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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?

“News of the Weird” Phenomenon

News of the Weird phenomenon is when we easily dismiss bizarre incidents from our own society, because we know they originated in a minor subculture, were committed by people with some kind of problem, were done by a marginalized group such as “rednecks” or criminals or fringe political elements, etc. However, we don’t have the same insider knowledge about “weird news” from most other cultures. As a result, when we read something sensational or peculiar, our attempts to practice cultural relativism kick into overdrive and we may accept the item as representative rather than anomalous.

I think of this as “News of the Weird phenomenon” because when we read the “News of the Weird,” “Weird,” “Odd News,” or “Auch das noch” section of our own newspaper, we don’t take it seriously. Yet when we–or our students–hear shocking things about the cultures in which we travel or study or work–there’s a greater tendency to place some kind of importance on the strange news. (At least, in my experience.) We and they lack context and have difficulty judging the representativeness or even the veracity of such news items.

Japan is particularly plagued by this, as countless American and British news outlets thrive on repeating stories about strange things that just appall my Japanese friends, who usually identify the reported incident as some kind of fringe activity (if they’ve even heard of it). This is almost never indicated in the reports. (Sometimes news items about Japan are outright false, like the one that circulates periodically about the see-through clothing. Trained on a diet of bizarre news about Japan, readers of English news will apparently swallow anything, no matter how outrageous.)

It’s important to think about whether news items that we hear contradict other knowledge we may have about a culture, and to check with a member of that society if we’re not sure. In general, I don’t think it’s constructive to pass on news articles that just highlight sensational or “weird” events, and I think it contributes to “bitter expat” syndrome when people living outside their home countries spend a lot of time focusing on this kind of thing. (I’m not sure how examining/unpacking weird news reports from the students’ countries/the teaching context/English-speaking countries could be turned into useful activities, but I imagine that has some potential!)

There’s probably a related phenomenon rarely experienced by American readers, but which affects us: Police Blotter Phenomenon. The police blotter is the section that some newspapers still have, in which crimes are briefly reported. Non-Americans aren’t generally literally reading a police blotter, but many of my Japanese clients have heard about crimes in the US on the news and in newspapers. Not having the local knowledge to understand whether those crimes are ones that could possibly affect them if they were living here, they often build up an unrealistic idea of widespread violent crime in the US.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve experienced either of these phenomena in yourself or your students, but it’s just something I was thinking about today.

(As far as I know, I came up with this particular term, but I’m sure I didn’t come up with the idea–there’s probably some better, more scholarly way to say it.)

By the way, I’ve added a new tag: lesson seeds. Lesson seeds are for posts that have just the tiniest seed of a lesson idea in them (as opposed to the lesson plan tag, and the lesson idea tag that I haven’t implemented yet). Sometimes a lesson seed is that’s all that’s needed!

P. S. Thanks to @olafelch and @lynneguist (of separated by a common language) for telling me what some “News of the Weird” sections are called in Germany and the UK!)

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!)