A new trend for U.S. universities these days is recruiting mainland Chinese students to attend undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s not just an opportunity for American universities to show off their cultural diversity IQs either. There’s big money being made in China now and middle / upper class families are falling over themselves to give their children the absolute best educations. (Chinese families save vigorously for many years for two things: educations for their children, and to care for their parents during retirement). Naturally, U.S. universities have carved out plenty of space to help satisfy this growing demand, sometimes though to their own detriment. Don’t think for a minute universities are beyond overlooking a few entrance requirements to bring in the big spenders. It’s nothing as blatant as accepting Chinese students who score very poorly on the test scores, but more of knowingly accommodating Chinese students who have always learned by rote memory, and in some cases find it impossible to make decisions for themselves (you see problems in the China workplace stemming from rote-learning mentality– needing managers to tell them exactly what to do).
Chinese students do fine when it comes to accounting, finance, or anything which requires them to memorize and apply formulas, but ask them to discuss why Taiwan is considered China or to discuss the ethics of Communist Government leadership. If you were in China teaching business like I was, you’ll barely get the word Taiwan out of your mouth before they all stand up and yell in unison: TAIWAN IS CHINA. Chinese students are extremely hard workers and prove to be intellectually qualified to crack any code, but there must be a precedent or formula to apply. All their lives they’ve been taught precisely to the test (the big Gao Cao test determining their fate after high school demands it), so when they come to American universities and are expected to discuss a problem and arrive at a unique conclusion, a severe paralysis sets in.
The first signs of how a lifetime of rote memory affects Chinese students in an open American university environment is during lecture. Many of them simply cannot understand English. This is because they have studied all the right words to pass the language tests, but really haven’t had much practice with free form conversation. They have no sense of how to improvise or shoot from the hip, and may TAKE on an android-like quality when articulating beyond customary greetings. But you try learning Mandarin Chinese and you’ll see why rote-memory techniques are necessary. Their memory skills are absolutely amazing. I’ve witnessed Chinese students regurgitate five single spaced pages of business term paper content in front of an audience, without knowing what 10% of it meant.
Universities who are frantically recruiting Chinese students make accommodations like offering three or four week American language and culture classes to compensate primarily for language deficiencies, but there really hasn’t been a mainstream initiative to teach creativity to the Chinese, probably because that would put schools in the very awkward situation of implying that Chinese aren’t creative people. That’s not true. Look at the inventions the Chinese have given us in this Creativity for Chinese Businessmen article. The issue is that to be successful, modern Chinese have been forced to hew to social standards and authoritative government mandates that put more emphasis on rote-learning methods than creative free thinking patterns.
American universities who want their Chinese students to be successful should offer creative thinking classes that reflect the student’s area of professional interest (and yes, Chinese students go into universities knowing exactly what degree they are after, so support their path by giving them academic tract-relevant creativity courses). Creativity course titles might be: Product Innovation, Creative Writing, Analyzing History w/ Logic, Emotion & Intuition, Law & Freedom, Ethics of Deception etc.
Ironically, teaching creativity isn’t as unstructured as it might seem. Cultural and personal learning style differences must be assessed and the course should teach in terms of creative tools, not processes–lest you want students to believe creativity can be memorized, like a math equation. Workshops using meditation, open debate, mind mapping, brain storming, etc. make for a great start, but best to take it slow and be sensitive to decades of rote-learning conditioning. And be careful not to take it too far, no one should come away learning Enron-style creative accounting or finance.
Jonathan Poston has taught business courses at universities around the world (USA, China, Ecuador, Belize) on a variety of topics, including creativity. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief at Learn Chinese Business Blog and works full-time as an internet commerce marketing specialist at FastPivot.com. Contact him at JonathanPoston@gmail.com.