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On Chinese Youth And The Elusive Hunt For Creativity

China's exam-oriented culture does not foster imagination, which is necessary to create better employees and better people.

Chinese students are plugged in, but are they opened up?
Chinese students are plugged in, but are they opened up?
Yan Yong


BEIJING — A Chinese mother recently told a story about her child, a first grader, on WeChat, China's equivalent of Facebook. A fill-in-the-blank question on the child's school test asked: "What does a persimmon on the tree look like?" The correct answer was a lantern. Unfortunately, her son didn't pick this answer because he saw absolutely no relation between the two objects.

Recently, Chinese mothers have been talking online about TV programs addressed to children. While they admire the way foreign productions implement imagination, they also regret the "embarrassing amount of problems' of domestic productions. They couldn't help asking – what is killing our kids' imaginations?

This reminds me of another video I recently saw on WeChat. In the clip, a first-grade girl recites something fluently. I didn't have any clue what she was reciting until the mum explained that she was memorizing a series of words which all started with the same character. They were just individual words without context. And why memorize them? The answer is that by doing so, it becomes easier to cope with the exam where pupils are asked to fill in empty spaces that correspond to the phonetics.

This is the answer. These two stories do not discredit Chinese education. On the contrary, they can be regarded as portrayals of the system.

Primary education is a stage of precious enlightenment for children. If children are not allowed to give multiple answers at this stage, and if they use rote memorization instead of fresh thinking, then it will be an unrealistic hope that these children remain curious, creative and critical when they grow up.

As Pallavi Aiyar, an Indian journalist who formerly worked in China, observed, the education Chinese students receive convinces them that there are always only two answers, right or wrong. She said she was always encouraged to do exactly the opposite. When she studied philosophy, what her professors emphasized in class was to never blindly follow. Thus, while she praised the economic accomplishments of China, she also missed the happiness of the free and boundless thinking of the Indian speculative tradition.

By the time these students enter the workplace, their creative genes are all but non-existent.

What is at stake here is not only the country's education system. Ultimately, it concerns China's economic development and the improvement of social autonomy. Curiosity, imagination and critical thinking are sources of innovation. When we talk about the Chinese economy entering a new stage, we will need to rely on innovation for it to be sustainable, with potential for high-quality development. So, does our education foster such potential? Or is it destroying whimsy, unusual imagination and dissent?

Critical thinking is not a simple negation. It is easy to say "no". What is harder is to form a rational, constructive and opposite opinion afterwards. A fully autonomous society needs thorough debate. But it ought to be founded on listening, on clear but restrained expression, and it has to surpass the narrowness of obedience to authority.

Education, especially elementary education, is there to empower creativity, not to run counter to it. China and the whole East-Asian region have always been imbued with an examination-oriented culture. To better cope with exams, primary schools teach pupils a solid basis of knowledge instead of freeing their creative spirit. By the time these students enter higher education or the workplace, their creative genes are all but non-existent.

Is it necessary to prepare the college entrance exam over 12 years? How can we expect a pupil to feel the world is colorful and that opinions can vary when standardized answers are imposed and points are deducted at an age when their minds should be unconstrained? Can they visualize "the willow looks like hair; the flying crow's feather looks like a fish"? How can we possibly convince them that learning is an intellectual exploration full of fun when, right at the start, we teach them the rote memorization method to take exams?


Creativity should be valued in children, not squashed — Image: Gauthier Delecroix

Relying on the education system to change all this takes time. In effect, everyone — including educators, but also parents — can move forward by changing themselves little by little. Today, there are already educators thinking about this. They are exploring small but concrete reforms, or simply getting out of the existing system to try out new forms of education. These new educational models are attracting clear and strong-minded parents. They have even received attention and encouragement from educational authorities and are likely to become the engine to promote mainstream education reform.

Compared with new education models, the institutional system is stronger in stability and certainty. However, the essence of education is to guard one's innate gift of curiosity and stimulate free thinking, and thus create the ability to learn for life. At the very least, rather than reciting a meaningless vocabulary, get the child to spend time on classic and humanistic readings.

This requires both concentration and endurance. But in the long term, it will benefit both the individual and the country. In a fast-developing society, knowledge and skills can become easily outdated. But those that empower creativity, even if they seem invisible and useless, will infiltrate the foundation of each child's life and help them to become a better employee, a better citizen, and a better person.

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