Become a Whole Human to Face the Challenges of the AI era: an in-depth interview with famous education expert Xiao Wu
(During a recent visit to China, Xiao Wu was interviewed about the impact of AI on education and her latest training initiatives in the areas of child development and parent/child relationships. The interview was published in numerous leading Chinese media outlets, including Sina.com, 163.com, Caijing, Tencent, Xueqiuwang, China Daily, Guangmingwang, Huangqiuwang, Phoenix Media, Jingri Toutiao, Wangyi News etc. Below is a translation of the complete article and interview as published by various media outlets).
In a July 2017 keynote speech entitled “Innovative Talent Education”, Qian Yingyi, Dean of The School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, [widely known as “the MIT of China”], made the shocking prediction that artificial intelligence would “cause China’s educational superiority to disappear in the future” and warned that “cultivating creative thinking has become the primary battleground in the global war for talent.”
In Qian’s view, more knowledge does not equate to greater creativity for two reasons: firstly, creative thinking equals knowledge multiplied by curiosity and imagination; and secondly utilitarianism kills creative thinking. Qian quoted a speech that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, gave at Harvard University in which he noted that non-utilitarian values, such as the pursuit of truth, or a desire to change the world and make people happier are critical drivers of creative thinking. According to Zuckerberg, values such as these are far more likely to inspire breakthrough creativity than simple utilitarian objectives.
Recently this journalist interviewed the famous child education expert, Xiao Wu, who has been at the forefront of advocating creativity in education for over 20 years. Xiao Wu epitomizes the type of pioneer championed by Dean Qian thanks to her strong creative thinking and relentless pursuit of higher values.
With her short hair, crisp voice and genuine smile, Xiao Wu effortlessly exudes both warmth and wisdom. But even though she is a well-known child education expert, she is modest and unassuming. In her opinion, “the title ‘expert’ is something others bestow upon you, but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously! The wisdom of an ordinary parent is no less than that of any so-called expert”.
(Xiao Wu is a well-known child education expert in China. She graduated from Peking University in China and holds a Master’s in Education from Rutgers University in the U.S. She is a special guest lecturer at Tsinghua University, as well as a bestselling author. She has been called “China’s Dr. Spock ” by the Wall Street Journal.)
Xiao Wu has led a fascinating life, and her experience is as rich and varied as her interests are eclectic and diverse. After graduating from Peking University in the mid-1980’s Xiao Wu went to the United States to further her education. Thanks to the profound impression she made during an interview with ABC’s 20/20 (one of America’s most popular current affairs programs at the time) while she was still a student at Peking University, Xiao Wu received financial support for her education in the U.S. from Barbara Walters, the program’s host and one of the most famous TV presenters in the U.S.
After obtaining a master’s degree in education from Rutgers University, she was appointed Assistant Director of a graduate school at a state university in the U.S. at the age of 24. Four years later she became Director of Graduate Affairs at a medical university based in New York. After returning to Beijing in the mid-1990’s she married a New Zealander and worked at a well-known U.S. television company as well as the Washington Post. She left her position as Director of Public Affairs at the Australian Embassy in Beijing to become a stay-at-home mom.
(Xiao Wu once worked as an administrator at two U.S. universities, freelanced for U.S. news agencies, and served as Director of Public Affairs at the Australian Embassy in China.)
If one had to choose just one phrase to describe Xiao Wu, “trail-blazer” would be the most appropriate term. She has pioneered many “firsts” in her career. For example:
- She was the first native Chinese-speaking La Leche League Leader in mainland China. She promoted and popularized breastfeeding through BBS forums, magazine columns, television shows and best-selling books. The pamphlets she co-authored for new parents with the All China Women’s Federation reached over 30 million households. For 15 years, she was at the forefront of transforming the breastfeeding scene in China;
- Her first book, “Listen to Your Baby,” now in its 4th edition, was the first book published in China to approach parenting from the point of view of a mother’s personal experiences. This book inspired countless other writers and even created a new style of autobiographical parenting writing;
- She cofounded Beijing’s first Waldorf education initiative, called “Rainbow Bridge”, which evolved into five kindergartens and two Waldorf schools in Beijing;
- She helped plan the first season of China Central Television’s popular education program “First Lesson of The School Year”, which reaches hundreds of millions of viewers in China;
- She created a unique and transformational parent training program called “The Art of Parenting“, which has become so popular that her workshops are consistently sold out;
- She created China’s first three-year online parent training program called “Xiao Wu’s Parenting Classroom”, with students from all over China, as well as many corners of the world. The first cohort of students graduated in July 2018;
- She created a new parent-child communication model called “Die Kraft der Seelenverbindung” (literally The Power of Soul Binding) based on deeply intrinsic connections to help families change their relationship dynamics.
It’s fair to say that the path Xiao Wu has forged over the last 20 years has been imitated by many but surpassed by none. In the past two decades, Xiao Wu has published many best-selling books, including Listen to Your Baby, Of Love and Liberty, Unconditional Acceptance, The Art of Storytelling 1 and The Art of Storytelling 2 etc. She also translated Alfie Kohn’s seminal book Unconditional Parenting into Chinese. Listen to Your Baby has been reprinted four times and Unconditional Acceptance three times, and both remain on the bestselling lists.
(Xiao Wu has published numerous best-selling books over the past 20 years. Her book signings are often standing room only events)
In 2011 Xiao Wu gave a TEDx speech at the Jinshanling Great Wall that received millions of hits globally on the TED website. Her Weibo (micro-blog) was selected as one of the top ten parenting accounts on sina.com. In 2012, she was elected as one of “China’s Role Model Parents” by Sina Education and praised as “China’s Dr. Spock” by foreign media such as The Wall Street Journal.
At the heart of Xiao Wu’s philosophy is the belief that the ultimate goal of education is to help children discover and accomplish their own unique life mission. As part of this process, parents frequently also discover their own life’s mission and gain the motivation to work hard to accomplish it. Although everyone’s life mission is different, Xiao Wu believes we all share one common goal: to become a whole human being.
Xiao Wu also believes that artificial intelligence will lead to increasing automation across almost all sectors of society. Moreover, as people come to depend more and more on electronic media as a method of education, future human beings could increasingly resemble machines or robots in the way they think. She believes we need a “living” approach to education that realistically addresses the future destiny of humanity. Such a living education cultivates the whole person rather than simply keeping up with machines. It observes the naturally ordained human development rhythms rather than blindly following trends at any particular moment. Such an education, imbued with life forces, would grow organically and in sync with the natural cycle of life, and would not spread rapidly on a massive scale like metastasizing cancer cells.
For this purpose, Xiao Wu is willing to hold aloft the lantern to illuminate the path for others.
The following is a transcript of the discussion with Xiao Wu:
Q: Now that competition is so fierce, mothers are increasingly anxious about how to parent their children. What advice do you have for them?
Xiao Wu: Today’s environment is very inhospitable towards novice parents and young children. Every family is put under tremendous pressure by the fierce competition that permeates almost every facet of society, the unified standards to which everyone is supposed to aspire, and the abnormal academic pressure placed on children. The delicate senses of young children are bombarded relentlessly with all the indiscriminate stimulants that bedevil our modern lifestyle.
As a result, more and more children are anxious, fearful and nervous. The number of children diagnosed with so-called “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” has skyrocketed. More and more children demonstrate problem behaviors such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, eating disorders and hyper aggressiveness. At the same time, parents are unduly focused on their child’s intellectual development and push their children to obtain “knowledge” and acquire “skills” at an ever-younger age, thereby short-circuiting the natural developmental rhythms of a human being. To use a common English expression, these parents are putting the cart before the horse by pushing their children to develop too early in certain areas while ignoring other areas that a child should develop naturally at a certain age. This push to accelerate “head work” leads to all manner of health and behavioral problems.
How does one break this vicious cycle? My answer is through unconditional love and artistically-oriented parenting. Unconditional Parenting is the name of a seminal parenting book by Alfie Kohn that I translated into Chinese; it is also the philosophy of parenting that I practice and advocate. The Art of Parenting is a new parent training program I created for Chinese parents, and it is designed specifically to inspire, enrich, and empower parents to become confident in their own capacities and trust their own thinking. I happen to believe that confident parents bring up healthy and well-adjusted children.
(The 5-day Art of Parenting program includes an afternoon of outdoor games and movement which participants always love because it is full of laughter and fun.)
Q: Many people think that unconditional parenting means giving children total freedom and not setting any boundaries at all. Is this true? And if a child violates rules, do you advocate punishment?
Xiao Wu: The concept of “effectiveness” is very popular in parenting circles. However, what many people don’t understand is that something that appears “effective” is not necessarily beneficial to the healthy development of the child. Quick “off-the-cuff” solutions sometimes seem to be effective in the short term, but they often have deleterious long-term consequences. To use an analogy, if a child has a high fever, the fever can be reduced immediately by an antipyretic pill, but this does not solve the underlying cause of the fever. Moreover, this forced reduction in the fever can actually harm the child’s health precisely because it leaves the underlying cause of the problem untreated.
One of the main principles I advocate is to abandon the use of instant “one-trick pony” solutions and instead to spend more energy identifying the real cause of the child’s “fever,” and then work on eliminating that. Using this approach strengthens the child’s “immune system”, which obviously has long-term health benefits.
Moreover, there is no contradiction between respecting a child’s individuality and establishing rules and regulations, which often means regular rhythms, because a child’s healthy development requires both. Life is orderly by nature, so regularities are essential to establishing good habits.
Unfortunately, sometimes the opposite happens in China. For example: in China it’s common to see an adult chasing a child around in order to feed them the “right” amount of food; or allowing children to wreak havoc in public with no restraint. At the other extreme, some children are not allowed to play freely because their parents worry they’ll get their clothes dirty, and oftentimes boys are not allowed a bit of rough-and-tumble play when they’re together because parents don’t realize such behavior is perfectly natural and healthy. These sorts of situations all hinder the normal, healthy development of the child.
Many parents also believe in what is often called the “carrot and stick” approach, which essentially uses rewards and punishments to manipulate a child’s behavior in exactly the same way that people train animals. In order to lead truly fulfilling lives children must find their own inner motivation to develop self-discipline and a deep-seated willingness to learn. External stimuli such as rewards and punishments are counterproductive to that goal.
But the most important thing an adult can do is to be a good role model and let the child follow their good example. In a strong parent-child relationship, the child is actually willing to imitate the parent.
(The Art of Parenting program helps unleash the hidden artistic abilities that every single person possesses.)
Q: How does the program you created called “The Art of Parenting” help parents improve their parenting?
Xiao Wu: When most Chinese people hear the word “art” they often think it refers to something so high-brow it is out of their reach; something one needs professional training to do properly. Almost all public schools in China treat art, music and physical education as the least important and most dispensable subjects. As a result, most parents pay little attention to them as well, unless they want to embellish their child’s resume with a collection of certificates in various artistic disciplines.
In reality, art is life and life is art! My “Art of Parenting” program is designed to inspire parents to incorporate artistic activities into their everyday life in every way possible: for example, cooking, making handicraft, storytelling, singing, playing games, hiking in nature, etc. All of these activities bring “art” and life together, and they are the best way to promote the healthy growth of children as well as the parent-child relationship. When you spend quality time with your children through the “Art of Parenting” approach, you can get twice the benefits with half the effort!
Spending time with children on various artistic activities provides nourishment both ways. First and foremost, these artistic activities nourish the parent. Children imitate their parents, not only externally but internally as well. Only a parent who has a rich inner life, full of happiness, self-confidence and a willingness to be a life-long learner can nurture children who have a rich inner life, are full of happiness, self-confidence and the desire to learn.
I believe that inside every parent lives a singer, an artist, a chef, a storyteller and a handicraft artisan. These inner beings are just like sleeping beauties, once awakened, endless wisdom, talent and energy spring forth. This truth has been confirmed countless times through my program: every student who believes they are an artistic “desert” leaves “The Art of Parenting” course transformed by the realization that they are an artist in ways they never imagined possible.
(It only takes students about half an hour to graduate from drawing stick figures to the beautiful creations that follow! The students are always amazed at their own hidden artistic talents.)
Q: What do you think about the trend towards early intellectual development that many parents are so passionate about? As we face the challenge of AI, how should we approach learning?
Xiao Wu: We need to realize that knowledge is not only what is written in books or published on the Internet. I would dare to say that written texts only account for a small fraction of one percent of true knowledge. Learning is not a sedentary activity; in fact, it is impossible to really learn when you are sitting still. Intelligence is not developed through flash cards and hobby classes, instead true intelligence is acquired through nourishing the mind with artistic activities and the body with physical movements.
Contrary to common belief, the human brain does not operate in the same manner as a computer, via a simple “input – storage – processing – output” mode. Humans function as an integrated whole, in which thinking, feeling and willing must work in harmony to generate true wisdom and happiness. Just as our physical body needs sufficient nutrition for our brain to develop normally, our soul life needs sufficient nourishment to flourish as well. Our thinking, feeling and willing all require a large amount of bodily activities, both artistic and physical, to develop healthily.
Children grow through games and movements. A good pedagogy teaches abstract concepts through fun games and activities. The benefits of physical movements are numerous: they help children develop physically, promote social skills, exercise concentration, awaken intelligence and cognition, develop moral ethics, and heal deficiencies. As a professor at Harvard Medical School once said, “all education is physical education”.
Life only grows through movement. By the same token, art is to the human soul what sunlight, air and water are to the human body. Without art, the soul becomes wilted, life becomes dull, and the body and mind get sick and even die.
(The Art of Imagination Workshop, which is part of The Art of Parenting program, awakens the artistic potential latent in every person. Students are often amazed to discover the range of artistic capabilities they possess and are happy to share them with their fellow students, as shown in these stage performances from a recent workshop.)
Q: There are many contradictory ideas about parenting today, which create a lot of confusion for people. How can parents find an educational philosophy that suits their children?
Xiao Wu: Parents must learn to think independently, and not be influenced or manipulated by others. Most importantly, parents should reflect on their values, because the differences between various parenting concepts are essentially differences in values. Once parents have defined their own value system, they can choose the parenting style that best fits those values. I believe in the philosophy that what truly matters in parenting is not what you say or do, but who you are.
If you are happy with your life; if you are confident in yourself and know your purpose in life as well as how to achieve it; if you know how to work on yourself, your life, your marriage and relationships; if you don’t focus all your attention on controlling your children, but instead on your own personal development, then things become much simpler. All children imitate their parents, and if parents make the effort to become worthy of their children’s imitation, then good parenting will follow as naturally as night follows day.
Q: Some students note that your “Art of Parenting” program is so popular that it sells out every time you launch a new course, and they can’t always enroll in time! Students even report strange “side effects” from attending your course, such as becoming slimmer, more beautiful, sleeping better etc. Why is this so and is the course a lot of fun?
Xiao Wu: The “Art of Parenting” program consists of several workshops which run for 3-5 days in total. The workshops include: The Art of Parenting, The Art of Imagination, Games & Movement, Der Kraft die Seelenverbindung, and The Feast of Twelve Senses.
This program is based on concepts and knowledge drawn from unconditional parenting, Waldorf education, Anthroposophy and humanistic psychology. It integrates plenty of parent-child artistic activities such as music, rhythmic movements, games, drawing, drama, storytelling and so on. Through real-life case studies, students master the art of effective communication; through artistic exercises students unlock their own innate artistic talents and get in touch with their own inner world. The program helps people see themselves and their children for who they truly are, it nourishes and restores the minds and bodies of participants and allows them to grow together.
(Der Kraft die Seelenverbindung workshop, which is part of The Art of Parenting program, uses rhythmical movement and physical activity to help participants deeply understand a child’s experience.)
Q: There will always be times when a child is disobedient or loses their temper. If I can’t punish my child because I’m practicing unconditional parenting, how can I deal with such situations?
Xiao Wu: Parent-child communication is a vital part of parenting; it is also something modern parents need to spend time learning. To this end, I created a model of communication called “Die Kraft der Seelenverbindung” (which literally translates as The Power of Soul Binding) which is included in “The Art of Parenting” program.
However, many parents misunderstand what parent-child communication really entails. They mistakenly believe that communicating with a child relies on particular techniques or tricks, including guessing, reasoning, and coercion. In fact, the best way to understand children or, to put it more accurately, to create mutual understanding between parents and children, is not based on techniques or tricks, but on the heart and mind. The most fundamental skill is objective observation.
Objective observation means observing your child without any presumption or judgment. This is extremely difficult to do, but only by doing this can we understand the child and communicate effectively with them. Such observation demands the acuity of our inner senses, which are nourished, cultivated and trained by artistic activities. One of the functions of artistic activities is to sharpen our senses and perception so we can identify and empathize with the feelings of others.
Imagine a mother whose lifestyle lacks any artistic elements and who can only communicate with her child with insipid, dry words and phrases that come from books; then contrast this mother with another who weaves various artistic activities into her daily living routines. Which mother do you think is more capable of understanding the true feelings behind her child’s words? Which mother can really listen, can let love flow freely like the sunlight, the air and the water? This dramatic contrast has been confirmed numerous times by my students, who have told me that their family relationships improve immensely and their children are transformed into new beings after they master and put into practice the artistic parenting skills I teach in my “Art of Parenting” course!