Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class explores the thinking and lifestyle of the 30 million Americans responsible for the creativity that fuels the 21st century global marketplace. In his study, Florida explains that creative individuals are drawn not to workplaces and urban settings that offer the highest pay or tallest skyscrapers, but to places that can stretch their creativity and identity. They typically want to do challenging work with motivated people in a diverse and open workplace, and they want to live in cities where they can attend jazz festivals in the evenings and go hiking on the weekends. With the creative class, there’s a blurring of work and leisure so that creative individuals structure every minute of their lives in the pursuit of the new experiences and stimulations that are the font of their creativity.
China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but its assembly line and sweatshop economy is still worlds apart from the creative economies of the United States, Israel, and northern Europe. For the Chinese economy to maintain its trajectory it needs to become creative, and for that to happen it needs to re-structure its school system from one that focuses on tests to one that centers around experiences.
Two years ago, we created the Peking University High School International Division as a laboratory to see if and how creativity can be taught in Chinese schools. In one week in early June, we moved all our students and staff down to Yangshuo, China to replicate the lifestyle and workplace of the creative class.
In the mornings, we had our students go rock climbing or biking in the countryside, and in the afternoons we had them work in groups to teach at a local elementary school.
In our first day, our students reacted the way you would expect Chinese students to respond. In the great outdoors, the students complained about the mud and bugs, and in the classroom, they lectured to their young children with the same intense monotony that they were lectured to when they were six years-old. A student group wanted to structure their class in the following manner: have the children take an English examination the first day, then do corrections the second day, and then re-take it again the next. (They told me they were joking, but I wasn’t amused.)
That evening, we sat down with our students, and reflected on their experiences. We discussed things that work for some groups (getting the fifteen children to sit in circles, structuring lessons around playing games, building bonds with children and giving them individual attention), and things that needed to be improved upon (standing around the room looking bored, handing out gifts to students who got answers right, complaining about how loud and chaotic six year-olds are).
After the teacher-facilitated reflection and discussion in the evening, each group would sit down by itself for two hours to tinker with its teaching strategy. One group threw out a lesson plan that would put some college courses to shame, and instead had their fifth grade class work in groups building cardboard models of houses. Afterwards, they told us it was so much more challenging and strenuous to help their fifth graders work out group conflicts than to just lecture at them; also, the fifth graders were having so much fun they refused to go home.
Many Chinese parents believe that if they want their kids to work hard at school then kids need to be pampered at home – and need above all else to avoid physical exertion. Our students were working so hard at teaching in the classroom that we wanted them to relax by pushing themselves even harder in the mornings. We had a group of our students bike uphill for three hours one morning, and afterwards they bragged as much about their accomplishment as those who spent an hour overcoming their fear of heights and scaling a hilltop.
At the end of the trip, we explained to our students how their Yangshuo experience will help them become the vanguard of China’s creative class. By understanding their classrooms as an ever changing dynamic of a group of distinct individuals with their own special needs and abilities, our students were learning to be effective managers.
And by reflecting upon and discussing in groups their class performance, our students were internalizing this mental process, and thus becoming effective problem-solvers. In his book Adapt, Tim Hartford explains that creativity comes not from inspiration, but from perspiration: figuring out what the problem is, trying a solution, honestly assessing the solution’s limitations, tinkering with the solution until it works – or just starting anew.
But more than developing a knowledge base or a skill set, being part of the creative class means adopting a value system. It means wanting to go faster than you ever have on a mountain bike despite the mud and the rain; it means being scared and exhausted in the middle of a hill, and searching deep for the mental discipline and physical reserves to make it to the top; it means seeing into the minds of the elementary schoolchildren, and helping them see into the minds of others.
As Richard Florida wrote in his book, creative individuals seek to live each moment to the fullest, always pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, and striving to be their individual best and beyond. And if China is to move forward, its schools need to move beyond the rigidity of tests and into the openness of experiences.