Learning Chinese Style

learningHoward Gardner’s “Learning Chinese Style” is a classic text on the issue of global education. It’s hard to find online so I’ve posted the whole thing after the jump.

For a month in the spring of 1987, my wife Ellen and I lived in the bustling eastern Chinese city of Nanjing with our 1 1/2-year-old son Benjamin while studying arts education in Chinese kindergartens and elementary schools. But one of the most telling lessons Ellen and I got in the difference between Chinese and American ideas of education came not in the classroom but in the lobby of the Jinling Hotel where we stayed in Nanjing.

The key to our room was attached to a large plastic block with the room number embossed on it. When leaving the hotel, a guest was encouraged to turn in the key, either by handing it to an attendant or by dropping it through a slot into a receptacle. Because the key slot was narrow and rectangular, the key had to be aligned carefully to fit snugly into the slot.

Benjamin loved to carry the key around, shaking it vigorously. He also liked to try to place it into the slot. Because of his tender age, lack of manual dexterity and incomplete understanding of the need to orient the key just so, he would usually fail. Benjamin was not bothered in the least. He probably got as much pleasure out of the sounds the key made as he did those few times when the key actually found its way into the slot.

Now both Ellen and I were perfectly happy to allow Benjamin to bang the key near the key slot. His exploratory behavior seemed harmless enough. But I soon observed an intriguing phenomenon. Any Chinese attendant nearby would come over to watch Benjamin and, noting his lack of initial success, attempt to intervene. He or she would hold onto Benjamin’s hand and, gently but firmly, guide it directly toward the slot, reorient it as necessary, and help him to insert it. The “teacher” would then smile somewhat expectantly at Ellen or me, as if awaiting a thank you – and on occasion would frown slightly, as if to admonish the negligent parent.

I soon realized that this incident was directly relevant to our assigned tasks in China: to investigate the ways of early childhood education (especially in the arts), and to illuminate Chinese attitudes toward creativity. And so before long I began to incorporate this key-slot anecdote into my talks to Chinese educators.

Two Different Ways to Learn

With a few exceptions my Chinese colleagues displayed the same attitude as the attendants at the Jinling Hotel. Since adults know how to place the key in the key slot, which is the ultimate purpose of approaching the slot, and since the toddler is neither old enough nor clever enough to realize the desired action on his own, what possible gain is achieved by having the child flail about? He may well get frustrated and angry – certainly not a desirable outcome. Why not show him what to do? He will be happy, he will learn how to accomplish the task sooner, and then he can proceed to more complex activities, like opening the door or asking for the key – both of which accomplishments can (and should) in due course be modeled for him as well.

We listened to such explanations sympathetically and explained that, first of all, we did not much care whether Benjamin succeeded in inserting the key into the slot. He was having a good time and was exploring, the two activities that did matter to us. But the critical point was that, in the process, we were trying to teach Benjamin that one can solve a problem effectively by oneself. Such self-reliance is a principal value of child rearing in middle-class America. So long as the child is shown exactly how to do something – whether it be placing a key in a key slot, drawing a rooster or making amends for a misdeed – he is less likely to figure out himself how to accomplish such a task. And, more generally, he is less likely to view life – as Americans do – as a series of situations in which one has to learn to think for oneself, to solve problems on one’s own and even to discover new problems for which creative solutions are wanted.

Teaching By Holding His Hand

In retrospect, it became clear to me that this incident was indeed key – and key in more than one sense. It pointed to important differences in the educational and artistic practices in our two countries.
When our well-intentioned Chinese observers came to Benjamin’s rescue, they did not simply push his hand down clumsily, hesitantly or abruptly, as I might have done. Instead, they guided him with extreme facility and gentleness in precisely the desired direction. I came to realize that these Chinese were not just molding and shaping Benjamin’s performance in any old manner: In the best Chinese tradition, they were ba zhe shou jiao – “teaching by holding his hand” – so much so that he would happily come back for more.
The idea that learning should take place by continual careful shaping and molding applies equally to the arts. Watching children at work in a classroom setting, we were stunned at their facility. Children as young as 5 or 6 were painting flowers, fish and animals with the dexterity and panache of an adult; calligraphers 9 and 10 years old were producing works that could have been displayed in a museum. In a visit to the homes of two of the young artists, we learned from their parents that they worked on perfecting their craft for several hours a day.

Interested as I was in the facility of the young artists, I wondered whether they could draw any object or only something they had been taught to portray. After all, in the practice of calligraphy, the ordinary method involves painstaking tracing of the same characters over and over. Suddenly I had a minor inspiration. I decided to ask three 10-year-olds to draw my face. The assignment at first nonplussed my three guinea pigs, but soon they undertook it with gusto, and each produced a credible job. To be sure, one picture had me looking like one of the Beatles, the second like a Chinese schoolboy, the third as Charlie’s aunt is usually portrayed, but each of them bore at least a family resemblance to its subject. I had found out what I wanted: Chinese children are not simply tied to schemata; they can depart to some extent from a formula when so requested.

Creativity: Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

If I had to indicate the typical Chinese view of creativity, it would run as follows: In every realm, there are accepted means for achieving competence – prescribed and approved performances. There is really no good reason for attempting to bypass a long-established route, although a modest degree of latitude can be tolerated as the traditional form is acquired. Though the point of acquisition may never be totally reached (Zen Budhist masters ask their charges to create the same sound or form or movement thousands of times), competent performers are sanctioned to introduce increasing departures from the approved forms. By this distinctly evolutionary path, the products of the master eventually come to be reasonably deviant from the canon. This is “approved creativity.” Even so, the relationship to the canon continues to be evident, and critical discussion of an adult master may center on fruitful as opposed to idiosyncratic deviations.

While these views of the creative realm are not the modern Western ones, they seem entirely viable to me. We might contrast the Western, more “revolutionary” view, with a more “evolutionary” view espoused by the Chinese. There is a virtual reversal of priorities: the young Westerner making her boldest departures first and then gradually reintegrating herself into the tradition; and the young Chinese being almost inseparable from the tradition, but, over time, possibly evolving to a point as deviant as the one initially staked out by the innovative Westerner.

One way of summarizing the American position is to state that we value originality and independence more than the Chinese do. The contrast between our two cultures can also be conceptualized in terms of the fears we both harbor. Chinese teachers are fearful that if skills are not acquired early, they may never be acquired; there is, on the other hand, no comparable hurry to inculcate creativity. American educators fear that unless creativity has been acquired early, it may never emerge; on the other hand, skills can be picked up later.

However, I do not want to overstate my case. There is certainly creativity in China: creativity by groups, by selected individuals in the past and by numerous Chinese living in diverse societies around the world today. Indeed, as a society, China compares favorably with nearly every other in terms of the scientific, technological and aesthetic innovations that have emerged over the centuries.

There is also the risk of overdramatizing creative breakthroughs in the West. When any innovation is examined closely, its reliance on previous achievements is all too apparent (the “standing on the shoulder of giants” phenomenon). Perhaps as Claude Levi-Strauss has argued, it is misleading to speak of creativity as though it ever occurs from scratch; every symbolic breakthrough simply represents a certain combination of choices from within a particular symbolic code.

But assuming that the antithesis I have developed is valid, and that the fostering of skills and creativity are both worthwhile goals, the important question becomes this: Can we glean, from the Chinese and American extremes, a superior way to approach education, perhaps striking an optimal balance between the poles of creativity and basic skills?

Gardner, H. (1989, Dec). Learning Chinese style. Psychology Today,. 54–56. Reprinted
in K. Paciorek and J. Munro (Eds.), Annual Editions, Early Childhood. Guilford, CT:
Dushkin Editions, 1991–92, 219–221.

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