Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Learning from the street

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

James Fallows has been posting on the differences between Chinese and Western education. His discussion began with three links to recent articles. I was particularly impressed by Ryan Pollack’s piece in the LA Times.

Key quote:

Ultimately for China, becoming a major world innovator — and by extension, a robust economic power — is not just about setting up partnerships with top Western universities or roping off elites and telling them to think creatively. It’s about establishing an intellectually rich learning environment for young minds. It’s about harnessing the same inventive energy of the street markets and small-time entrepreneurs and putting it in the schools

This seems to me a crucial point. Certainly, in Shanghai – despite all the gloss –  it is in the street markets that the entrepreneurial spirit is most alive. Beneath and between the skyscrapers and luxury renovations small traders – most of them migrant workers – set up their  stands, blankets and rigged up bikes to sell everything from an astonishing array of street food, to small pets, flowers, pottery, bootleg cd’s, and shanzhai cellphones.

Anyone who doubts that the future of China’s creative culture  depends on this (marginalized) floating population and their bottom up growth should compare ‘University Avenue’ outside Fudan, which is  at the heart of Shui On’s new development ‘Knowledge Innovation Community and feels – at least for now – like a film set for a zombie movie with the  thriving unplanned quasi-legal bazaar outside the back gate of  East China Normal University.

Fallows has more on China, creativity and education here.

Creativity (part 2)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009


When I drop Max off in the morning Zoe comes with me. She likes to stay for a while and play. Sometimes she heads for the drawing table, sits down with paper and crayon and scribbles with great intensity. Invariably one of Max’s classmates will offer a critique. Bu hao kan 不好看  (not nice), they say, staring at her scrawls.

Max shares the Chinese tendency for harsh judgment. Sitting in a taxi he informed his grandmother and I that some kids don’t know how to draw their mommies.

We – my mother and I – did our best to temper the criticism, explaining that there were all sorts of ways to draw, but neither of us was satisfied with our response. We both know that, as with everything else, some kid’s drawings are better than others. Not everyone’s skill or talent is the same.

Still, the rigid conformity implicit in the vision makes me uncomfortable. How to judge childhood drawings is not an easy matter. Besides, it is impossible not to detect in these childhood critiques, the intense pressure and total disregard for self esteem that so many adults here complain about when they speak of their past.

When Max pointed to one of Zoe’s drawings at home and told me it was ugly I protested. Her 2-year-old scribbles are beautiful to me (or at least I want her to think so).

Creativity (part 1)

Saturday, March 21st, 2009


Since the beginning of term Max’s artistic capabilities have undergone a remarkable transformation. The quasi-impressionistic scribbling of a toddler has magically given way to recognizable shapes and even semi realistic representations. The leap, however, has its downside. No longer satisfied with my (Western) impulse to leave him alone with paper and crayons he now demands constant illustration and guidance, becoming frustrated when his drawing of a bird, a robot, a rocket does not go according to plan. Whereas I am told that in Shanghai’s international schools kids in art class can do no wrong, in the local system frank judgment and overt comparison are commonplace. The other day Max came home upset because his teacher told him candidly that his house made of blocks was not as good as his friends.

I am torn. Shouldn’t all block houses be praised equally? Or is this just a lie we tell our kids? Though determined to instill the values of originality, confidence and risk taking self expression, I cannot help but share his pride in the careful mimicry of his creations.