Do Chinese schools kill creativity double time?

Do Chinese schools kill creativity double time?

Slide1I’ve posted some videos and an article here and there surrounding the theme of Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Conference keynote – “Do Schools Kill Creativity.”

With regards to that, I think Chinese schools kill creativity on overdrive, triple-time and with a C-word sense of duty.

Doing more and being better at killing creativity.

First, there’s tons more meaningless, repetitive, drill work in Chinese schools. I cannot believe my eyes that students copy word for word (words they don’t understand, sometimes) off a textbook. Often they spend hours duplicating the textbook (instructions, questions, graphs, coloring in) with no tangible benefit whatsoever. The intangible benefit, I suppose is that it allows Chinese-school teachers to avoid the actual work of a teacher – improving their skills and cognitive capacities of learning and teaching – and do busywork themselves. (Marking 45 variants of the exact same thing PER CLASS, several times a week.)

Contrast that to my equally boring, meaningless schooling experience : My teachers would ask whether we were stupid or ignorant copying what was already stated on the book. We were reprimanded for our lack of common sense in doing that. Even when it came to Math questions, we were only asked to show the workings. We were also not punished for how and where we decided to do the workings and in what particular order of questions. (Skip the harder ones and get back to them later down the exercise book.) There was, after all, question and page numbering so it wasn’t much of a problem. I suppose because we did only half as much drill work, our teachers got to pay quality time in checking our work instead of merely marking off a list thus the sequence of questions we did them in didn’t matter as much as the way we showed how we worked it out.

It didn’t matter if it was underlined, single spacing or double spacing or writing in between lines. Of course they did try and show us examples of neater ways of doing it but we were not punished for things which were not relevant to the actual learning itself. I wrote in between lines until I was about 11…..I simply couldn’t see “lines”; they moved,  and that is why using blank sheets of paper with a typewriter was my first experience of “creative liberation”.

Higher Asian Math and Science test scores – taken out of context.

I think it’s unanimously agreed by any outsider that the idea of Chinese (perhaps Asian) schools in general is that to get better at something is to do more of what’s broken. Sometimes doing something broken has short-term results, if you’re being taught to the test and your ultimate goal in life is to do the Math or Science paper and get over with it.

I often read about Americans saying Asians score “higher” in Math and Science but that’s only because we’re talking about a particular kind of data mined from a particular style of testing for it. This higher scores in Math and Science doesn’t necessarily translate to problem-solving skills and innovation, areas I believe others are way ahead of.

I once tutored this 6-year old who goes to a cram school for Math. Her mother being Asian-Australian, she comes from an English speaking home but goes to a Chinese school. Apparently she can do triple digit multiplications and read at a level several years ahead of her age in English but she couldn’t grasp the idea of “two dozen eggs”. I illustrated to her the meaning of a dozen, drew out eggs on a carton. She understood eggs and she understood a carton. She repeated “means 12” and then I asked her, “So 2 dozen eggs make……?”. And blank. It didn’t occur to her to put 2 times 12 together. Finally, I wrote it out as a straight line equation, just numbers 12 x 2 = and she immediately wrote down 24. It made me wonder even if 6 year olds couldn’t do triple digit multiplications, they’re usually able to do multiples of 12 until 48, mainly because of a sense of the clock and eggs that they see in the supermarket. So what’s happening here?

Many Chinese school students are able to regurgitate answers in tests but it doesn’t mean they are able to apply what they’ve learned in real life to make beautiful patterns, stories and sequences. With so many Asians scoring so much better on Math and Science tests, why aren’t we inspired to make a movie like “A Beautiful Mind” or”Good Will Hunting” ? Is it because there aren’t such stories to inspire us in the first place?

Low self-esteem and lack autonomy.

Another thing which compounds the destruction of creativity of Chinese-school students is the lack of a sense of selfscrewyoudownand autonomy. Sometimes I hear students complain about how stupid a teacher is for making them comply with rules for work which are meaningless and stupid. I ask them, “So why don’t you tell your teacher how you feel? Maybe your teacher never saw it that way and would benefit from your input. That’s much better than talking behind your teacher’s back.” They stared at me with jaws wide open, like the ISA squad is going to swoop down any moment from the sky and hang me for heresy without a trial. –

See, when I was a secondary student, around their age, I had a history teacher who made us copy maps already illustrated in the textbook. I told her this : (1) This isn’t a Geography class. Knowing the outlines of a country is not relevant to knowing its history. (2) I have the textbook, I own it. I can refer to it anytime without needing to draw it out. (3) Even if it’s for my own good, in the History examination paper it doesn’t require us to draw maps. (4) Drawing maps doesn’t help with remembering facts unless they are mind-maps. (5) Since I own the book, can’t I just cut it out? (6) Since cutting out a textbook is as serious an offence as desecrating the Bible, I live near a photocopy shop, can’t I just photocopy it then and cut it out?

It makes a difference

Even if my teacher would hate me for my pre-emptive honesty, I had a school environment that wouldn’t torture me psychologically over a right to say something tactfully. Schools are a great place to kill leadership and autonomy but it makes a lot of difference to a young person to what extent a school environment practices it. Chinese schools practice respect for authority to an unhealthy extreme. I’d hate to say it’s a cultural thing but sometimes we must be wise to what cultural practices are helpful and which are not.

I read an example of how an illogical sense of respect for authority caused Korean Air to crash many times more than an average airline. The gist of it is that even though a co-pilot’s job was to take over when they doubt the Captain’s capacity to make decisions, the “subordinates” did not communicate this in a way that would have prevented a disaster. Such cultural beliefs be it the way the language is structured or a learned pecking order, I believe, carries into the lives of children even after schooling, shaping the way they perceive learning and self-improvement and thus preventing them from being self-directed, open and confident learners.

I believe there are exceptions to the rule but those exceptions do not a black swan make affecting the overall impact of the destruction of Creativity in Chinese schools. My concern is that in a world where Creativity and Intuition is so important in making sense of our purpose and living a meaningful life, the destruction of it so early has varied repercussions. I believe having a deep sense of purpose about life and living meaningfully affects our moral and ethical behavior as well as our ability to empathise with others. While not all Chinese are equally immoral and unethical and unsympathetic to the rest of the world, it is a universal fact, Chinese or otherwise, that if you are made to feel worthless and your life feels meaningless, morality weighs in less in your decisions regarding the value of others.

Space to breathe.

Going to a school where the teacher hardly comes to class and no teaching happens is still better than going to a school where there’s no time and space to BREATHE and the right to be your authentic self. During my primary school years, I had an Art Teacher who looked like Diana Ross and probably had a love life like Diana Ross’ too. (It was rumoured.) She was frequently absent or late for class. But since all the art material had been laid out, I got a chance to create “blackboard Pollack-style water art” in her absence. I would imitate her Diana Ross air, stand in front of my class and pretend to be a Diva with a brush. I would take brushes, dip them in the cans of water we got ready and showed my classmates  how to make patterns on a chalk-covered blackboard. I couldn’t really paint on pristine sheets of art paper, but water will dry off by the time the teacher makes an appearance. Nobody paid attention to my evaporating art but we had a good laugh. So honestly, I liked better to go to schools when the timetable shows a day where quite a number of teachers would either have a no-show or show up just before the bell went off. (So the next teacher wouldn’t be able to tell we were unsupervised for an entire hour.) Schools are miniature concentration camps for children but being able to go to one with laxer security can make a major difference to the health of our psyche.

I hope you see the difference that to what extent schools kill creativity matters. In the Chinese school I taught ( a secondary one) teenagers were not allowed their own time even when a teacher was absent. The only spark of going to school once you reach secondary school was being able to see your friends. So what’s wrong with exploring our friendships when a teacher can’t make it to class? It’s not as if any learning happens anyway with a teacher in it.  But instead, another teacher would take over and cram more learning in so as not to “waste precious time.” Not a lot of opportunities for creative humor or some “time-out”.

I’m writing from a premise of Malaysian-Chinese schools but some points would be relevant to Chinese schools everywhere else. By now (hope you’ve been looking around this blog) we’d have probably agreed that doing dull, boring, repetitive work and having our type of intelligence stifled or invalidated does great harm to our creative capacity. And nowhere else will you see a stronger example of killing creativity than in Chinese schools.

No learning happens until you heal from the trauma of going to a Chinese-school.

Let me confirm this for you (both as a Chinese and as a teacher of English to Chinese-learners) it is very, very true. Their lack of creative capacity compounded with a crippling low self-worth and a cultural collective that dares not question anyone they perceive as having higher authority severely impairs their language acquisition. Unless you’re a heretic, and rest assured the fact would be made very clear to you, insight and learning doesn’t happen until a person has  recovered from their Chinese-schooling experience (being able to accept the harm it has done to them, critically examining it).

To that effect,  their second-language development will not take off until they re-engineer their relationship between themselves, learning and the learning facilitator. It shouldn’t surprise you then that adults who have done well for themselves financially and thus feel empowered to criticize their language learning experience do better in language acquisition than those still in recovery.

I can hear the holler-back that “non-Chinese school students” are disrespectful of authority. That is only true if we think of authority as a good thing. I believe that respect and fear are mutually exclusive. We respect people for the tangible ways they’ve exhibited a higher level of thinking and morality. We fear something will happen to us if we don’t exhibit compliance to an authority figure. Vastly different ideas.

I’m at a crossroads where I wouldn’t know how to teach effective language learning without making heretics out of damaged secondary school students. – Our brains are not stupid; we cannot convince ourselves to agree to 2  completely different ideas of “logic” at the same time. One way of thinking will be dominant, cancelling out the other as “not logical”.

For this reason alone, that Malaysian Chinese schools kill creativity like a maniac on Speed, parents should reconsider whether the sacrifice of Creativity for imperfect learning of Mandarin is a price worth paying. From an experience of my brief encounter with language teaching, it isn’t.

We do not have time to treat our children like lab-rats. I have seen adults who never recovered from their schooling experience. Parents had better consider whether it’s better to  trust allowing children to develop creativity,autonomy and self-reliance or to subject them to a life-long scarring experience.



Filed under Danger School

2 responses to “Do Chinese schools kill creativity double time?

  1. Fern

    I’ve been thinking and re-thinking whether to send my girl to SK or SK(J)C… it’ll be a “war” with my hubby… as I came from a SK and my hubby SK(J)C…. They will never understand…. all they have in mind is that “Hey… I turned out OK”?????


    • How “OK” is OK? The battle between SK and SJKC sometimes isn’t a matter of the quality of education but the political and racial sentiments behind it. Education is very personal and seldom are we objective about our choices. For instance, homeschooling is a highly personal choice based on what parents see is happening to our world which can be traced to schooling and business systems made in the image of Industrialism. I cannot be an unschooling advocate & self-professed innovative educator without railing against the current outmoded education systems of the world (or for other homeschoolers, secularism). Many people tend to identify themselves with the choices they make in life and again identify those choices with their perceptions of it. Your husband has a set of paradigm he identifies himself with which then influences his outlook on why he believes putting your daughters through such a system is OK and that’s going to take some self-awareness and heart-to-heart on both sides to sort out. Get a copy of Ken Robinson’s The Element. (hint)

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