Can the Chinese educational system embrace creativity and innovation?


\nThere was a fascinating cover story in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday (the article runs about 10 pages, so be forewarned!), in which Ann Hulbert examined the changing goals and dimensions of the Chinese educational system. For the first time ever, the Chinese are now looking to incorporate elements like innovation, flexibility, and creative thinking into the curriculum. Anyway, one of the drivers of this transformational change turns out to be a young Chinese-born Harvard student, who set up a special summer exchange program in China to help up-and-coming Chinese high school students tap into new notions of success (grades aren't everything! up with fun and freedom!).


What caught my attention was the fact that the American and Chinese educational systems appear to be going in the opposite directions. While Americans are really getting into rigorous testing and a renewed emphasis on science and math, the Chinese are learning to downplay testing and are emphasizing things like innovation:

"...Some prominent government officials have grown concerned that too many\nstudents have become the sort of stressed-out, test-acing drone who\nfails to acquire the skills — creativity, flexibility, initiative,\nleadership — said to be necessary in the global marketplace. "Students\nare buried in an endless flood of homework and sit for one mock\nentrance exam after another, leaving them with heads swimming and eyes\nblurred," lamented former Vice Premier Li Lanqing in a book describing\nhis efforts to address the problem. They arrive at college exhausted\nand emerge from it unenlightened — just when the country urgently needs\na talented elite of innovators, the word of the hour. A recent report\nfrom the McKinsey consulting firm, "China’s Looming Talent Shortage,"\npinpointed the alarming consequences of the country’s so-called\n"stuffed duck" tradition of dry and outdated knowledge transfer:\ngraduates lacking "the cultural fit," language skills and practical\nexperience with teamwork and projects that multinational employers in a\nglobal era are looking for.


Even as American educators seek to emulate Asian pedagogy — a\ntest-centered ethos and a rigorous focus on math, science and\nengineering — Chinese educators are trying to blend a Western emphasis\non critical thinking, versatility and leadership into their own\ntraditions. To put it another way, in the peremptorily utopian style\ntypical of official Chinese directives (as well as of educationese the\nworld over), the nation’s schools must strive "to build citizens’\ncharacter in an all-round way, gear their efforts to each and every\nstudent, give full scope to students’ ideological, moral, cultural and\nscientific potentials and raise their labor skills and physical and\npsychological aptitudes, achieve vibrant student development and run\nthemselves with distinction." Meijie’s rise to star student reflects a\nmuch-publicized government call to promote "suzhi jiaoyu" — generally\ntranslated as "quality education," and also sometimes as "character\neducation" or "all-round character education." Her story also raises\nimportant questions about the state’s effort, which has been more\ngenerously backed by rhetoric than by money. The goal of change is to\nliberate students to pursue more fulfilling paths in a country where\njobs are no longer assigned; it is also to produce the sort of flexibly\nskilled work force that best fits an international knowledge economy."

[image: New York Times Magazine]

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