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Balancing creativity discipline in life
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-19 08:39

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Howard Gardner is like a movie star in the educational world, as his friend Michelle Vosper puts it.

The charisma of the famous American educator and psychologist has nothing to do with charming appearance, fascinating eloquence, or diplomatic skills - although he might well possess all these things. He wins the hearts of his followers with his wisdom and character.

An art student wanders among sculptures on display at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in December 2001. The sculptures are among 450 workers by art academy students across the nation. [China Daily/file]
As one of his students and doctoral candidates at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, the 60-year-old German-Jewish professor struck me as a weird and arrogant "pedant" when we first met in his messy office about half a year ago.

After a brief yet friendly conversation about China, which is always his favourite topic, Gardner gave me a surprise: "Don't expect me to remember your face next time we meet."

A few months later, after reading his semi-autobiographical book, "To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of Contemporary Education," I realized that I had misunderstood him. Although he was musical gifted, he has had profound visual problems since childhood.

"I am colour blind, I do not have stereoscopic vision, and I cannot remember faces."

I was shocked to read this sentence and I began to admire him, imagining all the difficulties he must have had to overcome in the course of his life.

In addition to his theory of Multiple Intelligences, which has brought him international fame, one of his most remarkable achievements is his research on the role of the arts - including VISUAL arts - in education, specifically human development.

This coming May, 17 years after his last trip to the Chinese mainland, Professor Gardner has been invited to revisit the country that he finds "endlessly fascinating" and the people of whom he is "exceedingly fond."

Invited by the Asian Cultural Council in Hong Kong and some institutions on the mainland, he will give a series of lectures in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing.

Eager to learn more about him and his views on US-China exchanges in the educational sector, I arranged for an exclusive interview with him prior to his China visit.

Q: Tell me about your long "relationship" with China and your upcoming visit in May.

Gardner: I first visited China in 1980 as part of the first official delegation to China from Harvard University, with which I have been affiliated since 1961. In 1982 I visited China as part of the first US- China Arts Exchange.

At that time I became fascinated with arts education in China, and the instructive ways in which it differed from the arts education with which I was familiar in the United States and Europe. And so, with generous funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, I was able to co-organize a three-year scholarly exchange with Chinese scholars and arts educators.

Over the next few years, I made a number of trips to China and visited many schools, museums, performances, and other arts activities.

My last trip was in the spring of 1987 and I have not been back to China since. I did write a book called "To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of Contemporary Education," which was published in the United States in 1989.

For various reasons, I have not been back to China in 17 years. From all reports, the country has changed fundamentally in that period.

When I visited my friends Michelle Vosper (Hong Kong Representative of the Asian Cultural Council) and Leslie Lo (Professor of Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong), they suggested that I make a return trip to the mainland in 2004.

They kindly took care of the travel arrangements, and now I am curious to visit again a country that I find endlessly fascinating and a people of whom I am exceedingly fond.

By the way, in the last 20 years, I have had many wonderful students from China - they are a joy to work with.

Q: What did you find in your studies to be the biggest difference between arts education in the United States and arts education in China? What struck you most, then?

Gardner: I was so struck by the differences between arts education in the United States and arts education in China that I wrote several articles and, as mentioned, a book on the topic. I suppose that the biggest surprise to me at the time was this: Education in all of the arts in China is very precisely prescribed. Teachers and parents know exactly what they want children to be able to do and they know how to get the desired behaviour and performance in almost perfect fashion.

On the other hand, there is little free exploration, little prizing of originality, posing of new problems, tolerance of performances which deviate from a specific model.

But I must add another surprise. When young children in China were given a novel task in the arts, they performed very well. They were able to draw objects that they had not seen before and to do so in appropriate styles. This capacity surprised their teachers, my wife (also a researcher in arts education) and me.

From the excellent performances of the young Chinese students, even on novel tasks, I concluded that the skills being learned by young Chinese students were quite flexible.

They could be mobilized for uses which neither they nor their teachers could have anticipated. Sadly, from my point of view, they were rarely stretched in that way.

Q: How has your China experience impacted your understanding of contemporary education, especially the arts in education - one of your major areas of research? Has your mind changed much over the years, as you understand China better?

Gardner: As a result of the experience that I have just described, I concluded that I had an overly simplistic view of how best to encourage creativity.

Before visiting China, I had thought that young people must always begin with a period of free exploration, before they begin to acquire discipline and skills. After visiting China and thinking about what I had seen, I came to a different conclusion. It is not important that one 'explore' first; what is important is that one has a significant period for exploration, either before, during, or after one has acquired some discipline.

To put it in terms of a contrast: Chinese youngsters have the skills to make creative experiments, but under ordinary circumstances, they don't stretch in that way; and so the creative potential may atrophy.

US youngsters love to explore and think that they explore very well; and yet, without the requisite discipline, their products are typically of little interest - except perhaps to their doting parents. The challenge to arts education -East as well as West - to have both discipline AND a predisposition to take chances, to try something new. Typically, Chinese students have too much skill, and too little free spirit; US youngsters have too much freedom to experiment, and too little skill.

Q: You mentioned in a recent article, Howard Gardner in Hong Kong (2002), that creativity is not a problem for US education. Do you think that is a big issue for Chinese education? What kind of role could the arts play in this respect?

Gardner: Let me clarify what I said. It is not necessary for US schools to spend much time nurturing creativity. There is so much rewarding of creativity in business, the media, and on the streets, that youngsters automatically place a high premium on originality.

In China, as creativity is increasingly being rewarded on the streets and in the media, an encouragement of creativity in the schools will become less necessary. At the time that I was visiting China, 20 years ago, such exploration was still a rarity in Chinese society - and so I recommended that the schools put more of an emphasis on problem-finding, and on discovering new solutions, rather than simply repeating lessons and productions of decades or even centuries ago.

As for creativity and the arts, I will surprise you. I don't think that there is a special link between creativity and the arts. One can be creative in every sphere of life - politics, business, art, science, housekeeping, cooking, etc. Or one can be quite non-creative in those areas. From a Western perspective, Chinese arts 20 years ago were not very creative.

Perhaps the link between creativity and the arts is different. In many cultures and under many circumstances, the arts are a natural area in which children can learn and exhibit creativity. But they are certainly not the only area. Youngsters can also be creative in gardening, cooking, calligraphy, even conflict resolution.

Q: As you might have noticed, many parents in China today are enthusiastic about "discovering" or "developing" the "artistic talents" of their children. After-school classes in music, dance, painting and calligraphy are always popular, although many of the "young emperors" might not be so willing to learn all these "extra skills." Most of the "child prodigies" end up giving up their "artistic talents" when they get older. What's your opinion on this?

Gardner: The fewer children you have, and the more resources at your disposal, the more likely you are to give your child every form of enrichment, and push them hard to achieve.

China has thousands of years of history of encouraging talent development; and so it is not at all a surprise that many of the "young emperors" are taking piano lessons, learning English, and studying many hours a day, perhaps with a tutor.

But what children do when their parents push them, is very different than what they do when they grow up, and their parents are no longer in control of the rewards and punishment.

By and large, those grown up students who continue their area of talent are those who use the talent professionally and those who gain intrinsic pleasure from the activity.

Q: In recent years, art museums and community arts centres have been mushrooming in China as the country experiences rapid modernization and internationalization. What kind of role should these cultural institutions play in promoting arts education among the general public? How do you balance arts education in schools and arts education beyond school walls?

Gardner: Long before there were arts classes in schools, young people learned about the arts in natural settings - in homes, workshops, on the street, in special settings.

And so it is entirely to the good that students now have opportunities to learn about the arts outside of class - in museums, through the electronic media, in children's palaces, community centres, and outdoor installations.

We have a saying in the United States - "No one flunks museums" - and often children learn much more comfortably and personally in what we call "informal educational settings."

That said, we cannot assume that every family will have the opportunity to visit museums or community centres.

The existence of these informal institutions does not relieve the schools of the obligation to provide quality, sustained education in the arts.

Optimally, there should be a division of labour between the two kinds of institutions.

As just one example: Schools could focus more on building skills, and on providing history and cultural background - whereas museums might provide the opportunity to learn about special topics, or to revisit an exhibit regularly and probe into it more deeply, or to become a gallery guide.

And, one hopes, that once young people get into the habit of visiting museums, they will continue to do so throughout life, and one day take their children and grandchildren to these special institutions.

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