Monday, July 28, 2008

In Praise of Copying

Last night, I had dinner with a woman from China who now works as a graphic designer for Cisco. She insists that one of the reasons for Chinese workers' excellence is that in schools in China, before students are encouraged to be creative, they are required to do a tremendous amount of copying. So, for example, she was required to try to copy the paintings of great masters. Aspiring computer engineers are trained to copy great circuits. Aspiring writers are first taught to try to copy the styles of masters.

This comports with the way I became a professional pop pianist. I listened to top pop pianists and tried to mimic them, virtually note by note. (But I did NOT get the sheet music--that would have kept me from learning to play by ear.) Only when I could reproduce, fairly well, the piano playing of my favorite pianist, Peter Nero, did I really try to develop my own style.

In contrast, children in U.S. schools are encouraged to be creative from Day 1. For example, they're encouraged to paint whatever comes to mind. They're encouraged to do "creative writing," even "creative spelling."

I'm wondering if copying might be an underappreciated learning tool.


Anonymous said...

I seem to use the phrase "Are you kidding me?", usually with an expletive, at least once a day. Today, I used that with the phrase "creative spelling." That just sounds so stupid.

As for copying to learn, I thought that this was one of the key ways teaching was already done. It seems the obvious way to go.

Take learning to write in school. I don't know if this is still done, but when I was learning to make letters in print and cursive, all the kids had to follow a template. As the kids get older and write more, having learned the basics, they develop their own handwriting.

The same can be said for other subjects: math and science with formulas; music classes, especially vocal; cooking with following a recipe, sports, or any subject where a great has inspired a potential student.

When most people are learning something very new, at the beginning they're doing what they see or what they're told to do, and that often involves copying. It's after learning the basics that a particular style should emerge, in my opinion.

Mark B said...

I teach a lot of native Asian students at art school. They can duplicate projects easily. They follow orders well, but when it comes to taking craft and applying it to their own projects, many of them have a real problem creating anything other then highly crafted imitations.

I believe strongly in the study of skill, craft and technique but there is something deeply wrong in the Asian educational system, it seems to attack the individual's voice. It's very hard to get Asian students to think about larger goals and purpose of their work other then making it look "nice".

My education in painting at an American art school focused on skill, knowledge and creativity. There is no reason to ignore all three as important tools in learning. Mastering technical skill alone can take you far, especially in pop culture, but it leaves you high and dry when the technical and aesthetics shift with time.

Mark Badger

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Mark,

Yes, after mastering the basics with the helping of copying and memorizing, yes, encouraging creativity is important. And, indeed, the woman I had dinner with confirmed what I had read: that Asian universities are now doing much more encouraging of creativity and problem solving, not mere replication.

kt said...

In my view, creativity comes with great personal responsibility. In China, Korea, Japan, or India, creativity is dangerously radical for their social orders. You need to commit a revolution as American in fighting for the Independence. It is also the reason why Asian students come to America to learn with great freedom. I was one of them as well many years ago. Freedom to create is a very precious gift of this country.