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Why are schools in China looking west for lessons in creativity?

28 January 2017

From The Financial Times:

In the auditorium of Beijing Bayi School, on a cold morning thick with smog, props are broken, lines unlearnt and the mechanical curtain has blown a fuse. In four hours, my cast of 22 Chinese 14-year-olds, who have never acted before, will perform Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to an audience of 1,500 — in English. All their education has told them that drama is an irrelevance. As I race around the theatre, trying to track down an absent Grandpa Joe and a missing Golden Ticket I ask myself, not for the first time: what am I doing here?

Chinese education has increasingly been hailed as “superior” to the way we teach in the west in recent years. Its success in global tests for 15-year-olds reinforced this sense of a world tilting to the east: in the 2012 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment tests (Pisa), Shanghai, representing China, came first in science, reading and mathematics. Fretful western governments took note, amid mounting concern that China’s educational success would inevitably pave the way for economic and cultural dominance. Or, as the former UK government minister Michael Gove baldly stated when he was secretary of state for education, the UK can either “start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese”.

. . . .

As I can confirm from my five weeks at Bayi School last year, school days are definitely a lot longer than in the west. Older pupils started at about 7.30am and continued until 6pm, usually backed up by evening self-study classes. Most schools have classes on Saturdays, too. If they don’t, middle-class parents will arrange private lessons with tutors. Asia is the fastest-growing market in the global private tuition industry, which is forecast by Global Industry Analysts to be worth nearly $200bn by 2020. Students in Shanghai also spend almost 14 hours a week on homework, close to three times the average given by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

. . . .

To China’s educationalists the timing of the western love affair with their system is striking. For the past decade or so wealthy Chinese parents, keen to avoid the test-dominated regime of their own educations, have been sending their teenage offspring to study in America in dramatically increasing numbers: 46,000 Chinese students attended American high schools in 2015, up from just 637 in 2005. In the UK, Chinese are also “by far” the largest group of international students according to the 2016 Independent Schools Council census.

Now these parents are also demanding a more “western” option at home. Wealthier parents have flocked to enrol their children at the newly opened Chinese arms of traditional British private schools such as Wycombe Abbey and Harrow. UK state schools are beginning to get in on the action too; Bohunt, the school from the BBC programme, is opening a private school in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, next year. And it’s not just parents who have an appetite for something different.

More than a decade ago, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a statement denouncing the “exam-oriented education” of China. In the past few years, the ministry has introduced a policy calling for the formal encouragement of “creativity” and “innovation” in schools. The school where I taught has clearly taken heed. Among sections about a “military training that builds spirit” and “an education in Communism”, its prospectus boasts of Bayi’s commitment to “encourage creative awareness and creative acts”.

Link to the rest at The Financial Times (if you hit a paywall, you may want to cut and paste “Why are schools in China looking west for lessons in creativity?” and see what happens)


17 Comments to “Why are schools in China looking west for lessons in creativity?”

  1. My wife and I left China in 2013. A big reason was that we didn’t want our son to eventually enter into the Chinese education system.

    It sucks.

    I know this because I taught in the country for 5 years, 2 of those years in public schools with 50 kids in a class.

    If the Chinese education system of mindlessly memorizing facts is so good, why can’t China come up with any ideas?

    This country makes the things that we in the West think up. Chinese students don’t have the ability to think for themselves. That’s critical if you want to think-up iPhones and not just produce them.

  2. Various groups have done extensive research on learning. We have learned that:

    1) Early starts are not conducive to learning, particularly for teenagers,

    2) Long school days are less effective than shorter school days, and

    3) Our current testing strategies measure short-term memorization, not long-term mastery.

    It’s complicated and developing subject. I recommend the Nova (PBS) documentary School of the Future for an overview of some of the questions.

  3. From Neil Gaiman:

    At the first nationally recognized science fiction convention in China in 2007, Gaiman took a party official aside and said, “While not actually illegal, science fiction is regarded as dangerous and subversive in China. Why did you say yes to a science-fiction convention?”
    The party official answered, “In China, we’re really good at making things people bring to us, but we don’t invent, we don’t innovate.” When Chinese party officials visited Google, Apple and Microsoft, they asked what the executives read as children. The official continued: “They all said, ‘We read science fiction. The world doesn’t have to be the way it is right now. We can change it.’ ” “That,” said Gaiman, “is the big dangerous thing.”

    • SF is the literature of ideas.
      And every social, technological, or political revolution starts out as an idea.

      Robert Heinlein once said there were four basic SF story categories:

      – What if…?
      – If only…
      – If this goes on…
      – The little tailor.

      The first three are way too dangerous for autocratic statist regimes. And most other statist regimes, in the long haul.

      Once people conceive of alternate realities they will inevitably start comparing them to theirs. Disaffection follows.

      Dangerous Visions lie down that road.

    • Authoritarian societies are bad at innovation. Who could have guessed?

  4. Stolen from elsewhere elsewhen:


    On schooling:

    “The children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone would be interdependent.”
    -John Dewey

    “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed customs. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”
    -William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889-1906.

    “Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life, because they’re not tempted to think about any other role.”
    -William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889-1906.

    “Individual talent is too sporadic and unpredictable to be allowed any important part in the organization society. Social systems which endure are built on the average person who can be trained to occupy any position adequately if not brilliantly.”
    -Stuart Chase, The Proper Study of Mankind, 1948.

    “A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.”
    -Justice H. Walter Croskey, 2008.


    So the Chinese already do this better than we do — and they are finding it to be flawed …

  5. I lived in China nearly five years and volunteered in both public and private school. While the education system has many flaws, one thing I can say confidently is that the Chinese students are relentlessly studious and dedicated. I’ve also done extensive research on the national college entrance exams called a gaokao (even dedicated a plotline in one of my books for it) and have seen firsthand the desperate measures parents and students will take to achieve high scores. An interesting fact is that a student’s major isn’t chosen by him/her, it’s usually chosen based on their gaokao scores. If that student isn’t interested in that career path, too bad. (more oppression, imho) Sadly, the rumors are that the exam has been a huge reason for the high suicide rate of young adults in China.

    • My heart goes out to those kids.
      I had a somewhat similar experience back when I was in college. I was a Chemical Engineering major and loving it (as Maxwell Smart would say). Third year, I used one of my free electives to take Industrial Engineering statistics because I was familiar with the math from high school, I’d enjoyed it, and I figured it might come in handy out in the real world. I, uhh, killed it. Enough that the teacher asked me to consider switching departments. I was politely non-committal and ran for the hills.
      (Word got out among the other ChemE’s and half my class too the course the next semester. Semester after that, cross-departmental electives required approval by both dept heads.)

      On the results, I was great at the basics of Industrial Engineering. Temperamentally, it would have been a disaster. As a ChemE I’ve ended up running eight different careers, the last six at the same R&D job. And even when the work was technically the same, the day to day was vastly different year to year. It suited me to a tee.

      So yeah, if they’d gone by the test results I probably would’ve been pigeonholed as an economist or stats guy in a production environment. And been totally miserable. (I quit my first job precisely because after 15 months I was doing the exact same job as 20-year veterans.)

      That chinese system would’ve killed me. I.m too flighty.

      On the flip side, I had co-workers who transferred out because they preferred a more academic job, focusing on just one area of tech. It takes all kinds.

      • This focus on a certain type of education is not restricted to Communist China. It also happens in democratic South Korea, and possibly Japan as well [?].

        Comparing the results of the two systems [Asian and Western] is difficult because they are not testing the same things. The Asian system is attempting to create good, /useful/ citizens. The Western system is trying to make every child ‘creative’.

        I haven’t taught in Western classrooms for decades, but I have tutored students recently, and I’ve been shocked by the lack of basic skills I’ve found. These year 11 and 12 students were happy, personable kids, but they made basic spelling errors – e.g. there instead of their or they’re – and they were no more creative than the people I went to school with [back when good spelling, grammar and the times tables were expected of all students].

        Learning how to finger paint in kinder does not guarantee your child will become another Picasso, but not learning how to read and write does lead to second class citizenship. Some individuals may fight their way to a creative life despite their education, but most won’t.

        Secondary education has to be balanced between the needs of the society and the inclinations of the individual, but primary education has to provide all children with the tools to succeed later on, when they are old enough to know what they want to do with their lives.

        Imho, neither education system really works for the individual.

        • China and Japan are different. (My sister taught in China. I taught in Japan.) In China, the tests determine what you do. In Japan, the tests determine your options. (And schools have individual entrance exams.)

          The highest level of required education in Japan is the end of middle school (grade 9), but most students finish high school (grade 12). There are many specialized high schools that are equivalent to trade schools in North America — including mechanics schools, cooking schools, farming schools, fishing schools.

          There is an extremely strong tendency in Japan to fail students upward with their age group so that it quickly becomes impossible to handle the subject material. There is also an extreme focus on cramming and testing with the result that the problem of students entering university unable to form questions is even greater than it is in North America.

          On balance I would say that in regards to serving students and the general society, the Japanese system is in some ways superior to the Canadian system, and the Canadian system is in some ways superior to the Japanese system.

          • Thanks so much for that information about Japan. I’ve never been there, although I would love to go, possibly to teach.

            Here in Australia, we have trade schools as well, although in recent years they’ve lost so much funding I’m not sure how effective they still are. On the other hand, ordinary schools, both public and private, have extended the curriculum to include VET subjects [Vocational Education and Training], so there is an overlap of sorts.

            Nevertheless, most students are failed upwards as well, and dissatisfaction with the education system is a hot button topic. So many entrenched views, often who either never taught, or couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom.

            -shrug- I’m sure there is no ideal way of educating the young, but this way is not keeping the majority of them engaged, and it’s also not giving them the tools they’ll need for life. 🙁

            • ‘failed upwards’

              Ah yes, that ‘no student left behind’ joke, which translates to ‘all classes are to be dummied down to the dumbest dummy’.

              Which is one reason home schooling and private schools look so good to those that have the time or money to use them.

              In one of my stories I made fun of current ‘sex-ed’ here in the USA by pointing out that they seem to think a kid will auto-magically know was it’s all about when they hit 18/21 — and won’t even think about sex until they hit that age. (One of my alpha readers suggested I was getting too close to the truth for it to be funny, but it’s getting where the kids are told ‘we’ll tell you’ or ‘you’ll understand’ later, and then they come of age and are told ‘you should know this by now!’)

    • My sister taught in China for a year. She taught English to students destined to be middle school teachers. Less than half of them wanted to be middle school teachers, but that’s the course their test scores had set them on. These students were still in high school, not college.

      ETA: More than half of them said they didn’t want to be middle school teachers, which in an oppressive regime probably undercounts those who didn’t want it.

  6. So you can’t just hit kids palms with a ruler and order them to be creative?

  7. I lived in Japan for many years. China, Japan, the Koreas, all are societies based on Confucian ideas. Formalized ideas of hierarchy guides every interaction. In every human situation there’s rank from top to runt. A western idea like equality (2 or more having the same rank) is considered highly volatile and against the natural hierarchical order. Question someone with higher rank is out of the question. New inventions happen when we question the status quo. China’s inventions stopped happening once the Confucian society was established.

    I checked the number of Nobel prize awards for Japan and Germany 1946-2000. Both countries were destroyed by a war they lost. Both were industrialized nations with public school systems which is why they could rebuild so fast. All things considered the two nations should have roughly the same number of prizes adjusting for population. Germany had 51. Japan with roughly double the population had 9.

    It’s not just the school system and the standardized testing. A society that has blind obedience as a core value sees creativity as a threat.

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