Audio Transcript:

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WBGH in Boston. Innovation doesn't just come from infrastructure and investment; it comes from a culture that encourages originality and creativity. One that rewards risk taking and tolerates failure. That doesn't describe China and that's partly because of China's educational system. It teaches Chinese children to think what they're told. But some Chinese educators are trying to change that. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has part three of our series, Created in China.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Walk into a Chinese classroom and you're likely to hear this. Students recite their lessons together. They memorize them at home. If they have questions, it's to get the right answer, not to raise their own ideas. Lushi Li was born in China and spent her early childhood here. Li's family moved to the United States when she was in grade school. Lushi Li came back here to Beijing last year to take classes at one of China's top universities, Tsinghua. She also spent a month sitting in on tenth grade classes in a Beijing high school, for a thesis she's doing at Harvard. Lushi Li says one thing struck her about the students in the high school and at the university.

LUSHI LI: They don't have very much opportunity to voice their opinions. The teachers do try to engage the students but mostly what they would do is they would ask yes or no questions or they would ask questions with a definite answer so there's very little opportunity for the students to answer open ended question.

MAGISTAD: Li says the students aren't encouraged to learn how to analyze or argue or think for themselves. They are taught to absorb vast amounts of material and prepare for the next exam. In the case of the high school students, for the college entrance exam. Li says this is how one teacher would get her students ready for the exam.

LI: If you ever encounter a test question on this topic, this is how you should answer it and she would outline exactly how you should answer it, even to the point where at the end you know, she would say oh, if you've run out of things to say, that you could always just praise the Communist Party and you know, this is how you would praise them.

MAGISTAD: Actor Nick Li says he had much the same experience growing up in China. He says that experience wasn't exactly fertile soil for the seed of innovation to grow.

NICK LI: The seed is the instant willingness to want to create something that everybody had. The soil is the education and your history of this nation or something and the temperature and the moisture or something probably is the opportunity so the bottom line, if the seed is healthy or not so through the years you just didn't take good care of it and I think eventually they don't even know how to think creative.

MAGISTAD: Nick Li is one of many Chinese of his generation whose creativity thrived only when they transplanted themselves into more fertile soil. Many such Chinese became Silicon Valley success stories. Nick Li went into film. He remembers his first experience at an American university being a bit of a shock.

NICK LI: I don't really remember what the topic was but the teacher just sitting there and listen and we have just all the different opinions and after class I just asked the teacher, are you going to give us some standard answer or something or final answer and he's look at me and just like I am so weird. He said so what do you think about the topic and I said each person have their own good part but ridiculous part and then he said yeah, that's my answer, too. You know, whatever you think and I just feel like wow, this is really a freedom to let you think instead of boom, give you the right answer.

MAGISTAD: Nick Li believes that kind of approach encourages creative thinking and that's one reason he and his American wife, decided to put their daughter into a new kind of school in Beijing. It's a bilingual school called Kinstar. It has Chinese and Western teachers. The school aims to combine the discipline and rigor of the Chinese approach to education, with the creativity of the Western approach. Li's daughter, Tea, a bubbly fourth grader, says it works for her.

TEA LI: Well, the Chinese teachers teach a good way.

MAGISTAD: What's good about it?

TEA LI: They don't like yell at you like that strict but it's kind of like good strict.

MAGISTAD: And how's it different from how the English language teachers teach?

TEA LI: The English teacher usually does like more fun stuff and the Chinese teacher's kind of not as fun as the English teacher.

MAGISTAD: Fun stuff isn't all that common in most classrooms in China. One of the Kinstar schools founders is Hui Jin. She was raised in Shanghai and got her Ph.D. in neuroscience in the US.

HUI JIN: So I was raised and educated in the Chinese system so of course I have a very firm foundation of skills and the knowledge of the basic knowledge but later when I find I was doing researching, graduate school and then doing researching workplace and one thing I find that was lack in my traditional education is the self-confidence. It's a very common of people educated in China then went overseas to studies.

MAGISTAD: So at the Kinstar School, the English language teachers in particular, encourage students to give their ideas. This teacher got his fourth grade class to come up with rules the class will abide by like be considerate and be neat. The kids then divide into teams and compete to show who can do these things best. The classes taught by the Chinese teachers are a little more orderly and at times, sound more like what you'd find in a Chinese school. But the Chinese language teacher, Meng Qin Fen, also encourages the kids to express their thoughts here on the images in ancient poetry. Meng says this is quite different from how she has taught in traditional Chinese schools. She says in those schools, students sit in neat rows. They listen to the teacher and they memorize what the teacher says. Here it's more casual and a little hard for her to get used to. She worries that if a teacher teaches ten things here, the kids really only learn six but Meng likes the fact that here, there's more interaction between teacher and student. More getting students to think for themselves. China's Ministry of Education is trying to move more of China's public schools in this direction. Shen Baiyu heads the Ministry of Education's Division of Curriculum Development for basic education.

SHEN BAIYU: We need excellent teachers who interact with the students and we need to find a way to assess not just what students learn, but also whether they've learned how to learn. We need to change the college entrance exam so it measures these other abilities and not just how well a student can memorize.

MAGISTAD: That kind of exam has been part of the Chinese tradition for centuries. The result is that Chinese schools are not yet graduating innovators such as scientists and engineers at a pace the government would like. Bill Kirby heads the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He's been working with Chinese educators who would like to make the transition to a more innovative curriculum.

BILL KIRBY: Chinese engineers, the critique is, are too often trained in the last best technology. They're not trained to be critical thinkers, not trained to have the capacity to solve the problems that have not yet been posed. It's one of the reasons perhaps that they have a much higher unemployment rate than some who have graduated in other disciplines in China.

MAGISTAD: Kirby says that's one reason an increasing number of Chinese universities are moving away from having students concentrate on one narrow field. Instead, they're starting to require students to take a broader range of classes, including history, philosophy and the arts. Kirby says Chinese universities used to be very strong in those areas before the Communist Party took over.

KIRBY: The gearing of higher education over time, particularly after 1950 toward the interests of the state, the diminution of the humanities, really the near extermination of it, the humanities in higher education, took place in the Maoist period and really it is only in the last decade that one sees a belief that the study of philosophy, the study of literature, the study of history and the successes and failures of human beings in different times and places, is as essential to one's long term education as the study of mathematics, of technology, of engineering.

MAGISTAD: Do you think the Party's really ready to have a nation of independent critical thinkers who would be coming out of this kind of general liberal arts education?

KIRBY: That's the key question of course. The party understands and the leadership of higher education from the Minister of Education on down, understand that China does need a new generation of critical thinkers. The question to be posed is whether a liberal education at the end of the day, a truly liberal education, is possible in a political liberal society.

MAGISTAD: What the Communist Party seems to want is simply engineers who can come up with the next great idea. Not a nation of critical thinkers who can challenge the party. But it may be hard to have one without the other, to get people to innovate in the sciences without using the same habits of mind to rethink Chinese politics and history. Already, there are signs that many Chinese are developing new habits of critical thinking. The explosion of internet use in China has led to tens of millions of blogs and chat sites and some can be pretty edgy. So can other writings in journalism and academia, literature and film. The Party tries hard to silence the most critical voices. It censors the websites and takes down critical messages from chat sites within seconds. It shuts down offending publications and has jailed journalists, bloggers, lawyers and intellectuals. The Party also tries to counter the critics with its own messages. To celebrate sixty years in power, the Party brought many of China's top actors and directors together to make a film called �The Founding of a Republic.� It's now playing in pretty much every major cinema. Among the famous faces here are actress Zhang Ziyi from �Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,� and internationally recognized directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Zhang Yimou has also choreographed the festivities that will mark tomorrow's sixtieth anniversary of the rise to power of the Communist Party. All this sends a message, not unlike what the kids get in school. If you want to be creative and make money from it, it doesn't hurt to do it in the Party's embrace. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.

JEB SHARP: Tomorrow, Mary Kay Magistad explores how innovation in China is coming and will have to come from the private sector. One inventor says that's where you can encourage the most creative thinkers in a group. Say you identify two people from the group.

SPEAKER: What you do is you take those two guys and you bring them in and you sit on a white board and you just talk about creative, whacked out ideas that would never happen anywhere else, right?

SHARP: That's part four of �Created in China,� tomorrow on The World.