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Carol A. Mullen: On Creativity in China

Aug 7, 2017 by

An Interview with Carol A. Mullen: On Creativity in China


Michael F. Shaughnessy –


1) First of all, can you tell our readers a bit about yourself, your education, and experience?


I’m a Professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Tech where I prepare classroom teachers to become highly effective education leaders (e.g., school principals). I also conduct research and contribute service to the profession. I’m a two-time Fulbright Scholar, my first Fulbright visit occurring in China in 2015. Next, I will be in Canada fall 2017. I specialize in mentoring in higher education and K–12 settings, creativity and innovation, and social justice and diversity. An experienced higher education administrator, I have been a department chair, director, and associate dean.


As an author, I’ve published 225 refereed journal articles and book chapters, 15 special issues of journals, and 21 books, (co)authored and (co)edited. My latest book is Creativity and Education in China: Paradox and Possibilities for an Era of Accountability (Routledge/Kappa Delta Pi, 2017). I served as President of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (renamed the International Council of Professors of Educational Leadership [ICPEL]). I received the 2016 Jay D. Scribner Mentoring Award from the University Council for Educational Administration and the 2017 Living Legend Award from ICPEL. My doctorate is from The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Canada.

2) Now, who has influenced you or impacted your views on China?


A major influence affecting my views on China is Yhao Zhao, author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? (Thousand Oaks, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014). Creativity models from the educational psychology field also significantly influenced my work in China and writing of Creativity and Education in China. The sources of these models are:


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. London: HarperPerennial.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The Four C Model of Creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 1–12.


3) I have been to China a few years ago and it seems to be growing and prospering. Is this attributable to leadership, education, or something else?


China is changing. Political scientists describe it as a highly adaptive communist regime, citing as influencers leadership (better known) and education (lesser known). Notably, measurable economic recovery is most evident in the rapid construction of cities, schools, and universities. Probably less well known, China has a capacity for creatively adapting in different domains of life. As examples, the Chinese government’s pursuit to effect change in education has introduced democratic components in mandates for teaching creative curriculum and in society through village elections.


However, conflicting with its growth and prosperity is China’s brain drain. The passive learner in China exhibits attitudes aligned not with creativity and hopefulness but rather with a view of education as passing examinations. Secondary students take the dreaded exam called gaokao, the outcomes of which decide their university fate and future. The all-consuming preparation for the exam comes at great cost, impeding students’ imaginations and creativities over an extended period. The brain drain phenomenon shows up in many ways—especially dramatic is its monumental exodus. The level of instability is so great that creative solutions are well behind it.

Not only relocating from rural areas to urban sites, many citizens have also left the country. Unprecedented, Chinese college-aged students and graduates, workers and families are seeking opportunities for success and a better life, many moving to Western countries.


4) Can you tell us a bit about the educational system in China now and how creativity fits in?


China’s exam-crazed accountability culture prioritizes learners’ rote-based memorization, so this can make it very difficult to imagine and observe creativity in schooling. I traveled to the other side of the planet to discover whether creativity occurs in such a culture and learned that it does. I directly experienced what I refer to as the “creativity paradox” in China’s elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools while interacting with Chinese educators, leaders, and students. While I toured the schools, I observed that children and teachers alike expressed their creative selves by beautifying and personalizing garden spaces and caring for the environment by growing vegetables and raising fish. Creating artworks and robotics for competitions is common, as is performing dramas—always with their ancestral symbols (e.g., dragons) and traditions uppermost in mind.


In the course I taught on creativity in education, I greeted my undergraduate education students with lively Virginia bluegrass music. At first, they lacked the confidence to be creative. I held class in a theater, played the music and, before long, students began to express themselves. They felt confident enough to use microphones to present their projects on stage. These are but a few of the many examples of creativity witnessed. Despite the high-stakes accountability culture that drives much of schooling, there is surprisingly creative innovation and expression occurring, at least within the non-tested schools and tested schools I visited. Creative schools and models are also reported in the global news and a few publications.


5) Do the Chinese lean toward divergent thinking, or flexible thinking, or critical thinking, or higher order thinking? And who determines curriculum over there?


In China, creativity has become an important component of education since 2001. Its development is a main concern, with varying effects across the country. Hong Kong has been ahead of the curve in the nation’s work towards progressively implementing creativity in schools and colleges. Higher order thinking, a critical and creative skill, is being addressed in education policy and reforms. Acting on the priority for transforming societal institutions through creativity, policies have been changed. New practices are being implemented in preschool, primary, and secondary education.


In Southwest China, school principals (i.e., directors) and teachers of primary schools explained to me that there is no unified national curriculum. Their schools receive a guideline from the education department that they turn into a viable program. These early-grade teachers actually create their own curriculum using a team approach, all of which may be new information for many global outsiders.


In contrast, in secondary and college grades, Ministry-set general education curriculum, tethered to the competitive goals of international testing, dominates. Given this problem, you would not expect to encounter much, if any, work being done in the arts and humanities in high schools. However, this is not what I discovered at one highly ranked, prize-winning urban school in tested subjects. This school goes beyond tested subjects to incorporate the arts and humanities, and creative approaches to STEM, engaging students in well-rounded learning shaped around their individual interests. Teachers function as a close-knit team, implementing an interdisciplinary curriculum that keeps the arts and sciences at the forefront of learning. This school might be a petri dish of sorts for teachers’ creative experimentation with curricula.



6) Are there particular subjects that the government seems to foster in terms of creativity?


Aligned with high-stakes standardized testing, China, like the United States, is among the countries that credit language arts, math, and, science as core knowledge, but not the arts and humanities. The government wants its citizens to excel in the international tests, so that the nation’s scores are the highest in the world. In powerfully competitive test-centric countries, curricula (e.g., liberal arts, creative units in science) are eliminated to make even more time for tested subjects in schools. So, based on this curricular deficit, you can see just how remarkable are China’s creative teachers—those who rise above the rather impoverished received curriculum.


However, curriculum reform has occurred through such means as the catalytic 2006 policy document published by the Education Commission Hong Kong (2006). This has introduced liberal studies combined with languages (English and Chinese) and math, with curricular choice for students and examination structures that allow for options. The advanced grade levels such as high school seniors especially benefit. Hong Kong’s recognized liberal-oriented policy reforms have been taking off in Singapore and other parts of Asia, informing the more liberal direction undertaken in some areas of China. The crux of this movement is that it supports a comprehensive liberal arts curricular framework that combines languages and math.


Curriculum, set by China’s national government, is highly specialized; absent is a liberal arts education, as evidenced in its teacher education programs. Mastering the customary body of knowledge is what most university educators strive to do, not develop or teach critical intellectual skills.


Reference cited:


Education Commission Hong Kong. (2006, December). Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China’s progress report on the education reform (4): Learning for life learning through life. Retrieved from Progress%20Report%20%28Eng%29%202006.pdf


7) Are there actual tests in China to assess creative growth or it is done by evaluation of products?


The most common method for assessing creativity, worldwide, is the assessment of creative products. In the global marketplace, the design and manufacturing of creative products is the usual frame of reference for the evaluation of such products.


Within the Chinese classroom, what we know about the evaluation of students’ creative products primarily comes from researchers. While this is an under-reported area of study, it evidences great potential. We know that students’ creativity in China has been evaluated by judges and through self-assessments intended to help learners better understand their own creative processes. Art and design education is particularly amendable to understanding creativity as both process and product, with positive results documented, such as by Chinese educator Tsai (2016).


However, Chinese learning environments and pedagogic instruction seriously limit students’ potential for creative innovation and expression. In Niu and Sternberg’s (2001) study, evaluators rated the creativity of Chinese and American college students, finding that the American participants’ artworks were more creative and aesthetic. The researchers identified pervasive restrictions in China that influence student creativity—these negative influences are the Chinese learning environment’s task constraints and the absence of directives to be creative. Similarly, Niu, Zhang, and Yang (2007) attributed performance-based differences between college students in the United States and Hong Kong to cultural influences. (The American participants were stronger performers in creative thinking based on creative writing and problem-solving tasks involving insight.) Interestingly, this line of research conducted on creativity in China transcends the Asian stereotype based on perceived genetics, characteristics, talents, abilities, or motivations.


References cited:

Niu, W., & Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Cultural influences on artistic creativity and its evaluation. International Journal of Psychology, 36(4), 225–241.


Niu, W., Zhang, J. X., & Yang, Y. (2007). Deductive reasoning and creativity: A cross-cultural study. Psychological Reports, 100(2), 509–519. doi:

Tsai, K. C. (2016). Fostering creativity in design education: Using the creative product analysis matrix with Chinese undergraduates in Macau. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 4(4), 1–8. doi:10.11114/jets.v4i4.1247


8) The Chinese always seem to lean toward the arts—what about the realm of talent?


The arts and culture is one of the high growth creative sectors in China, although the industry sector that includes computing and other service sectors enjoys a much higher growth spurt. Creative industries are thriving, offering personalized, multi-functional music services and new products (as documented by Wuwei, 2011).


However, concerning the cultivation of creative talent, it is believed that China’s education has to break with tradition to establish new pedagogies and curriculum. Wuwei (2011) argues that youngster’s love of creativity and impulse to create needs to be supported in education through coordinated efforts with creative industries and other partners. Such relationships can propel new ways of thinking as well as majors and courses, and practical work and engagement with artists. Chinese universities named as innovators along these lines include Peking University.


Reference cited:

Wuwei, L. (2011). How creativity is changing China. New York: Bloomsburg Academic.


9) What have I neglected to ask about your book?


Springing to mind is the issue of unfortunate generalizations that are spread about China’s learners as robotized humans who lack creativity. China’s own government believes that its citizens are uncreative, meaning incapable of flexible and divergent thinking, or critical thinking, and higher order thinking. This deficit Asian stereotype is perpetuated in the global news and even published scholarship. Stereotypes interfere with what can be discovered about creativity in that rapidly evolving nation. In China, students do take their directions from teachers who in turn get their signals from authorities, all carriers of the regime. Given its millions of followers, it seems likely that Confucianism has reinforced allegiance to the nation’s government.


As such, Chinese students have had to become very good at tested subjects, sacrificing development in creative, open-ended problem-solving that defies linear study. However, it is nonetheless a generalization to assume that this student population is math-smart and creativity-poor, because creativity and innovation do exist in China’s educational and entrepreneurial sectors. I witnessed remarkable signs of creativity within different types of schools, including the under-resourced and impoverished among them. My new book Creativity and Education in China fully describes the teacher and student creativity I observed and experienced within its test-centric culture.


Reference cited:

Mullen, C. A. (2017). Creativity and education in China: Paradox and possibilities for an era of accountability. New York: Routledge & Kappa Delta Pi.

Contact info:

Carol A. Mullen, PhD
Professor, Educational Leadership
Virginia Tech
School of Education, VTCRC, Office #2014
Educational Leadership Program
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Personal website:

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