We Cannot Teach our Kids to Compete with Machines

I remember watching a video of Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma, speaking a couple of years ago and the message has stuck with me. He was criticizing the education systems of the world for being too focused on teaching kids to do tasks that a computer could do much better.

He said that if we want to have our kids’ education come to any use in their future careers, we need to teach them the skills that humans can do better than machines.

“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. We have to teach something unique so the machines can never catch up with us.”

-Jack Ma

Unschooling is the ideal method of education for people who want their kids to learn how to use tools and not to become tools. No child who has freedom of thought and freedom of movement will waste time learning to do a useless thing. They tend to spend all their time focusing on things that make them happy, that help them accomplish their goals.

So I’ve been thinking, what skills do I see my children developing that machines can’t do, and how does unschooling help with that development?


Instead of art and music being relegated to short periods of time in between more “important” subjects, creative endeavors often take up my children’s focus for most of a day. My oldest daughter spends the majority of her waking hours working on her art, planning her next project. My son just found a new guitar teacher and is working hard training his clumsy hands to manipulate the strings. They create new games and jokes and dances, and try them out together. Creating is as natural to humans as breathing, and school leaves very little room for it because of the focus on showing children things that other people have discovered and created already.

Freedom of thought

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take away from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us “

-John Holt

The last sentence of the above quote describes exactly how humans program computers. We should not be attempting to program other humans the same way. It is morally wrong to attempt to do so, not to mention that if it succeeds, a waste of potential.

care for others

When you place children in situations where they are competing against each other for grades, for social status, for the attention of adults, you can’t expect them to prioritize care for others. In schools, so much lip service is paid to values like kindness and empathy, but those things are not what gets you ahead in school. Children know this, and are not fooled.

The rampant problems with bullying in schools are evidence that the school system does not encourage love and empathy, but rather makes those things seem to be a liability and a weakness.

If a child has a decent family, these things are better taught in a family setting than an institution.


Some might say that in school, children do learn to work in teams. I would ask you to question that. When kids participate in team classwork at school, they are either assigned to work with random classmates by the teacher, or choose to work with friends for the chance to socialize more. The work will not be self chosen, it will be assigned by a teacher, and the correct answers and methods will usually already be known by the teacher. Doing school work in groups like this might teach children how to cope with similar situations they might encounter in a future workplace, but is this kind of teamwork that humanity will require in order to solve its problems?

True teamwork is the ability to tackle a real problem by accurately assessing your own skills, identifying the skills and expertise of other people, and using everyone’s strengths to work together for a common goal.

I don’t think doing group projects in school teaches this because the goal in that case is an arbitrary “good grade” from the teacher. So the kid who is best at getting a good grade will often take charge, do more than their share of the work, and resent the other members of his team including those who aren’t good at getting good grades and those who don’t think getting good grades is interesting or important.

In the real world outside of school, every member of a team has to have similar goals and be willing to do their share of the work.

In a team of scientists trying to develop a useful new technology, a focus on making yourself look good will not contribute to the solving of important problems. The self serving, egotistical team member will be a drag on the work.

Children learn true teamwork the same way they learn other things: by participating in it. When children participate in family life, when they build a fort with their brother, when they play a game with a group of friends at the park, they are doing true team work.

So let’s stop teaching our kids things that machines can do better, and make sure their education lets their human skills develop as fully as possible.

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