Why Chinese Kids Are Smart But Not Creative

Ever wondered why Chinese kids are so good at math?


Are they born smart or is it just practice?

We moved to China in 2009 and were warned about how tough the schooling would be. Chinese parents, anxious to help, dropped a few hints. At farewell dinners the conversation would eventually turn to education: how hard the Chinese kids worked and/or how easy it was for western kids. I knew they were clever; what I didn’t grasp was the level of effort involved.

Why Chinese Kids Are Smart

When our son came home from school on the first day, I knew what they meant. After a year here it’s clear this he is learning more than in Ireland, but there is a downside. He’s losing creative skills that don’t come with maths.

A week in the life of a Chinese student

Here is a snapshot of his weekly schedule. Unlike in Ireland, it’s a 7 day week here. Read on and you’ll get the idea.

  • School starts at 7.45. We’re up at 5.30.
  • School finishes at 4.45 but…
  • Real school finishes at 6.45. We’ve signed up for extra classes in robotics and Er-Hu, a two-stringed musical instrument.
  • School week is Mon-Fri and also Sat and sometimes Sunday.

Homework takes us until 9-10 pm. Of course, for him it’s harder as he’s playing catchup with the other Chinese kids but, speaking to their parents, they also work until 9, 10 etc. Remember, these are 9 year old kids, no teenagers.

  • Homework is often re-started (ie really finished) between 7-7.30 am.
  • Homework is double on the weekends. In Ireland, the weekend is down-time, not here.
  • Homework is also given on vacations.
  • Summer hols you have books to read etc.

All of this creates a focussed education system. There isn’t much time ‘down time’.

But here’s the interesting thing. Most of the kids seem happy. I don’t mean ‘happy clappy’ but content. It’s the norm and there is a strong sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. This is partly nationalist pride and also the reality of living in a developing economy with little financial support for those that don’t make the grade. Admittedly, it’s not perfect and there are many areas to consider.

But why are they so smart?

Malcolm Gladwell estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. When you consider the hours they put into their studies, especially Maths, then it’s no wonder they’re so smart in this area.

They’re exposed to more learning opportunities time-wise. It’s a number’s game.

But here’s the downside.

The commitment to these topics means that other areas take a back seat.

  • Creativity – learning by rote is fine but it doesn’t encourage real critical thinking. Here the emphasis is placed on learning, for example, tables & poems, but not much time is spent learning ‘how to’ write poems, i.e. creative & communication skills.
  • Opinions – respecting the elders’ opinion is to be admired (kids here never talk back to the teacher – it just doesn’t happen) but there is little/no room for discussion when sometimes an exchange of opinions would benefit both parties.
  • Communications – the unfortunate element of the one-child policy is that it’s created a generation of kids that are content in their own company. But, in the business world, such a reserved disposition may not serve you so well.

Singapore is now looking at ways to introduce creativity into the education system. The kids are super smart but don’t have that spark. This leads to a problem when you need to fix unorthodox solutions to fast-changing social problems.

So, while 7 year old western kids may not know the Table of Elements, their down time may reap rewards in the long term. More balance would be idea.

How do you see this?

Do western kids spend too little time in school? Should they focus more on Math? Are subjects like poetry a waste of time? If you were in charge, what would you change?