My visit to Chinese schools has left me with amazing memories and a sense of scale that has changed forever my sense of “big.” The train stations were enormous. The cities were enormous. The schools were enormous, well organized, and full of bright-eyed students eager to try out their English on visitors. I loved the attention given to exercise and physical well-being. I loved seeing the culturally specific activities created for the young children, for example, matching games of opera masks and mythological characters. Of course, this was a small slice of a complex country, but it gave me some interesting opportunities to consider the ways we incorporate creativity in classrooms.
The schools I visited were very interested in incorporating more creativity in their educational system. They recognize that without innovative thinking, China’s economy cannot grow in the ways it needs to. At the very time that Americans are engaged in a quest to emulate China’s test-taking prowess, the Chinese are realizing that test-taking isn’t enough. We have a lot to learn from them.
Still, I found that even in places that were working hard to incorporate creativity in their schools, the Chinese—just like many Americans—sometimes confused attractiveness with creativity, particularly in the arts. The schools were full of children’s projects, beautifully displayed. Some of these represented genuine opportunities to explore an art form, with each child’s individuality shining through.
Other times, “art” activities were lovely, but basically an exercise in following directions. Students who color worksheets beautifully, or paint a mask as directed, or fill a pre-printed outline with varied seeds, produce attractive results, but their opportunities for flexible thinking are very limited. The displays looked wonderful, but the opportunity for creativity was more on the part of the teacher who designed the activity, rather than the children who completed it.
On the other hand, one of my favorite displays exhibited minimal color or artistic finesse, but lots of creativity. In it, students drew analogies between parts of the body and parts of the government, allowing them to think about each in new ways. It wasn’t flashy, but it documented genuine flexibility in thinking.
The flash vs. substance dilemma is an international one. I have seen exactly the same issues arise in U.S. schools. I suspect because many people’s first association with the word “creativity” is in the arts, it is easy to think that if something is attractive, it is creative. But as the old song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Creativity can be messy, literally and figuratively. While we all need to learn techniques—in art, in science labs, etc.—they are only a means to an end. Sometimes a well-crafted piece is less important than an original one. Finding the balance between teaching students the skills that allow them to create and giving them the freedom to do so is a challenge on both sides of the globe.