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Not Creative

Popularity 13Viewed 7182 times 2014-3-12 13:41 |System category:Life| creativity, innovation, Jane Austen, English writing, English classes

Foreigners think of Chinese people as intelligent and hardworking, but not creative or innovative. Chinese children learn early they must memorize from books to pass tests. Creative thinking is devalued because it doesn't get better test scores. In China, your future is bleak if you don't memorize well enough to regurgitate the right answers for exams. It's a poor way to gauge ability.

The English writing book I had to use to teach college classes in Lianyungang was not interesting. It was written in Shanghai and had things I'd never seen in an American textbook. Why must an essay have three points, or five points? Who says you must include famous sayings in your essay?

For one assignment, many of my students wrote, “No pain, no gain”. Because I hate cliches and tired sayings, I told the kids to think of other ways of expressing an idea. I warned they'd get a lower grade in my class for being unoriginal. They said, well, we're supposed to use sayings for writing essays for tests. I groaned.

The textbook assigned short, medium, and long essays on the single subject of “How to be a Good Middle School Teacher”. I got sick of that subject. No doubt my students were also sick of writing about it over and over. Plus some of them copied their friends' essays word for word. So not only was there a lack of originality, they even colluded in unoriginality. It was too depressing.

My students were confused when I asked them to choose their own topics to write about. Why must the teacher assign one? One girl said, “But that assignment is not in the book.” I said, “Of course not. That's the whole point.” I wrote a short descriptive paragraph as an example, read it aloud, and told my students to pick someone they knew - a parent, sibling, friend, pet - and describe appearance, personality, behavior, etc.

The students read their writing aloud. Many described people they knew, but there were also great descriptions of a well-loved cell phone, a lucky pencil, a chalkboard, and a schoolbag. Whenever a student expressed an idea well, I praised the effort. In a previous assignment they had written about why they found English difficult, so I knew some found it boring; difficult because their vocabulary was inadequate; frustrating because they could not adequately describe their ideas and feelings.

I said I found the textbook dreary, and that it would never have been my choice of a textbook. I said they should not assume that writing was only about learning various formulae for passing exams. Writing is so much more. It gives you freedom, I said. As a writer, you can say things however you want to, in ways no one else does. It is a way of communicating your ideas to the world, or secrets just to yourself. Read good writers, but don't copy what they write. Say it in your own way.

I recommended they read the Wall Street Journal, Harper's Magazine, Raymond Chandler. I mentioned Jane Austen, whom Chinese girls like because of big-budget romantic movies based her novels. I remarked that Jane's books are hilarious. The class didn't understand this; they'd never thought of Pride and Prejudice as satirical or a comedy of manners. I think Jane would be sad to know that to them, it is just an English romance.

It's easier to steal good ideas than to develop them yourself. When originality is rare and intellectual property rights are not respected or enforced, piracy runs rampant. Or Chinese companies must hire foreigners to think originally, because Chinese employees can't. But they don't suddenly become creative, when they were never allowed to be. Must they come to America to learn how? Innovate, or evaporate. I don't know who first said that, but it's a perfect quote. And not a cliché, either.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Reply Report voice_cd 2014-3-12 17:39
Thanks for sharing your story here! We have highlighted your story to the homepage.
Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-3-12 18:16
The fact that in Chinese education pupils are taught that there is only one correct answer to many issues and that debate is not encouraged (even in university in certain topics) are weaknesses of the Chinese system. I asked a Chinese student if he thought that innovation was important? He said: yes - copy that!
Reply Report ExileMick 2014-3-12 20:40
I like the adage "Written without care, read without interest."
Reply Report Léoni 2014-3-13 05:15
Actually, as a Chinese student, we lack of practice and observation. From the primary school, we are told to memorze good expressions or even composiions. Until college, our teacher may still ask us to memorize the mode of an essay or some useful senteces. I think our mind or idea is limited to some degree.
Reply Report juzunme 2014-3-15 05:40
I suppose old habit die hard. Born out of a culture developed around memorising Confucian sayings and Tang poems, it seems easier than to think of creating something else.

Would it be heretical to do things like critical analysis of Confucian sayings or to totally reinterpret the Tang poems. What would happen if I tell the teacher I don't think that is what the poet meant? Based on the thinking at that time, the poet might be saying something else. Would I get a D instead of an A for arguing that? The penalty will motivates me to move in one direction. That is what drives everyone to think the same, write the same and not deviate too far from the same. That is the art of copying. It produces generation of people trained in copying technique. Nothing wrong with that. But we also need the other type of people strong in creating new products and ideas. That requires a different type of education.
Reply Report lexalee 2014-3-15 12:28
when learning a new skill, everyone must copy proper form. But once you know that, you can develop new ideas. That is how progress is achieved. Otherwise you just stay where you are, at the same level.
Reply Report AlexisFW85 2014-3-15 18:56
"Read good writers, but don't copy what they write. Say it in your own way."

Well said!
Reply Report MissBarbara 2014-3-16 02:31
but someone said "there is nothing new under the sun."
Reply Report Bloke 2014-3-16 16:39
If you are familiar with Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development then this all makes sense. For children in the pre operational phase they develop imagination and start to experiment. This comes from exploring new environments and picking up anything they can. This usually happens between the ages of 2-6. Unfortunately, from what I have seen parents, and more often grandparents, don't let their chidlren roam freely nor play with anything they like, restricting this development. Then, even worse, during the concrete operational phase, the children's development is stunted by the schools. From 7-11, children start to piece together their knowledge to solve problems, even if they fail many times before doing so. They use a million memories to work their way through a situation and develop their inductive reasoning, that is, solving problems through trial and error and past knowledge. Sadly, when you are not allowed to ask questions, make mistakes or think for yourself this stage is slowed down and the following stage never develops properly. It is in that stage, the formal operational stage, that children begin to think in abstract and logical ways to solve problems just in their head, including problems they have never seen before using creativity. Essentially deductive reasoning.  
Given all of these methods parents and teachers use in China, and sadly more and more often around the world as parents 'over parent', it is no wonder there isn't a lot of creativity.
Reply Report Bloke 2014-3-16 16:43
juzunme: I suppose old habit die hard. Born out of a culture developed around memorising Confucian sayings and Tang poems, it seems easier than to think of cre ...
The sad thing is Confucious had so many ideas about thinking and bettering your self and mind. He believed in deep thought and real education and even better, questioning your government if they were not doing a good job.
I find it very ironic that your teachers want you to memorise Confucious' saying but not think about them, because that is the exact opposite of what Confucious was all about.
Reply Report lexalee 2014-3-16 19:07
Among the most interesting times I've ever had are in the wilderness when you must improvise - to treat injuries, to cook, to collect water, etc. Even a plastic bag or a tree branch can become very valuable. You must use creativity and imagination to survive, there are no streets or street signs, and no one is standing around saying you can't do that, it's not in the book.
Reply Report LanaLiao 2014-3-16 21:23
Chinese are intelligent, hardworking, but not creative or innovative, as a Chinese, I also agree on this. I have long been wondering: our smart ancestors had world-renowned Four Inventations, but hundreds of years later, all of a sudden, their offspring become innovative though they have kept the excellent tradition of diligence. Why?Is it just because of the present Chinese education system? But, our ancestors' education system has long been believed, proved and criticized to be much more problematic and detrimental to people who received the education. My own explanation is: Nowadays, the bustling and foppish world has left little time or room for people to think deep about the world around them and also about themselves.
Reply Report huaren2323 2014-3-17 16:25
Thought provoking topic and very interesting comments and observation. I hope that with new found abundance, China is ready for renaissance in more aspects than just good governance and onto individual cognitive and creative development.
In retrospect, I believe I am a products of many educational system both traditional Chinese <with features of rote memory> and the Benedictine discipline and the liberal thougts of the Jesuits. Trying to figure out the best educational system for 1.4 Billion people while ensuring food on the table and quelling external physical and economic incursion is indeed a difficult task but nonetheless compelling reason for future survival as a nation. This forum and the explosion of ideas over the internet will urge participant and principals to improvise and "improve". I believe that there are many other systems of education that best serve a country but one underlying foundation is the education/nurturing one has before they turn 10 either through formal education and from growing up within a secure, happy and loving family ( and extended family) circumstances...just my 2 cents worth of opinion.
Reply Report lexalee 2014-3-17 17:57
juzunme: I suppose old habit die hard. Born out of a culture developed around memorising Confucian sayings and Tang poems, it seems easier than to think of cre ...
your questions are right on the mark, in my opinion; there are many ways of educating people but I think the key is to allow students to ask questions, think independently, and disagree. There are things that must be memorized - numbers, letters, characters - but definitely not everything. we have invented computers to remember all that data. would computers have been invented if creative people did not think outside the box?
Reply Report jiewei798 2014-3-27 17:04
Great blog post! I encounter this problem with my students all the time. Plagiarism is rampant and I don't think they even understand why it is bad.

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I am a semi-retired American physician and medical/science writer who lives in New Orleans, in the southeastern USA. I spent 2012-2013 teaching at a college in Lianyungang, Jiangsu.


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