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March 12, 2011

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Creativity, tiger moms and Dibidogs

Finland is known for relaxed parenting and education, yet its students are famous for academic superiority and are known for creativity. Liang Yiwen talks to a Finnish expert.

Finland and Shanghai are poles apart when it comes to education and parenting, yet students from both places top the academic charts - and in the latest international ranking Shanghai was No. 1 in math, reading and science.

Finland, after being No. 1 for a decade, is now No. 3 behind South Korea, though all scores are close on the testing by PISA, the Program of International Student Assessment.

The high scores are achieved in countries with very different parenting and education systems. Finland is known for relaxed education that emphasizes individuality, informality and love of learning; China and much of East Asia are known for rigorous, test-oriented education, the importance of high scores and strict, "tiger mother" parenting. Children bear a heavy burden and high expectations.

At the same time, Finnish students rank especially high in reading and creativity. And a Finnish creative education expert Jim Solatie was in Shanghai this week running a creativity workshop and talking to parents about encouraging creativity in their children.

Solatie is the creator of the animation "Dibidogs" TV episodes - created by children and coproduced with Chinese animation workers. It was honored at the 26th Cannes TV Festival and has been shown in China. The characters are little dogs on a magical planet.

The first Shanghai "Dibidogs" workshop is to be held in April, together with Dinosaur Creativity, a pre-school education institute.

In an activity held in Zhejiang Province this week children were telling stories by writing sentences on a balloon, one writing and then passing it along so another child could carry on with the tale. Their stories are expected to become a "Dibidogs" episode.

"I'm confident that the child-created 'Dibidogs' will become as famous as Snoopy," says Solatie, who came up with the series based on his own children's doodling of goofy dogs during a family trip.

He has been collecting ideas from children around the world in similar ways.

Contrary to the widespread notion that Chinese children lack creative spirit, they are extremely creative, as Solatie found in workshops in Guangzhou, Guandong Province, and Hangzhou and Xiangshan in Zhejiang Province.

He says that at a Hangzhou workshop in 2008, a 9-year-old girl came up with the idea of the Dibidogs "bone city." She drew a dog's house made of bones and then other children created an entire bone city where dogs even used bone cell phones. The series was titled "Dibidogs in Bonecity." The girl didn't get high marks in Chinese painting classes, but her creativity has been very influential.

Finland success

For years people have asked about the secret of Finland's success in academic excellence, creativity and economic competitiveness. It's very complicated and began around 40 years ago. Basically, the system is egalitarian, tuition free, flexible in allowing for considerable independence in learning, and not test-oriented. There's lots of recreation and free time. The emphasis is on life-long learning. Students are not compared with each other.

"People are not born creative or less creative. Creativity can be learned," says Solatie, who addressed local parents about how to inspire children's creativity.

"Creativity requires time," he says. "When there's a constant rush there's no time to think and a too-tight school and activity schedule is also not good for children."

Creativity flourishes in an environment where learning is valued, not grades, he says. "Good grades are just a measurement - learning and the joy it brings are what is most important."

The Chinese education model, which seems diametrically different from Finland's, is demanding and competitive, requiring large amounts of academic work and homework; high scores and getting into good schools are all important.

Parenting is also strict and parents demand children get good grades.

Solatie said he disagreed with the strict and inflexible parenting advocated by Chinese American Amy Chua in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Parents know best, Chua says, and children must obey and be forced to do things they don't like for their own good.

"You really can't make decisions on behalf of your child as a parent," Solatie says. "The child will of course follow your decisions for a while, but they have to have their own passion in everything to succeed eventually."

He encouraged parents to talk to and understand their children, to realize where their passion lies and support that passion. He advocated parenting that respects children's individuality and provides a supportive, nurturing environment.

His words generated a lot of comment and reflection among Chinese parents, who nonetheless generally believe that their stricter methods represent the right way to guide their children.

Amanda Liu, a mother in the audience, would like to try some of the Finnish approaches to creativity with her 6-year-old son who will enter school in September. But she has mixed feelings.

She expresses concern that more freedom and flexibility may not be possible in the larger, high-stress environment that emphasizes academic success.

Her concern is shared by Chen Bing, mother of a 3-year-old boy and another listener to Solatie's talk. "I doubt whether Western patterns are workable in Chinese society with its huge population and fierce competition," she says.

"Creativity will be the most important subject in the school of the future," Solatie says. "We adults don't know what is important after 30 years, so we cannot teach our children what is important, but we can teach them how to think, how to learn and how to be creative in learning and life in general."

Inspiring children's creativity

Parents can encourage their children's activity and creative education expert Jim Solatie from Finland makes a couple of suggestions:

Reverse day

Together with a child, parents choose a Saturday or Sunday when they spend the entire day together. They do everything together, but in a reverse order. For example, a meal starts with dessert, then comes the main course, then soup or salad.

The same goes for chores and the usual order of the day. Dessert could be for breakfast and oatmeal for dinner.

This helps children break out of routines and helps them question the routine and how and why things are done the way they are. This gives a child a little space to think differently.

Letter from the future

Parents can ask a child to write a letter to himself or herself, but from the future, say three or five years in the future. The child then writes about where they are, what they are doing and how they got there. The idea is to help children plan, set goals for themselves and imagine future possibilities.


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