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NCLC 2022 presentation: Embracing constraints and encouraging students’ creativity

Written by April Zhang on Monday, 25 April 2022. Posted in Book Fairs & Conferences

NCLC 2022 presentation: Embracing constraints and encouraging students’ creativity

Attending a big event, such as NCLC, was always something worth talking about. It was especially cool to be a speaker, even a small one as I was among all the big shots. It was a good opportunity to learn and to share some of my experience.

In my brief presentation, about ten minutes, I talked about what I’ve learned from organising the Chinese Writing Contest and the importance of being creative. 

Overall, I felt like saying “献丑了” was very appropriate.

For those who are interested in my presentation, follow this link to watch the YouTube video: 

Or read the transcript below.


— Video Transcript — 


Hello everyone, this is April. I’m a Chinese teacher working at MSL Master in Hong Kong. Thanks to NCLC for this opportunity to share some of my experience. 

This presentation is about how to release students’ creativity by implementing some constraints. 

While I was in the secondary school, my writing classes were always like this:

Teachers gave a title, and told us how many characters we had to write. 

We were always given sound advice on how to approach writing assignments.

First of all, we must carefully consider the topic, understand what kind of writing was required.

Then we were advised to follow a set of sequence, from brainstorming for ideas to finalise our writings.

Those were all very good advice. But as students, we never listened. 

Whenever a writing assignment came, we would first complain, then claim we had nothing to write. When we eventually got started, we wrote whatever came to mind. It was always the final draft, no revision. And we would stop immediately once the required number of characters was met.

That was decades ago. I’ve recently listened to a couple of webinars on writing, and I found nothing has changed. Teachers use the same ideas and the same sequence to teach students. And it is still true that many students treat writing assignments as I used to.

How can we transform the entire writing experience?

I had an experiment last year. I invited students around the globe to participate in a Chinese Writing Contest. 

There are many Chinese writing contests. 

This one is unique because of its strict character requirement. Students can write anything, as long as they use the given 320 characters. This is roughly 10% of commonly used characters in today’s books and newspapers.

The contest was launched in June, and concluded in November. A total of 82 submissions were received worldwide. 30 of them made the first round. Final winners were selected by public votes on Twitter. The top 17 best entries were published as a book in early 2022. And a free audio book is made available online. 

It was a lot of fun for students and there were so many positive feedbacks. 


A shift in focus from learning more to learning better

As I was planning this event, an intended outcome from the beginning was to bring a shift in focus in learning Chinese.

When learning Chinese, a dominate question has always been “how many Chinese characters have you learned?”

Beginner students learn a few hundred. Advanced students learn a few thousand.

Teachers often encourage students to learn 3000 plus characters to be able to read native Chinese materials. 

This question channels the time and effort to accumulating characters. 

However, accumulating characters for the sake of accumulating them does not enhance students’ learning experience. It’s usually dry, repetitive and boring. 

A broader question would be “how much Chinese reading and writing have you done?” 

With this question, students’ focus is turned into reading for ideas and writing for creation. 

Having a limited number of characters to use shifts the focus from learning more characters to using characters creatively.

Writing turns into a fun game.

It’s treating characters like Lego pieces, putting them in unique sequences to express meanings. It’s playful. 

Participants had fun writing their works, and everybody else had fun reading these works. 

When I was reading all the submissions, I kept going, like, “this is so amazingly creative”!

As the event being unfolded and I had more input from teachers and students, I realised that being creative, and activities that encourage creativities, are so vital in today’s big data environment.

Creativity is closely related to the purpose of learning Chinese, and to our place as humans vs. machines.

I have a few points to share.


Creativity is the last advantage that we humans have against machines

The first one is that, creativity is, perhaps, our last advantage.

Many Chinese teachers have to answer a question: how useful is learning Chinese?

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that, today, big data, A.I., super computers are doing many jobs that used to be performed by educated humans, such as translators, copy writers, editors, accountants and lawyers.

These super computers are not perfect yet. But they are getting better and better every day. 

Therefore, it is logical for any Chinese language learners to question whether or not learning Chinese has any practical use. Google Translate makes mistakes, but it is still years ahead of many students.

And I think, to inspire becomes a more pressing job for all Chinese teachers. Also, we need to understand what we can do that machines can not.

First of all, machines are very good at answering questions. Google and Wikipedia have answered millions and millions of questions. 

But, they do not ask questions.

Secondly, machines are getting better and better at writing copies and stories.

But, they don’t know what to write next.

To be able to ask questions, to think about what to do next are uniquely human activities. And we need a certain amount of imaginations and creativities to be able to do that.

And learning Chinese is one effective way for us to become really creative.


Create an environment that compels creativity

Creativities are important. 

At what moment, or under what kind of circumstances, do we find ourselves to be most creative? 

It is usually when we don’t have what we need.

We all have our personal experiences, think about using newspapers as umbrellas, or making a paper clip into a necklace.

We can also find clues in popular movies, such as The Hunger Games or Mission Impossible. 

The background of these movies all presents some severe limitations to the heroes. 

Limitations of the environment, limitations of the tools, limitations of information, limitations of personal habits or biases.

These constraints compel the heroes to become more creative and to be more resourceful to overcome the obstacles.

In the Chinese Writing Contest, the constraint is the limit number of available characters. Only 320 of them.


Embracing constraints and relishing creativity

When the constraints are there, we can either run away, or embrace them and be delighted with the amazing outcome. 

To write with a limited vocabulary is not new. 

Dr Seuss did this in 1960. He used 50 English words to write Green Eggs and Ham. It has been one of the bestsellers of all time.

In a similar way, this Contest is an experiment on writing Chinese using a limited characters. 

The result has demonstrated that students were super creative, they thought about their unique view points, and they spent time to craft their work, character by character. 

They wrote wonderful poems and nice stories. A limited number of characters opened up a fantastic world. 

More importantly, beginner students were competing with advanced ones, younger students with older ones, and working professionals with middle school students.

These are the things I’ve learned from organising this event. 

Thanks for all the supports, this experiment went well. 

And it will continue this year. 

I hope you’ll be part of it!

Thank you. 

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About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.