Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom

Yesterday we looked briefly at a typical lesson in a Chinese classroom, today we’ll continue looking at education in China by exploring the ways in which the system works against creative thinking. I hope to further illustrate the methodology used in Chinese classrooms, and discuss why these methods are so prevalent.

First I would like to highlight a few examples of where creative thinking should be present, but is not.

  • At skit competitions in Guangxi universities, and at the Jiangsu Department of Health English competition, students/doctors simply copied entire performances from online sources. This resulted in 2 groups performing the exact same skit in both competitions.
  • I learned Chinese from “top” language teachers in China at Beijing Foreign Language University (北京语言大学) by reciting texts word for word 4 hours a day for 2 months. I never once was asked to speak my own sentences.
  • A teacher in Jiangsu asked on a test what the “best” line of the poem was, and marked the students’ answers right or wrong (he did not ask them to explain their answers either).

I could go on, but I think you get the point (I hope if you have more examples you will leave them in the comment section below).

I have also participated in teacher training programs that tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of creative thinking activities to middle school and primary school teachers (if you’ve been in an American or European classroom in the last 20 years, these methods would be very familiar to you).

The activities were welcomed with great interest initially, but after the first few examples teachers would start claiming these activities would not work in their classrooms (even though I had used them in my own classes in China with great success). A few weeks after the demonstration most of the teachers had abandoned the new methodology and had returned to having their 6 and 7-year-old students repeating vocabulary in unison.

I believe that the teachers avoid trying new methods because if anything went wrong they would be severely criticized, while mediocre results with “traditional” methods would be considered acceptable.

The reason for discouraging creative or independent thinking is clear, if you want to get into a good college you need to be able to choose the “right” answers on the college entrance exam.

The College entrance exam (Gaokao) is the Chinese equivalent of the SAT/ACT, only it is more comprehensive (Not just math and English, but also some science, politics, and history). The entirety of high school is spent preparing for this exam since no other factors will determine which colleges you would be admitted to.

This test is why teachers focus so much on rote learning, it is the only method that they think will ensure that the students will be able to consume and regurgitate the knowledge they are supposed to possess.

I discovered last year that in schools in poorer areas, whose students have already fallen behind in education, the schools will cancel mandatory classes in favor of more test preparation.  This meant that even though the state required geography classes, few of my students had ever actually taken that course since geography isn’t on the Gaokao. After all, high schools and teachers are evaluated almost entirely on Gaokao scores.

These methods of learning acquired in middle school become the pattern for acquiring knowledge. In colleges throughout China there is “daily morning reading” where the students sit at their desk and read dialogues aloud instead of actually using their English with their classmate sitting next to them, or frantically write their vocabulary lists over and over instead of creating new sentences.

Tomorrow we’ll continue our look at education in China by digging into the importance of creative thinking.

34 responses to “Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom”

  1. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Qing Ming Festival and Traditional Chinese Ideas About Death Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom → […]

  2. whatsaysyou says:

    Thank you for sharing about the absence of creative thinking in schools in China. It is not just happening in China but also in some parts of Asia. Creative thinking is very important for every child to foster creativity, critical thinking and variety. Too much emphasis on rote learning is never good in the long run.

  3. Pelo says:

    That seems to explain the high test scores we keep hearing about. In college we called this type of rote learning “cramming.” Material was memorized only to be regurgitated back on an exam. Many got the results they wanted, but there was a recognition that the material wasn’t throughly retained when the exam taking was over.

    This reminds me of the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” in the US where many teachers focused on obtaining high standardized test scores. Repeated low scores over a period of time meant their jobs and their schools were in jeopardy. Many kids were taught to take tests rather than the focus being on teachers making sure the kids had a thorough understanding of the curriculum. Also, some electives and the arts were put on the back burner because these courses were not covered on standardized tests. We are still tweaking our system, but it appears the Chinese are okay with the status quo because it is yeilding the results they want.

  4. NiubiCowboy says:

    This emphasis on right and wrong, black and white is what I believe to be one of the primary obstacles hampering the growth of creativity in the classroom and, beyond, society.

    To re-hash a story I posted in response to a story on the Diplomat, the kindergarten where I used to work hired a British consultant to evaluate the English classes taught by Chinese English teachers. The problem was that both parties, the British consultant and the Chinese teachers, approached this evaluation with wildly different expectations. The British consultant wanted to see how an average class was conducted, how well the teachers were fostering students’ own senses of agency, and what sorts of games, activities, and lessons had been designed to help students think more independently. The Chinese teachers, on the other hand, approached the task at hand just as they would any other exam, test, or evaluation they’d prepared for in the past. They drilled, and drilled, and drilled the students to ensure their lessons appeared flawless for the big day. As one of the only foreign teachers at the school, I was often asked to provide advice to the teachers on how they could improve their lesson plans, or “performances,” as they referred to them. I continually reminded them that the consultant wouldn’t want to see perfection and that they’d rather see a normal, noisy, rambunctious class that shows that the kids enjoy English and gives them a chance to demonstrate the critical thinking skills that they were supposed to be helping to foster in the children. The teachers would smile and nod but ultimately that ingrained performance mentality won out. One day, I walked into a classroom and found the teacher preparing her class for the evaluation. She had taken all of our advice and codified it into a series of steps that, in the end, resembled a performance. She was telling the students, “First, I will call Jimmy and ask him, ‘How many people are in your family?’ Jimmy will say, ‘There are three people in my family.’ Then I will ask Alice, ‘How are you?’ Alice, you will say…”

    When the evaluation finally took place, the British consultant tried their best to applaud them for their efforts but at the same time stress that she didn’t want to see performances, but actual class time, warts and all. After the consultant left, my boss and I held a follow-up meeting in which we had to explain to the teachers what the consultant had been looking for. The teachers were absolutely perplexed as to how they had “failed.” Many cried. I tried to explain to them that this wasn’t a pass/fail situation, but one in which constructive criticism to be applied in order to make them better teachers. “No one,” I desperately tried to assure them, “has failed.” The administration, compounding the problem, lectured the teachers on their “failure” after our meeting. For them, there was no grey area. Either you passed or you failed, either you won or you lost, either you were right or you were wrong. The problem in China is that abstract concepts like creativity, critical thinking, and innovation are treated are treated as more subjects to be trained for, memorized, and overcome. Like the teacher I mentioned who drilled her class for their “casual” warm-up greetings, they have developed processes that appeared to encourage creativity, innovation, and critical thinking, but were really just window dressing to give the appearance that these things were being brought out in the classroom.

    Even in the US people are still struggling to figure out what it is exactly that leads to innovators, technological breakthroughs, and a way to keep ahead of the competition. It’s true that many American high schools are failing students because they’re not providing an adequate enough education in math and science. But what they definitely provide kids education in is navigating a miniaturized social minefield for four years in a process of enculturation. Managing relationships with peers and authority figures, learning how to cope with social pressure, learning to develop a balance between school, part-time jobs, and home-life, and ridiculously trivial decisions, in hindsight, like how do I ask the girl from my AP Lit class out to prom. From an early age, an American education, at least the one I experienced, stresses problem solving above all else. Although we might graduate high school and university without being able to instantly recall historical dates, facts and figures, or thousands of superfluous vocabulary words, what we have gained is a mindset that allows us to reason and logically think through and tackle most problems or issues we’ll encounter in our work and in our life in the future. Creativity and innovation can’t be reduced to a formula for success and the more one tries to force the issue (“Be creative! Be creative! Be creative!”) the more it tends to backfire. In the end, as frustrating as it may sound to those who wish to capture its essence, creativity and innovation often happen when one least expects it.

    • Tom says:

      Excellent story. I have seen this a handful of times too. My wife and I were called to do some teacher training in Sichuan where most of the experienced teachers had died in the earthquake. For some reason the organizers showed us the “model” lesson online before we went and saw them perform the exact same thing with real live students. It seemed like a total waste of everyone’s time.
      The class I wrote about yesterday is not one that I have personally observed, because teachers always do a model lesson when I show up. Instead it is the classes described by my former students.

    • canrun says:

      Jiang Xueqin said the same thing just about about for word. 😉

  5. Pelo says:

    Interesting, NiubiCowboy.

    I’m struggling to understand how kids and teachers who function in these rote environments could possibly derive any pleasure or fulfillment from teaching and learning. Why would a child look forward to going to school (except for a test high score), or a teacher look forward to going to work (except for a paycheck)? I fully understand that the difference between the Chinese system and non-Asian ones is cultural. It just seems that the education system is so goal-driven that is devoid of any enjoyment or fulfillment for students and teachers.

    I’m thinking the “pass/fail” issue NiubiCowboy wrote about is somehow rooted in the Chinese concept of “face.” This may be why the teachers took the whole thing so personally. Perhaps it was more important to look good to outsiders. The good/bad, pass/fail thing may be so culturally ingrained that no amount of explaining would significantly change how the teachers felt in that situation.

    • Tom says:

      I’ll write a post about the college evaluation system in China (look for it after the post about the importance of creativity). I think it will help you to understand a few of the questions you are having now.
      Also teachers go into this profession largely because it is a very secure job with a decent paycheck and decent pension. It is incredibly difficult as a teacher to get fired.
      Finally whoever said students should enjoy learning? It’s something westerners value, but there is little discussion of that here.

    • Heiney says:

      Just a couple of quick observations:

      Ask a Chinese student why they are in school, and they will respond with something along the lines of: “To get a job.” or “To earn lots of money.”

      Ask a western student what the purpose of education and, and most answers will likely be something akin to: “To get an education.”

      Big difference.

      Also, regarding why students don’t like to take risks in class and offer answers, ask questions, or do anything “daring.” There’s a Chinese saying – “The bird who sticks its neck out, gets its head shot off.” There’s your answer right there.

      • Heiney says:

        Ask a western student what the purpose of education and, and most answers will likely be something akin to: “To get an education.”

        That should read:
        Ask a western student why they are in school, and most answers will likely be something akin to: “To get an education.”

      • Tom says:

        That Chinese expression really does explain how many things work in China. I couldn’t quite remember it exactly, I had heard it as the second bird (in formation) doesn’t get shot.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post and all the comments – thank you!

  7. Bill Rich says:

    Creative and logical thinking may not the skills the Chinese Communist Party wants the Chinese people to have, as it may be detrimental their hold on power. People who is not adept at thinking logically, and great at reciting what was told will believe what others tell them much more readily than those who can actually see through the faults in logic. Therefore, we must assess education systems according to the intended purpose of that system.

    Just like the “consultant” hired to evaluate the English class. Any consultant worth his/her salt would ask first: “What is the intention of this evaluation ? What do you call a “good” English class ? What are the indicators of those “goodness” ?” Armed with answers to these, a consultant would certainly produce a report that meets the needs of all people around. In case the principal of the school don’t know the answers to these questions, the teachers would be the best source of answers. No crying teachers, for sure.

    • Tom says:

      I think that these skills are not taught because they don’t help pass the test, for the gov’t this lack of critical thinking is probably just a welcome bi-product of “traditional” education methods. I think the system is more likely designed to create great factory workers that function in the classroom much like photocopiers.

    • NiubiCowboy says:

      I suppose another reason the situation I mentioned went so badly was because the teachers, the staff, and the administrators were unused to constructive criticism. The way I observed its role in China, criticism was typically used to reinforce traditional hierarchies of power. Simply put, criticism was a way to put people in their place. So, when foreigners without the cultural knowledge of how to delicately offer critiques and advice in such a way that allows the person on the receiving end to save face, it’s perceived as an insult above all else. If you’re the target of any criticism, good or bad, it means that you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t prepare long enough, or didn’t memorize sufficiently enough. If you had performed well, in this mindset, there would be no need for criticism, constructive or otherwise.

      The teachers, staff, and administrators all assumed the consultant’s role would be to lavish praise on the school so they could bring more prestige to the chain of kindergartens as in, “Behold, our kindergarten is British educator approved! Would you kindly give us your money?” However, the consultant wasn’t there to kiss ass, she was there to help improve the teachers’ teaching abilities.

      I’m sure Tom could elaborate on this, but directness was something that seemed very alien in my work environment. My first few weeks teaching I was predictably terrible. But, after every class my boss would say, “Your class was good, but…” followed by a laundry list of things I should’ve done differently. She continued to stress how good the class was throughout her criticisms and suggestions, which was a bit confusing at first. If it was good, why are you telling me not to do all of this? Just be honest with me! I’d also notice it in little things throughout the day, like when a co-worker would remain on the computer too long. Instead of telling the co-worker to get off the computer and get some work done, they’d tell them something like, “Huh, you’ve been on the computer a while, haven’t you?” and leave it at that. I seem to remember Custer over at ChinaGeeks translating a bunch of these indirect commands.

      • Tom says:

        For more on issues of “face” I would check out my post titled “the two things you need to understand to thrive in China”.

        Criticism is a powerful tool wielded by school leaders. I knew a foreign teacher who had not been informed of a holiday (it was the dean’s fault). The solution to this was the dean called in the other Chinese teachers and screamed at them for 30 minutes about how terrible it was that they hadn’t informed the foreign teacher of a holiday. Genuine praise is hard to come by in Chinese companies and schools.

        Also if your boss wanted the consultant to heap praise on your kindergarten they should have simply found an “expert” that could be paid the appropriate bribe. As far as I know that is what the other schools do.

        The most biting criticism I have ever heard targeted was a young woman from Canada. The dean of the department said to her “You are from Canada, isn’t it interesting that Canadian geese are known for being both beautiful and stupid.”

  8. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom […]

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Wow! I think I used the wrong words when I said I enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. Having read the further comments, I am simply appalled! And you havn’t even touched on (yet) the cheating that goes on with the students.

    • Tom says:

      I’m trying to find something positive to say about the Chinese education system as a whole, but it’s proving to be a bit difficult. Perhaps I will try to touch on the lighter side of cheating.

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  11. Sasha says:

    Tom, yet another great article!

    As an English teacher hailing form Australia where creative thinking is worked into most subjects, once I came to China it was very apparent that in this country creative thinking is discouraged. I teach mainly young learner’s between the ages of 3-9 and at this age group thinking creatively, using imagination and doing arts and crafts is critical to development but something that is sadly lacking in the Chinese education system. Keeping this in mind I try and incorporate the creative thinking that lacks from so many of their other subjects in my English lesson. I’ve found that by engaging in the creative side of their mind the children not only have more fun but tend to remember things more because they have actually been given the chance to think about it, in their own minds!

    I also taught a Middle School creative writing class, the biggest challenge at first was breaking the kids out of the mind set that there is always a right and wrong and that being different and having your own ideas is a good thing! I set aside quiet time in each class where they could really get in to their minds and just think. It worked a treat and not only were they engaging the creative part of their brains they ended up pumping out some brilliant and entertaining stories!

    I think though this is a far greater problem then just education, it really is a reflection on the values, ideals and idea’s of the Chinese. The cultural revolution may be in the past but many of it’s ideals still remain, discouraging creative thinking, free thought, there is only one right way etc. I think it will be difficult for the education system to change without an overall shift in the countries thinking!

    • Tom says:

      The book “Why student’s don’t like school” Is a really great resource for teachers when trying to create lesson plans that will be effective. I think there are some aspects of the cultural revolution that keep students from speaking more freely, and some that keep teachers on their guard. I wonder though how much of it is simply teachers using the same methodology that they experienced as children in a very different China.
      This is one of those subjects where the gov’t isn’t going to be able to have it both ways, you either have control or creativity.

  12. […] China is going to change before 2050 are a bit too rosy in my opinion. Like I mentioned before, China’s lack of creative thinking is going to prove to be a major impediment as China tries to take to the global stage. That paired […]

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  15. […] 原文:Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom 译文:创新思维与中国课堂几乎绝缘 作者:Tom […]

  16. […] Time Report looking at Chinese reactions to the death of Steve Jobs, which sparked discussion about the lack of creativity in China. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  17. stella says:

    First, 北京语言大学spells Beijing Language and Culture University, and I am a senior of this university. Then I want to say that Chinese differs from other language that you can not grab it just by saying or doing some “creative thinking”. You may right that China has a problematic educational system, but not in the area of Chinese studies. The very essence of Chinese, or Manderin can only be grabbed through large amount of reciting and reading. You really do need to appreciate the language itself.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t buy into the idea that Chinese is an exceptional language that should be treated completely differently from other languages. I would say the essence of Chinese education is reciting without much effort put into using the information in a meaningful way, but I wouldn’t say that this is the essence of Mandarin. Saying that the language has to be read to be appreciated ignores that millions of Chinese peasants throughout history that have not been able to read the language, but understood it none the less.

  18. soccernorsk says:

    We have lived as American/Norwegian expats in China for nearly 3 years, with 3 kids who are in the local school system part time and homeschooled part time. We live in a large city of about 8 million and I am constantly intrigued by our close-up experience with the system. I echo the creative art class comment: all the kids copy what the teacher draws on the board, and come home with identical cows, or cats, or trees. There is a lot of rote memorization that goes on, which has led to my kids memorizing lots of things that they don’t understand…However, think that the ideal balance must lie somewhere between the American extreme, where kids graduate with high illiteracy rates, and the Chinese extreme, where kids (not mine!) can multiply rows of 3 digit numbers in their heads by 2nd grade. I do believe that one key to academic success here in China is certainly partly due to extreme (excessive?) parental involvement in every step, while in the US parental involvement is largely lacking. I suspect that with regards to creativity, the command to “be creative” has to come from the top. But will it come?

  19. […] Here's a fun fact, by the way. You know how in the U.S. school systems are criticized for "teaching to the test" and neglecting the arts, enrichment, etc. in favor of STAAR/whatever. In the Mainland Chinese educational system, it's worse. The "gaokao" (college exam for Chinese students) is the ONLY factor for admission, so schools more or less teach to the test: Creative Thinking Is Too Often Absent From the Chinese Classroom | Seeing Red in China […]

  20. bdallmann says:

    I’ve only been teaching English in China for 7 months, but the lack of creative thinking was apparent to me from the very beginning. When I ask my students their opinion of something, their answer often comes straight from the book their Chinese English teacher uses. However, it is interesting and refreshing when there’s one or two students who CAN think critically and creatively. I often try to implement these things into my lessons.

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