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[Justin Fendos] Why Korean students lack creativity

One of the catchphrases in Korean education these last few years has been “creativity.” A number of government initiatives have been specifically designed to boost the creativity of students, both in primary and secondary education. A number of universities, including my own, have even built new buildings with names like “creativity center” or “institution for creative education.” Not that the name of a building can deliver results on its own, but it does show how important the issue is.

Korea’s need for creativity is largely born from economic considerations. Most of Korea’s economic success in prior decades has been due to the ability to manufacture existing products with reasonable quality at a lower price than competitors. In the 1980s, this began with the manufacturing of clothing, shoes and toys, and then transitioned into higher-end goods, including electronics and cars.

Today, China and a host of other countries have taken away the mantle of cheap labor, displacing South Korea from competitive prominence. Much like Japan in the 1980s, this means Korea now needs to transition again, this time into an economy that depends on the production of new products, an activity that requires some amount of creativity.

As an educational researcher, I can say with authority there is yet no scientific proof that South Korean students are less creative than their Western counterparts. The main reason for this is the lack of a reliable assessment that can quantify creativity. It simply isn’t something we can measure right now.

However, as an anecdotal process, many of my colleagues and I have frequently observed a significant difference between Korean university students and foreign peers when they are put together into groups and asked to solve problems. The Korean students simply aren’t good at solving problems they haven’t experienced before and will often gape in amazement at the speed and ease with which their foreign colleagues can think up new solutions.

Assuming this difference is real, a conclusion both I and the Korean government agree on, it becomes paramount to identify the causes. When one studies the common experiences of Korean students, one thing becomes obvious immediately: the fact that creativity is largely discouraged in Korean classrooms at virtually every level.

Throughout primary school, Korean students are socialized to be submissive and do what teachers tell them. In this sense, Korean classroom culture is very Confucian. Education research has even confirmed that Korean and European teachers behave very differently in the classroom. Korean teachers, for example, exhibit much lower levels of nonverbal communication, things like eye contact or smiling, cues that can help confirm students are learning and encourage them.

In addition to differences in social interaction, Korean teachers are also much more likely to dictate how students should study. This, in a crude sense, turns students into cups that teachers spoon things into, depriving them of the opportunity to practice developing their own ways of thinking and their own methods for learning. When students do start to develop their own ideas and opinions, they are often admonished and ridiculed, especially if these ideas differ from the teacher’s. It is this lack of independence that really functions as the center of Korea’s creativity problems.

Once Korean students graduate from primary school and get to university, things are no easier. The students are suddenly thrust into a new environment where they are asked to “show their colors” and “express their creativity.” This is ironic because they are suddenly being asked to do something they were actively discouraged from practicing at lower grade levels.

In many college-level creativity programs, professors try to improve the creativity of their students by giving them problems sets, asking them to combine different shapes or ideas into new forms. The issue with these exercises is that they tend to have a correct answer. Here too, the instruction misses the point because real creativity is about thinking differently and being allowed to express those differences, gaining confidence in the new process you create. Until Korean teachers and professors are okay with their students thinking and expressing independently, a lack of creativity will continue to persist.

By Justin Fendos

Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.