26 March 2010

Cambodian Creativity Curtailed

Several years on and this is still vivid in the mind.

Colouring Pencils. Paper. And three Cambodian kids aged five, seven and ten years old. Give the same equipment to youngsters in New Zealand and they would be scribbling trees, and houses, sheep, hills and the sea. We expected that these kids would draw temples, coconut trees, buffalo and stilt houses, perhaps.

But they didn't. Nothing like it. In fact they, as you can see from above, all did the same thing; they divided their paper roughly into thirds and coloured it in. It didn't take them long, and whilst they weren't unhappy in their work, neither were they engrossed. We were shocked.

Ann showed them how to draw flowers. And mountains and birds. Now they were interested and they faithfully copied the examples. But they couldn't come up with anything of their own.

Earlier this year I was teaching a young Cambodian man, English. He was 20 and had just been accepted to go to some sort of drawing school where he would receive tuition for two years. He showed me some of his work. It was little more than doodling of a reasonable quality; the sort of work that would be produced by thousands of young school kids in New Zealand or Australia.

So what's up with that? Our young Cambodian kids live in a shelter with more than 30 other children and so they don't have much in the way of one-on-one input from someone who can help them develop their creativity. There just isn't a grandma or older sister to spend the time. And there aren't the resources, either. Not even at their schools.

But there is more to it than that. Creativity and doing something different from the others just isn't valued in Cambodian society; give them something to copy and they will do it with well and with excruciating care but ask them to do their own thing and they get flustered, unsure and even tense.

This lack of creativity shows later in life, too. My adult banking students understood well what 'brainstorming' was supposed to be but they just couldn't do it. Not in any way that was the least bit creative, anyway. There ideas were dull, safe and unimaginative. It was depressing.

It's probably too late in life now for these adults but what to do about the younger ones? We've been thinking about that for a while and intend to start some Creativity Classes for some of the girls just as soon as we can. That shouldn't be far away. And should anyone have any good ideas, or can point us in the right direction for books and resources, be sure to let us know.

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