Cultivating Creativity and Innovation in China

Since I teach university students in China, I think a lot about the educational system here. I think about all the potential these students have, and how best to cultivate this potential.

As of August 2018, China has over 36 million university students (in comparison, the U.S. had 19.9 million in the fall of 2018).

No small task for teachers and universities. A lot of students to teach and a lot students to evaluate.

I was recently listening to a Freakonomics podcast episode, Ep. 355 - Where Does Creativity Come From (and Why Do Schools Kill It Off)? It made me think a lot about the testing culture here. Tests are important in the U.S., and they are very important here in China. Yet what is the impact of this emphasis on testing?

An important point mentioned in this episode is how extrinsic motivation zaps creativity. Setting up rewards or incentives for tasks lowers the creative drive. A similar thing happens when students are driven to get top grades.

I was struck by the interview with Teresa Amabile, a social psychologist from Harvard who said:

I think that the biggest mistake we make in our schools, and I’m talking about everything from kindergarten now up through college, is to focus kids too much on how the work is going to be evaluated. Part of that is the extreme focus on testing in the United States right now and the past several years. Part of it is the way curricula have been structured, even before the current major push on testing.

There’s too much focus on “what is the right answer, what are people going to think of what I’m about to say?” and too little focus on “what am I learning, what cool stuff do I know now that I didn’t know last week or a year ago, what cool things can I do now that I couldn’t do before?” And I think that if we could if we could switch that focus, we would do a lot to open up kids’ creativity.

Kids come intrinsically motivated to learn, and we stamp that out of them through the educational system. I don’t think it’s impossible to reorient the way we teach. It’s not going to be easy. But I think we can do it. I think we have to do it.

Is it true that too much emphasis on testing kills creativity? Will de-emphasizing testing lead to greater creativity? Is cultivating creativity something students, teachers, parents, etc. even want?

It's hard to say what's "best" for a student or an educational system.

Discussions about education come down to our values. And our values come from our cultures and our upbringings. So inherently there will be different opinions on this topic.