New Zealand and Singapore had shown themselves to be good examples of what that ecosystem looks like. Their key success factors are strong, comprehensive policies, well-trained teachers and strong assessment frameworks to test for students’ future skills.

Specifically, for Singapore, I would like to applaud you for the perfect performance in the coverage of 21st-century skills in your national education strategy. Your efforts in reviewing your education policy by giving considerable attention to future-skills, putting in place an extensively developed framework that emphasize problem-based learning, and adjusting the scoring system for university entrance exams to consider factors beyond grades are admirable.

It is important to also note that future-oriented education is not exclusive to wealthy economies. Based on the index results, Ghana leads among low-income economies, based on the strength of its strategy to teach future skills and adoption of supportive assessment frameworks.

On the other hand, the UK provides an example on the importance of investing in the continuing education of teachers, as the quality of teacher education bears the brunt of less government expenditure on education.

The index reinforces that in order for economies to adopt more holistic approaches to learning, the following things are critical: strengthening assessment frameworks, regularizing reviews of curriculums and improving teaching conditions.

Looking at the results of the index, it is clear that there are gaps in the provision of future-ready education for the youth of our times. That is why the Yidan Prize exists to speed up the bridging of that gap by celebrating and investing in the work of educators with exceptional foresight.

Leaders in educational innovation: Yidan Prize Laureates

The Yidan Prize recognizes laureates whose work is future-oriented, innovative, transformative and sustainable in education. Our Yidan Prize Laureates are all passionate, committed, bold and visionary leaders in their chosen fields. I’m particularly inspired by how in tackling education challenges facing themselves or their country, they also presented a solution to the world. It is this process of from ‘zero’ to ‘one’, from ‘one’ to ‘infinity’ that the Yidan Prize is honoured to support.  

A prime example is our 2017 laureate Ms Vicky Colbert of Colombia, founder and director of Fundación Escuela Nueva whose innovative learning model was born out of very challenging conditions in low income villages in her country. Students of multiple levels are cramped into one classroom, without internet or other technological support. Over several decades, the emphasis on empowerment, interpersonal skills, student-centric learning has become an inspiration in Colombia. With the ‘New School’ model she implements, education in poor rural villages actually excels over city schools. A model for one country is now adopted in 19 countries worldwide. What arose out of necessity has become a blessing to many.

The laureate of the 2018 Yidan Prize for Education Development Professor Anant Agarwal is the CEO and Founder of edX, an open-source online platform that makes education accessible to people around the world. Professor Agarwal grew up in India. He mentioned that he once didn’t like school. At that time, school for him was a cramped, uninspiring place, where students were sometimes hit by their teacher. What he endured as a student himself has now gone through a complete overhaul through his platform. Online learning becomes fun and creative – something learners can enjoy whenever and wherever they want. His platform allows radically more students to have exposure to high-quality education without the limitations of prohibitively high cost or distance.

Professor Larry Hedges, laureate of the 2018 Yidan Prize for Education Research, is the Chairman of the Department of Statistics at Northwestern University in Chicago. Professor Hedges developed statistical methods of meta-analysis before the idea of ‘big data’ became a fashionable term. His work in educational policy allows policymakers, educators and the general public to see the evidence for ‘what works’ in the field of education. His work and leadership are sending ripples across the world, making it possible for educators to take a scientific approach to improving education.

I believe that the possibility for education to turn ‘zero’ to ‘infinity’ can be summed up in a concept developed by our 2017 Laureate Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford: the growth mindset. Professor Dweck’s research has demonstrated that students’ mindsets can be changed. Barriers can be broken when our fixed mindset is transformed into a growth mindset. The implications of her work are far-reaching: she has shown us not only the generative potential of education for students in schools, but also the limitless potential for humanity.

What the Yidan Prize Laureates’ achievements mean to Asia

The Yidan Prize is a global platform with Asian roots. Asia is where some of the fastest growing economies are in the world. The talent pool in this part of the world is mind-blowing. The entrepreneurial spirit, vitality, opportunities and creativity is contagious.

And yet, Asia is also home to ancient civilizations that hold some of humanity’s deepest wisdom and most important life-changing inventions.

Innovation is in our blood, and also present in our everyday life. Every time we eat oriental cuisine we are reminded of the wisdom of one of the simplest tools ever invented – the chopsticks. While other cultures require many tools in the kitchen, we use two simple sticks that do all the tricks. Solving problems with intelligent simplicity, practicality, flexibility and ingenuity is where we have great potential to serve as a reference to the world.

Educators in Asia can leverage the best that the East and the West have to offer and realize education innovation across sectors.

Connecting the dots: why the Yidan Prize means more than a prize

And that is my vision when I created the Yidan Prize in 2016. In addition to offering recognition of sustainable and innovative ideas that tackle pressing challenges in the field of education, Yidan Prize is a platform for explosive outcomes, world-changing educational endeavors. I am convinced that the groundbreaking work being done by the few can and will become the resource of all.

Since its inception, the Yidan Prize platform has had the privilege of offering concrete support to four outstanding education visionaries. Their footprints spread far and wide across the surface of the globe. The Yidan Prize commits to continue providing this vital support that feeds the education ecosystem for innovation and wider impact.

But just like innovation is never the work of one person, we should never forget that every one of us – including every one of you here today – has the unique potential to unlock the infinite possibilities that education provide. I hope by speaking here today you and I have planted a seed of hope in education.

And to all the members of the audience, the future belongs to everyone. Be bold. Dare to take risks. Never doubt that you hold the key to infinity.

I wish you a successful journey ahead.