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Multicultural Experiences and Creativity

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On Twitter, I followed a link to a blog post provocatively titled Are Expats More Creative? This post mentioned some research suggesting that people with deep experience abroad came back as more creative people–in a way measurable on tests of creativity–but it didn’t cite or link to the actual research. I was able to find a couple of papers by the researcher mentioned in the article, as well as a Youtube interview with him. It’s very interesting stuff, and while the studies are somewhat artificial, they’re very thought-provoking. It may be a good argument for teaching abroad and studying abroad, but the research team found that you can’t just travel abroad or live in an expat enclave/not get out into the culture or learn the language. You really need to have that integrative motivation to benefit.

To my surprise, a recent paper was downloadable for free, although it looked as though it would be behind a journal’s paywall. I don’t know if it’ll work outside of the US, but check the righthand column to see if you can download it.

“When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity” (Maddux, Adam, and Galinsky)

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(6) 731–741 © 2010 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc
Reprints and permission: DOI: 10.1177/0146167210367786
Research suggests that living in and adapting to foreign cultures facilitates creativity. The current research investigated whether one aspect of the adaptation process—multicultural learning—is a critical component of increased creativity. Experiments 1-3 found that recalling a multicultural learning experience: (a) facilitates idea flexibility (e.g., the ability to solve problems in multiple ways), (b) increases awareness of underlying connections and associations, and (c) helps overcome functional fixedness. Importantly, Experiments 2 and 3 specifically demonstrated that functional learning in a multicultural context (i.e., learning about the underlying meaning or function of behaviors in that context) is particularly important for facilitating creativity. Results showed that creativity was enhanced only when participants recalled a functional multicultural learning experience and only when participants had previously lived abroad. Overall, multicultural learning appears to be an important mechanism by which foreign living experiences lead to creative enhancement.

If you can’t access it, there is an earlier article hosted at Northwestern University (PDF): Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity: The When and How” (Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, and Chiu).

My big question is whether I should (because I already know that I want to), and whether it is worth being away from my partner for a year or more.

What do you think? If you’ve taught or lived overseas, did it make you more creative in small or large ways? Did you “think differently” when you came back?

The Twitter Divide

(Note: This post contains lots of speculation and generalizations based on some extremely subjective observations, without any hard data to back it up. I’m not claiming I’m right about any of this! I’d love to get different points of view, so please comment. Thanks!)


I’m on Twitter as talkclouds. Since I’m currently working as a private instructor/editor, it’s been invaluable for staying connected. The e-mail groups that I joined as part of my various professional organizations are mostly dormant, and conferences are infrequent. Twitter lets me ask questions, discuss issues, and (best of all) share resources. In the last couple of days, I’ve found out about an event in San Francisco with the Japanese ambassador, two open-source textbook websites (more on that soon!), a JapaneseEnglish iPhone app, a new Pearson Longman site for teachers, an article on teaching English in Taiwan, where I could watch part of a Pecha Kucha session at the IATEFL conference in the UK live online, etc.

That leads to me my next question, which is — is it just me, or are UK-based teachers more with it when it comes to twenty-first century communication tools like Twitter and Pecha Kucha*? It’s frustrated me for a long time that technology seems more alien to English teachers than to, say, librarians–ALA (American Library Association) conference websites are usually more advanced than TESOL/affiliate conference websites, there are librarians all over Twitter, and so on. Meanwhile, CALL and TELL are basically niches, and even many of their advocates focus mainly on twentieth-century “language lab”-style stuff.

At any rate, I thought it was English teachers as a whole that were behind, but when my Twitter list exploded with #iatefl tags (see above), I realized that might not be the case. (Putting a # in front of a word in a post/”tweet” makes it into a “hashtag,” which makes it a clickable, searchable term collecting all the tweets on that particular topic/at that particular venue/etc.) So many people were tweeting from the conference, whereas TESOL’s conference just a couple of weeks before in Boston hardly even registered on my Twitter radar. One person I chatted with, who was at both TESOL and IATEFL, indicated that not only were there very few “tweechers” (Twittering teachers) at TESOL, but mentions of it were not received with favor or interest.

(Alternatively, is it not a North America/UK divide, but an ESL/EFL divide? If IATEFL is really focused on EFL, as the name indicates, and is not a general UK-based ELT association–I confess I don’t know–then that might be part of the difference. Most of TESOL’s membership is composed of ESL instructors, and many of them teach composition rather than or in addition to communication-oriented English classes. The former generally have less in common with EFL instructors than the latter. I’ve noticed a relative lack of interest in using technology other than basic computer applications among many composition instructors.)

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should get on Twitter.** It’s not for everyone; lots of people will just find it annoying even after putting in the time needed to get used to it and learn its culture. (After all, I’ve tried Second Life twice and just can’t get into it.) But I think more people need to try it out–after all, teachers also need support and “personal learning networks.” Twitter is great for that. It’s also very casual; there’s not a lot of Twitter etiquette*** to worry about. You can follow (add) and unfollow (remove) people freely, and you don’t need to worry about catching every tweet.

My Twitter stream is like a magic cafe filled with English teachers from all over the world, plus some international journalists, cultural critics, general educators, linguists, and so on, all chatting to each other and to me. No one is making speeches, since it’s not a lecture hall–although someone may hand me a paper to read later. If I pop in, I can catch all kinds of interesting things and share my own thoughts (and due to the magic properties of the cafe, I can rewind a bit too). I have three other accounts–one for my personal life, one for English learners, and one where I post local news and events for my area. I just think the people in these “cafes” would be bored or confused by each other, so I’ve kept them mostly separate. Most people don’t go quite that far, although a lot of people have both professional and personal accounts. Fortunately, many Twitter clients and apps (small programs that just run Twitter) make handling multiple accounts easy.

CATESOL is in a few days, and I would love to propose a tweetup (a meetup organized through Twitter)–however, I’ve only heard from two other people who are going. I wonder if there are enough of us for a tweetup. You would think California would be cutting edge, right? So far that hasn’t really been my experience.

Any theories on what’s up? Am I and the other people I talked to just wrong and just not hooked into the North American ESL twitter community? Anyone want to talk about how it is in other places and disciplines?

* Pecha Kucha is not especially high-tech, nor are unconferences, but you could argue that both are part of the spirit of TED Talks and other tech-communication related innovations, and Pecha Kucha first came to the attention of many outside Japan though Wired magazine.
** I included this digression because I knew some people were going to think “What is the point of Twitter, anyway?” — as I did before I started using it and, to a certain extent, while I only had my personal account and didn’t have my @talkclouds account.
*** Previous link deleted due to a malware report [on the site I linked to, not here] by Google.



Life/Learning Skills

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As you can probably infer from the science links on my sidebar, I’m interested in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and so on. I enjoy reading about issues like how sleep and nutrition affect your ability to remember, react, and make good judgments. Unfortunately, many of our students (well, and many of us!) have bad habits that have a negative effect on learning and thinking. Aside from issues beyond their control, many of them could do better and don’t. They don’t know these things affect their learning, or they don’t care. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m never really sure whether students are likely to react positively to a teacher bringing up lifestyle issues in a class or a tutoring situation, particularly when it’s an ESL teacher and not a biology teacher!

Prolific English education blogger Larry Ferlazzo has bitten the bullet, though. Check out his post “‘Will Sleeping More Make Me Smarter?’ — A Lesson I’m Trying This Week,” in which he’s decided to actually tackle the issue of lack of sleep among high school students, a population that’s especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation and especially prone to it. I like the way he’s approaching it, and I think he has the potential to reach at least a handful of students who may be staying up voluntarily (or thinking they have to stay up in order to study more, but studying fruitlessly).

One of the issues I’d like to approach with my clients and students is that of nutrition. I’ve actually tackled it briefly once, with a group of students who were studying for the GRE when they were not at all ready for it. Since it wasn’t possible to bring them into a high GRE score range using conventional methods in the short period of time I had with them, I tried to give them as many peripheral boosts as I could. (Any port in a storm!) One of the tips I gave them was the advice to get in the habit, right away, of eating a breakfast with protein and fiber every day, and to not go to the exam hungry. I haven’t revisited it with students since then, but there’s lots of research indicating that I should.

I found out via Danny Choo’s website that less than 10% of the Japanese population regularly eats breakfast. Of my Japanese friends who do eat breakfast, a typical example is a piece of white toast and a cup of black coffee, which is not really “brain food.” (By the way, Choo is the Dancing Stormtrooper of Youtube fame.) Choo linked to a Ministry of Agriculture program trying to encourage Japanese kids to eat breakfast, with tons of statistics showing that not doing so increases agitation, decreases motivation, lowers test scores, and so on. I don’t know if the program is working, but that kind of information tends to be more impressive to many people than just finger-shaking and repeating “It’s good for you!” So I suspect I need to dig out the studies I’ve read before and boil them down to something easy to understand. The only thing is that I’d like to do it without focusing too much on grades and test points, because that is really not the point of language learning. But if that’s all I can find, that’s all I can find.

However, I don’t want to come off as trying to “mommy” my students and clients. That’s not going to be received well regardless of whether it’s the teens (naturally resistant to mommying) or the forty-somethings (who wouldn’t like being mommied by someone younger than they are). I also need to be careful to not make this a matter of “my way is better than your way”–although to be fair, Japanese people used to eat breakfast more than they do now. And the old-school Japanese breakfast of fish and miso soup and so on is pretty good brain food: much better than toast and coffee. I won’t be telling them that, either, because people never like to hear some outsider lecturing them about their own culture! So clearly, this needs to be handled very carefully if I decide to tackle it…maybe with a reading and discussion exercise, or something.

Anyway, have you ever gone into this territory with your students or clients? What did you talk to them about–sleep? Nutrition? Time management? Something else? How did you handle it? How was it received? I’d love to know. Or do you think this is simply hands-off territory, even if sleep, nutrition, etc. can increase long- and short-term memory retention, reaction time, and other neurological processes strongly related to successful language learning?

(Also, what IS the term for these factors? I’m sure there is one, but I can’t seem to remember it, and no one on Twitter seems to know, either. Google only gives me “out-of-school factors,” which doesn’t seem right. I’d like to make a tag once I figure out the term!)