Creating creativity in China

Chinese students tend to work hard and eagerly take in knowledge provided by teachers and professors. International companies in China applaud young Chinese talents for their diligence, but sometimes criticize their lack of creative thinking. Ronald van de Cappelle, Chief Design at the College of Applied Art & Design (Shanghai Polytechnic University (SPU)), deals with this issue on a daily basis. “One of my tasks is 'to bring creativity to an international level.'” In this blog, Ronald discusses ‘creating creativity’.

“My first visit to China was in 2013. I was invited to teach a workshop Graphic Design at the Shanghai Business School. Graphic Design at a business school? I also wondered how this creative workshop would fit into a business school curriculum.  

Teaching in China is a great pleasure. However, there are significant differences a teacher has to deal with, as compared to the situation in Europe. In many Chinese classrooms, teaching in general is one-way traffic: teachers talk and explain, and students listen. This is a very big difference with teaching in the Netherlands. When teaching in Dutch classrooms, one often nearly has to tame the students after asking a question and they will often also challenge the teacher even if s/he has not asked any questions at all… In China, on the contrary, when a teacher asks a question, the students will all remain silent and may even look away so as to avoid being addressed directly. However, if you sit with a single student or with a small group of students, they will most certainly speak their mind. They do this freely, always with respect.

Quick learners

Not only do I find Chinese students very well-behaved, they are extremely quick learners. While in the Netherlands students, after having received an assignment to build a product, tens to sink away into 'deep thinking', Chinese students become incredibly result-driven and jump into action. The staggering result may be that they come with a prototype within 45 minutes. This is very fast, and maybe a little too fast. Have they done any research on the topic first at all? In order to achieve some more thinking and slow down my students in their getting-things-done mentality, I urge them to spend time on research of the topic first in small teams and to present their results to the class. Only then can they properly analyse and ideate. And from there to go and create.

Creativity to an international level

As Chief Design at the College of Applied Art & Design, one of my tasks is 'to bring creativity to an international level'. As such, the department of Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology and the Eindhoven Design Academy, both in The Netherlands, are important models for me.

Although it isn’t the SPU’s ambition to turn classrooms into experimental laboratories, my classroom is a safe haven for trial and error. Especially in stimulating creativity you should experiment and leave the beaten track in search for new solutions. This should be a part of, I might say, every kind of education. 

‘How to learn new skills’

Education should not only be about learning skills that are required in today’s workplace. Education should concentrate more on 'how to learn new skills' for emerging industries. In a speech I gave at the Global Partner Meeting September 2017, I pointed out that universities should not be over-confident about their status. Internet and artificial intelligence makes knowledge available to everybody with a smart-device and an internet connection. How to get access, how to understand and how to implement this knowledge is the new skill for jobs that don’t exist yet. 

It is inevitable that old-school teaching methods must change into new-school teaching methods. In China as well as in the rest of the world. This will not be an easy thing to do in China since the current schooling system is deeply rooted but it has shown in many ways that it can transform remarkably swiftly. In twenty years’ time, China has been able to rise to the top leading economies in the world. Admittedly, it has done so by copying a lot. But now that everything has been copied that can be copied, I don't think the pace of change will suddenly come to a halt. 

Creativity appears in new ways

In new internet-related industries like online shopping (Alibaba) and social media apps, WeChat may serve as an astonishing example of a total connection of services from financial transactions to simply calling a taxi. It is clear that creativity appears in new ways. And this may not be ways that are very aesthetic to Western eyes but nevertheless incredibly convenient, pragmatic and efficient.

Today, when Chinese business is entering territory that has never been explored before, there are no old masters to lead the way. We now witness the unleashing of young Chinese entrepreneurs creating new opportunities. And thus creating new realities!

Universities in China and in the west, and those who consider themselves the developed world, should not be over-confident about their status. New realities are in the making. The big question is: are you one of the creators?”

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