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Creative Thinking, Part Two: China Imports Project-Based Learning to Promote Imagination

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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This is the second part of a two-part blog entry. Read part one.

I guess I should not have been surprised by the rigid structure in Chinese schools when I visited the country. After all, I was in a nation that is one of the most capable at taking someone else's idea and efficiently reproducing it. To do that, each individual has to be willing to do what he or she is told to do and not worry too much about self-direction. To put it simply, the Chinese are, as a nation, very well schooled in doing what they are asked. This fact, and the resulting ability to make things to order efficiently and in great quantities, has led to China's current economic boom. The country makes so much of the stuff we buy.

So, the more I got to know the Chinese educational system and the Chinese people, the more I understood their hunger for project learning. I was not there to help anyone think about how to push more content to more kids. They don't need help with that; they have the fact-pushing thing down pat. Rather, I was engaged in professional and personal conversations about how China might, through ongoing professional development in project learning, purposefully increase the amount of creative thinking in China. I find this a bit ironic considering this is the culture that first brought us gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and seismographs, but it feels like they are sort of starting over.

During my visit, many people -- both parents and professional educators -- told me of the growing awareness in China of the need to develop creativity in their children. They understand that if it doesn't happen, there is no way they can transform from a nation that produces things other people think up to a nation that comes up with its own big ideas. They all know that fresh ideas are the silver, gold, and platinum of the twenty-first century. These people understand that the future will belong to those capable of producing ideas, not to those who are good only at reproducing widgets inexpensively.

I think America's most important product is creativity, along with the ideas and innovation spawned by that creativity. I have long thought creativity is an important attribute for any learner, but my conversations in China -- the country we have all been encouraged to worry about via videos such as Did You Know? -- have made me realize that this attribute is now fundamental for every nation and, in fact, for the world: Everyone needs creativity, and we all need to value it.

So, I have a question for you: What do you do in your classroom or your school to support the development of capable and creative kids to help guide our future? Identifying 5 percent of your kids as gifted and letting the remaining 95 percent slog along won't do. And, no, sending all of your kids to art and music classes once a week doesn't cut it, either. Yes, those arts classrooms tend to be creative places, but if we are serious about creativity, then creativity has to show up in serious places. Read my post called "The Choreography of Calculus: Using Art to Comprehend Content" to see what I mean.

You know what I think we Americans really ought to begin thinking about? How about the future of employment when all those creative Chinese high achievers with experience in project learning become the next generation we compete against? I think my visit to speak to educators there is one piece of evidence that the process of growing creative thinkers has already begun, and, as I've mentioned, once China focuses its collective will on getting something done, it will be unstoppable.

We all need to be creative -- so get creative and share your ideas for supporting the development of creative kids everywhere, especially in our classrooms here at home! Project learning, anyone?

Please share your thoughts.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It must be a wonderful opportunity to get to travel and see what classrooms are like in a different country. I'm new to exploring educational blogs and I see that this can really be an insightful experience. In the classroom, in order to support the development of creative kids, teachers should definitely give students opportunities to think outside the box. I currently do not have a classroom of my own, but have had student teaching experiences and am a teacher's assistant. I know that instead of the teacher's just using technology to show presentations that they have put together, students like to play the role of the teacher and use them as well. I think we should give students more opportunities to be creative using new technologies that are available. In order to support students' creativity, teachers could allow the students to have a say in how they want to learn things. We need to make learning relevant to their lives. In one of those "Did You Know" videos, I remember it saying that we are preparing our kids for jobs that don't even exist yet. I feel the way to prepare them for those jobs is to show them how to use their own creativity and give them as many opportunities to do so as we can.

Alicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my opinion,teaching creativity is hard. I notice in my classroom that most of the students who show creativity in their work are often the ones who are classified as high or gifted. An activity I did with my first graders at the beginning of the year was to create a "secret code." We drew pictures of things that began with the letters of our names. For example, someone drew an apple for the letter A. They could think of any object and draw it that represented that letter. Once we tackled our names, we moved on to words of our choice and then had other people (second graders) break our code. The kids thought it was fun and it was educational.

Stacey A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really couldn't agree more that when China starts producing high achievers that have also been taught to be creative thinkers that we will be competing against a very strong force. In my class this year, I have students at very varying ability levels. In order to keep my whole class engaged I find that I need to be creative and allow the kids to be creative as well. For instance, I am working with my class on learning about 8 of the thirteen original British colonies (we are specifically looking at them as three regions). I have assigned groups of 3-4 students each to a colony. They were responsible for learning and committing to memory the facts about their colony. I then had a friend who runs an advertising agency come in and talk to them about "selling" their colony as the best choice as a place to live. They are now designing an advertising campaign complete with slogans, catchy sayings, a billboard and a commercial in order to convince their peers to move to their colony. Each group will present their advertising pitch - thus teaching the class the important facts about their colony and then we will take a vote to see which colony seems the "most appealing." They are so totally engaged in coming up with their ideas that even my students that generally struggle the most to memorize facts are throwing facts about their colony around like they have known them for years. I think that we can use creative teaching methods to engage our students and still require them to "know" their material. Spelling, grammar etc. all still count and they need to make sure that when they present they use grammatically correct English and speak and present in an appropriate way. We as a country are capable of creating students that can compete with any other nation no matter how creative they get as long as we focus on making our students strong not only academically but creatively.

Erica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, worry that once China takes on more of a creative approach in education, that our country will in ways fall behind, as it is now. To better reach the technological era in which my students have grown up, incorporating different types of technology into the classroom has become a main concern. We have just started using a SmartBoard in my classroom. The children love it, because it is so hands-on, and even the children who have trouble attending to the task at hand have their eyes glued to the screen. I also try to incorporate a lot of creativity into my writing block. It's amazing to see what the children can come up with for stories, letters, etc. At times we are required as teachers to use prompts to teach writing, but I have found I get quality work when it is left up to the children as to what to do. It really is a window into each individual student.

Sheri Hoerth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that it is very hard to teach students to be creative. I teach Kindergarten to 32 students in California. The school I teach at is predominently Hispanic. Many of my students come to me at the beginning of the year not knowing even 1 of their letters, so with those students I have to start at the beginning. In addition, I usually get a handful of students that are very academically high functioning. This year in particular, I have three students that came into Kindergarten with basic reading skills. In order to meet the needs of all my students I developed a time of the day where the students work in groups of 8 students, where everyone in their group is at or very near to their academic level. They work on very similar projects, but the assignments are differentiated to address the needs of each particular group. The highest group might have some very simple instructions that they are expected to read, where the lowest group's instructions may have to be all visual. This process has proven to be very successful, and I am able to see every student in a small group setting every day. I operate the small group time for 1 hour, and the students rotate every 15 minutes to a new station. At the beginning it takes alot of patience and coaching, but eventually they get it, and it actually runs extremely smoothly.In order to allow the creativity of the children to come out, very often we do an assignment where we may have read a book for example, and I divide the students into several groups, each group is responsible for creating a finished product. Just as important as the finished product, if not more so, is the capability of each group to work together and learn cooperating skills.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sheri -

32 kids! In kindergarten! Oh, my...

That number of young children calls for so much organization, and creativity calls for a purposeful lack of organization on a certain level... One must drop away from how things are done to find the unknown, leave what we know to find what we can only imagine...

Given your 32 kindergartners, you are understating the situation when you say, "I agree that it is very hard to teach students to be creative."

Hang in there, and thanks for all you do!



J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stacey -

Love the sales idea! Hey, I think all teachers are in sales, don't you?

Here are a couple of resources your kids might like to use in their effort to "close the deal" for their colony:

Make a poster or other visual: http://www.bighugelabs.com

Make a brochure - write the content first, then head to: http://www.mybrochuremaker.com

Let me know how it goes!



J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Michelle -

I often tell teachers and administrators that we, as educators, need to "get comfortable with discomfort" if we are going to do the best for kids... How else can we prepare them for careers that have yet to become real?



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