When a person’s view of the world is challenged, they must reconsider their position and either stay with their former beliefs or adopt an adjusted view of the world. It is in the paradigm stretching and realignment that learning can happen. This is where teachers can begin their real work of providing informed, engaging, and thoughtful opportunities for students to shatter their existing notions and enter into creative exploration of new ideas and concepts.
Idealist? Sure, but shouldn’t we be a little idealist when it comes to the next generation of leaders either in the US or abroad? We work with Chinese university students in and out of the classroom. There are fundamental differences between the American education model and the Chinese education model, but I do not want to speak to that right now. I would rather share some observations about teaching *creatively* in the TEFL classroom and teaching *creativity* in the TEFL classroom. These being two separate things.
Last semester, I had the honor to give an Art History lecture to a large group of new Art College students. The lecture was given through a translator, an amazing senior student, and went well all in all. Then came the question and answer portion of the evening. The question that was asked in many different forms throughout the evening was, “How do we learn to be CREATIVE?” Then their professors would ask, “How do we teach CREATIVITY?” These are not new questions, and they are certainly not questions just being asked in China. Art Educators are especially sensitive to this topic in and out of the classroom. This discussion has led me to re-evaluate my role in the classroom. What does it mean to be creative? How can we measure the growth of creative thought? Why is creativity important in our world? Why do these art students think they are NOT creative? What does creative thinking do for a person? From my observations of the Chinese education system, it works against creative thought at every turn. Although, there is a small move in Beijing to change this, but it is painfully slow and fraught with political turmoil.
The psychologist Carl Jung said that deep transformation happens primarily in the presence of images. It is this type of experience that allows connections to be made throughout the brain. It is this type of experience we so desperately want to create in any and all classrooms. It is this type of experience that is hard to manufacture and even harder to re-manufacture. It is this type of experience that leads to the growth of creativity and imagination.
This week in my class students created “Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame” presentations for seven 1950’s Rock legends: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, and Fats Domino. Each class was divided into seven groups with each group charged with researching their musician and organizing a presentation including a musical performance and an acceptance speech from the musician. It is pretty great to watch these 19 year old Chinese college students sing LaVern Baker’s “Bumblebee, Evil Bumblebee.” What’s my point in sharing this? Well, I had a moment of epiphany as I watched one of my classes simply do the bare minimum which resulted in vapid performances. Of course, that was their choice, and they did not get as much out of the assignment as the classes that did research, worked cooperatively, and learned the song. I could tell they were unhappy with their performances as well, so we talked about the importance of reflection in learning, and I tried to encourage them to be prepared next time! This is an example of a misunderstanding of the expectations between the students and instructor. They thought it was just a “fun project” that did not require any effort, but what they learned is that fun does not equal easy. This type of project requires an assimilation of English and use of that language to express ideas and concepts that were foreign to these students before the assignment. This is high level synthetic thinking in their second language. By contrast, in their other classes, they memorize grammar rules and learn the right answers for their standardized tests. So, creativity is rather hard because it sneaks in amid laughter and smiles requiring every skill you have.
Thomas Friedman in “The World is Flat” writes about the necessity for creativity in our post-industrialized world. This is especially true for the US with its reputation for designing the technologies of the future and an entrepreneurial spirit that drives new industries. If we do not focus on continuing to produce new generations of creative thinkers, we will fall far behind the rest of the world’s economies. I often think about this as I teach in China which has arguably one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Their economy now is driven by manufacturing what the western world designs, but what happens when the rest of the world stops buying. We now see this happening which brings me to my point: my students NEED to be creative to compete. My students need to be creative or they will never be able to contribute when their country needs them the most. Of course, it’s not all about economics, opening the mind to new ideas leads people to a greater understanding of themselves, their shared experiences, and ultimately what it means to be human.
[More to come later…]