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Creativity Now!
February 14, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 10
Table of Contents 

How Is Creativity Killed?

Yong Zhao

One of the most sought-after assets in the 21st century is also one of the casualties of test-oriented education in China: creativity. In his book The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity, linguist William Hannas (2003) documents the fact that modern development in Asian countries has relied primarily on technology transfers from the United States and European countries. Leaders of Asian nations are acutely aware of their creativity (lack thereof) problem and have been trying to address it, albeit with limited success; but somehow this fact escapes the attention of leaders and educators in the United States, "where East Asia's technical skills are typically confused with real creativity, and where people have little clue about the degree to which their creative resources are utilized abroad for commercial profit" (Hannas, 2003, p. 4). As a result, Asian nations have been working on closing the creativity gap, while the United States has been troubled by the "achievement gap" revealed by international comparison tests, such as TIMSS and PISA.

Schools have been generally found to be either indifferent to or suppressive of creativity because they demand conformity and obedience:

Most young children are naturally curious and highly imaginative … after children have attended school for a while, they become more cautious and less innovative. … Unfortunately it is necessary to conclude from the investigations of many scholars that our schools are the major culprits. Teachers, peers, and the educational system as a whole all diminish children's urge to express their creative possibilities. (Dacey & Lennon, 1998, p. 69)

Schools demand conformity and obedience for good reasons. They are the agency that prepares citizens to respect the rules of law and certain social norms. Practical matters also come into play. Teachers have to maintain a certain level of control in order to teach a group of students something. Students must also follow certain norms in order to fit in. Thus all schools inevitably work against creativity in order to accomplish their other missions. But there is a difference in the degree to which that happens.

Here lies the answer, or at least a significant partial one, to the "creativity gap" between Asians and Americans. First of all, as some admirers of the Chinese and other Asian education systems point out, "American children spend less time in academic activities than Chinese and Japanese children do in terms of hours spent at school each day and days spent in school each year" (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, pp. 52–53). In addition, American children spend vastly less time on schoolwork at home than their Chinese peers. Most American children do not view schooling as central to their lives, whereas most Chinese children do (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Thus American children generally are less exposed to the creativity-killing machine—the school.

Second, Chinese teachers have been praised for their ability to maintain order in the classroom. "Teachers make an explicit effort during the early months of elementary school to teach children techniques and skills that will allow them to function effectively in a group" (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 62). Inflexible rules and standard routines are just the right tools to squelch creativity (Dacey & Packer, 1992; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Similarly, Chinese teachers, much more than their American counterparts, want the students to think of themselves as a group, to be constantly aware of their obligations to the group, and to not bring shame to the group (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Again, conformity is emphasized much more in Chinese schools than in American schools.

Third, American parents and educators have often been criticized by reformers for having low academic expectations of students. Empirical studies show that American mothers do indeed seem to be significantly more satisfied with their children's academic performance and their schools than mothers in China and Japan. Critics have been trying to determine whether this satisfaction is a result of parents lacking information about how to judge their children's academic performance or simply not caring about it (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). But in reality, research suggests that American parents just do not care as much as their Asian counterparts about external measures of success. For instance, a study of parents of academically talented 6th graders in the United States found that "emphasis on meeting external standards is not predominant among parents of talented students" (Ablard & Parker, 1997, p. 651). Excessive or exclusive focus on external indicators of success such as grades and test scores can pressure children, sending the message that academic success is important not for personal reasons, but to please others (Ablard & Parker, 1997). In other words, American parents and educators define success more broadly and strongly emphasize children's individuality and the need to respect their wishes and abilities.

A broader definition of success and an emphasis on internal rather than external standards of success may not lead to high test scores or good grades, but they definitely help to preserve and protect individuality and creativity. American parents' broader conception of success allows students to feel good if they excel in areas other than academic subjects. It also enables, if not encourages, children to pursue their interests and thus preserves and protects individuality and creativity. In contrast, Asian parents' and their education system's emphasis on external indicators and high expectations naturally lead to less self-confidence and the externalization of motivation, which are detrimental to creativity.

Lastly, standardized and centralized curriculum, another feature of Asian education systems that is often praised by reformers, serves to further squeeze opportunities for individual differences. Teaching at the same pace, in the same sequence, and using the same textbooks for all students leaves little room for exploring individual interests and accommodating different learning styles. Researchers suggest that in order to nurture creativity, schools need to set aside physical space for long-term projects and research as well as adopt a generous field trip policy (Dacey & Packer, 1992). Curriculum standardization and high-stakes testing are incompatible with these recommendations. Creativity cannot be taught, but it can be stifled. It should be clear by now how Asian education systems stifle creativity more effectively than the American system. The creativity gap between Americans and Chinese exists not because American schools teach creativity more or better than their Chinese counterparts. They just do not thwart creativity as much as the Chinese.


Source: From Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization (pp. 91–95), by Y. Zhao, 2009, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2009 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission.


Ablard, K. E., & Parker, W. D. (1997). Parents' achievement goals and perfectionism in their academically talented children. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26(6), 651–667.

Dacey, J. S., & Lennon, K. H. (1998). Understanding creativity: The interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hannas, W. C. (2003). The writing on the wall: How Asian orthography curbs creativity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stevenson, H. W., & Stigler, J. W. (1992). The learning gap: Why our schools are failing and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 10. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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