The following passage is an excerpt from the chapter, “Discovering Creativity in Asia”, by Raymond Ko, from the CALI Press-published book: Experiencing Asia: New Perspectives. He recounts the experiences of two students who both struggled with exams and encountering creativity. The first is during his experience as an undergraduate student at Tsinghua University; the second is his encounter with a student at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity during the Asia Leadership Trek 2014.
The student was at the end of his first semester at Tsinghua University. As he walked into the meeting room of the biology department, he sat down with seventy-seven other nervous students. Tension was in the air. For twenty minutes, he listened to the masters students, who served as mentors to the freshmen, congratulate them on a great semester and offer advice for the next one. But all of the freshmen were waiting for one thing.
The mentors handed out long strips of paper with the following information: Name. Student ID. Average score of all courses. The most important item was the next one. The student looked at his paper and blinked a few times. “Rank in the department: 73 out of 78.” He felt small, as if his dignity had been laid bare on that piece of paper.
Deeply ashamed, he spent the next few weeks desperately figuring out how to succeed. He learned that there were many tricks to achieving high scores. Visiting during office hours right before the exam, equipped with loaded questions to trap the teaching fellow into giving clues on the exam question? Check. Asking older students to recall exam questions and diligently recording their answers to save for next year, when he would take the same class? Check.
I know this student well—he was a close friend of mine at Tsinghua. Throughout his career at the university, instead of learning subjects deeply and applying his knowledge creatively, he learned instead how to cheat creatively. This system of education, focusing on so-called “results” rather than on actual learning, blocks off nearly all avenues of creativity. As a result, horrifying as it may sound, the student’s methods of cheating were one of the most creative aspects of his life. He encountered a problem and came up with an out-of-the-box solution to solve it. He learned how to be practical and resourceful—but not in the way his teachers intended.
As this example demonstrates, such a system of education ultimately holds schools (and students) back. The anecdote illustrates the primary problem that many schools in Asia are facing. This student’s primary goal was not to learn the content of his courses and apply it creatively. His primary goal was simply to maximize his exam grades, regardless of what means he used. Yet if schools in Asia adopted instead the goal of creating innovators in different fields, then the creativity this student showed in cheating would have been directed towards his work itself, guiding him onto a more productive path.
An encounter at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity:
“I felt like I was not valued by my peers, teachers, family, or even myself. In school, I did badly in everything. In life, I did not achieve anything. I was useless. Every day was the same, and I could not break from that pattern…”
The above quote is from a local student I met while on the Trek, who described what her life was like studying under a competitive, exam-based education system. As this system only values those who can memorize well and thrive in a zero-sum world, it wastes all other talents and does not allow individuals to improve their world in non-traditional ways. The sole units of success, according to this system, are exam scores for students and money for adults. Unfortunately, the diverse talents of many students cannot be translated into grades. These students become the losers under this system.
The argument for creativity and innovation in society is often framed in economic terms. One prevailing question among commentators is “Why are successful, innovative giants like Apple and Google born in the United States but not in China?” Often they then point to the exam-oriented education system as the root cause of the lack of creativity and innovation in China. But maybe that is not the right way to look at it. Does it make sense to think of creativity only in terms of a return on investment?
While we were at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, fifteen students formed a panel to share their experiences in the school. After tearfully relating a horrendous experience she had undergone in a previous school, one of the girls said, “Now my life has transformed. I do not necessarily have a ‘big dream,’ but I know what I want to do. My ideas and efforts are valued. I can freely explore and fulfill my potential.
Simply put, I am alive.”
Most of the students shared the same sentiments. Their stories made me rethink the deeper purpose of creativity. I had been viewing creativity in economic terms, and that is usually how it is judged by investors and other figures in business. But after talking with these students and seeing how fulfilled they felt in the accepting atmosphere of the Lee Shau Kee School, I realized that the underlying purpose of creativity is something far greater than financial success: creativity allows people to feel alive, not merely as drones in a larger system but as independent individuals with their own voices, values, and ambitions; and this is why creativity is an invaluable and powerful force.
Ultimately, this truth was the most important thing I learned on the Trek. Visiting actual places and talking with actual people not only allowed me to understand the complex issues surrounding creativity in Asia, it also made those issues more personal for me.
I have been a scientist for most of my adult life, but I am interested in pursuing business consulting in the future. In both fields, the path to solutions is always undetermined. And in both fields, the same thing excites me: discovery. When faced with a problem, I become enraptured by following the path towards new answers. It is my natural curiosity that drives me.
From my Trek experience, I discovered that creativity is limitless. I saw this in the creativity that innovative schools in Asia are using to come up with unique solutions to achieve their mission of thorough and forward-looking education.
Creativity is also all-encompassing. I learned on the Trek that it encompasses all aspects of life, from the workplace to the home, from education in schools to lifelong learning.
Most significantly, I also learned why we are creative. We create because by doing so we allow our spirit to achieve its natural purpose, to strive towards that which is limitless and all-encompassing. By doing so, we feel alive.
By Raymond Ko