Chinese Schools 'Kill Imagination'

Chinese children are found to lack creativity as a result of the national obsession with rote learning.

2009-08-18
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China-Schoolchildren-305.jpg Schoolchildren at a primary school in Jinhua village, in southwest China's Sichuan province, May 17, 2007.
AFP

HONG KONG—A group of Chinese fiction writers has called on the country's primary schools to stimulate the imaginations of young learners, who were found in a recent survey to be very computer-savvy but reluctant to think "outside the box."

Sun Yunxiao, deputy director of the China Imaginative Fiction Writers' Association, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on Aug. 14, said too little imaginative fiction is available to the nation's schoolchildren, who are fed instead a diet of "correct" answers to fixed questions as part of the national obsession with exams.

"This lack of imagination will definitely have a profound impact on the creative capacities of the nation's youth," Sun was quoted in the official People's Daily newspaper as saying.

He called for more fiction to be included in primary school syllabuses.

"Reading imaginative fiction can stimulate the imagination of children and broaden their thinking, showing them what is possible for the imagination," he said.

The People's Daily cited a 2000 report by the China Youth Research Center and the Beijing Normal University titled "Fantasy and Imaginative Capacity among Urban Chinese Children."

Based on the ideas of U.S. educator F.E. Williams, the study tested 1,370 third-year Chinese elementary school students in an attempt to gauge their curiosity, imaginative capacity, appetite for challenge, and appetite for risk.

With an average score for each trait of 3.0, the highest score among the children for curiosity was 2.39, on appetite for challenge, 2.28, on appetite for risk, 2.25 and on imaginative capacity 2.18.

And a recent International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP) survey of 21 countries found that Chinese children were top of the class for computer skills, while their creativity was fifth from the bottom, compared with children from the other 20 countries.

Only 4.7 percent of children interviewed described themselves as "curious," the study said.

Education system blamed

Authors and experts blamed an education system fixated on learning by heart the "correct answers" to fixed questions for the lack of development of the imagination in China's children.

Chinese children, they said, are trained to do as they are told rather than develop their own viewpoint, to follow the mainstream, and not to be oppositional.

Nanjing-based writer Zan Aizong said it isn't true that Chinese children lack creativity, however.

"Chinese children are very intelligent. The main thing is the test-oriented education system ... Gradually they become fixed into a certain way of doing things," Zan said.

"Children are very imaginative when they are playing or being naughty."

"The education system is very rigid. Children need a freer space in which to express themselves. They need more freedom to play," he said.

New York-based writer Dong Dingshan said he sees children in the United States having a larger space in which to be creative.

"My granddaughter [raised in the U.S.] has a very strong imaginative capacity. She can always think of something to do, or something to play with," Dong said.

The schools give them every imaginable kind of toy to play with ... it's not just toys, either, it's ordinary objects. The result is that she paints really well, at six years old. I think this is because she has been allowed to develop freely," he said.

Dong said the Chinese education system is too focused on exams to allow children to develop their creativity.

"The entrance exams for university and high school are all based on set questions, so the students grow up thinking that it's enough just to answer them in a prescribed manner," he said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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