Fostering Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in Chinese Universities for a Creative Society

Fostering Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in Chinese Universities for a Creative Society

Chunfang Zhou (Aalborg University, Denmark) and Zhiliang Zhu (Northeastern University, China)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9961-6.ch001


Recently, building a creative society has been a new vision of China that brings much discussion on how to foster creative talents and how to improve pedagogic models in Chinese universities. This chapter regards problem-based learning (PBL) as a promising strategy, and accordingly, the following questions will be discussed: 1) How can we understand the context of building a creative society in China? 2) What is a PBL model? 3) How can we understand history of PBL in a global context? 4) What is the theoretical root of PBL? and 5) For Chinese universities, what are boundaries to be broken for facilitating changes towards PBL that benefits to build a creative society? As both challenges and opportunities of fostering PBL in Chinese universities will be revealed, and appropriate strategies of reform will be suggested, this chapter has important significances of pedagogical innovation in Chinese context. In addition, it also implies universities in other cultures for improving innovation strategies in the future.
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Recently, ‘innovation-oriented nation’ have been an officially recognized national strategy in China, and it has been a belief that only innovation will afford the nation a leading role in existing and emerging areas of development (Jing & Osborne, 2017). According to the report provided by Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI) in 2017 (, China has one of the most active digital-investment and start-up ecosystems in the world, has the potential to set the world’s digital frontier in coming decades. We can see that ‘creativity’, ‘design’, ‘digitalization’, ‘entrepreneurship’, and ‘innovation’ have become key words in Chinese political discourse. As one of key element of innovation, creativity has been a new strategic choice to combine with technology and market demand to develop high-value-added cultural and creative industries. Cultural creativity and technological innovation have been linked to the ‘wheels of a cart and wings of a bird’ for economic growth in China (Li, 2011). This underpins that creative industries promote the transformation of economic development model through transformation of resources, value upgrading, structural optimization, and market expansion.

Accordingly, to build a creative society has been one part of a new vision and development strategy in China. As The World Bank (2013) described, by 2030, if managed well, China could become a modern, harmonious, creative, and high-income society. Among a series of key factors of supporting the new strategy, ‘creativity’ and ‘new technology’ have been addressed as two key enablers to build a creative society. The new strategy highlights that China sees itself building its future prosperity on innovation in which everyone’s creative potential is tapped. Its success will lie in its ability to produce more value, not more products, enabling it to move up the value chain and compete globally in the same product space as advanced countries. In the shift that China is moving towards a creative society, it is a more specific indicator of cultural progress that the slogan ‘harmonious society’, which is used to refer to all facets of people’s lives (Zhou et al., 2017).

Given the role of young talents in technological development, attracting the creative, smart, and highly educated has been a major task for Chinese government in the past decade (The World Bank, 2013). What society really needs is a combination of creative skills and practical capabilities among Chinese students. As Li (2011) addressed, creative industries are an industrialized business operation system covering process of creative planning, production, marketing and consumption. Designers, engineers or technology developers, production crews, agents, marketing professionals, and managers should all be professionally trained. However, creative people cannot be fostered overnight. Creativity among Chinese students are influenced by social values, pedagogical practices and educational testing systems (Zhou, 2018). Although educational reform is underway, most of Chinese universities are still following a teaching way of ‘chalk and talk’, with large classes and single-discipline, lecture-based delivery of the norm. These are truly traditional pedagogical models and organizational systems.

Thus, to build a creative education mechanism in China, focuses should be on breaking through the boundaries of the traditional education system and establishing a new teaching concept and new curriculum that is required by a creative society. It can be seen that recently, Chinese universities strive to learn advanced pedagogic models from other cultures and introduce them to local contexts, and those new models include, for example, inquiry-based learning, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), service learning, active learning, challenge-based learning, outcome-based education, and CDIO (Conceive, Design, Implement, and Operate), etc (Zhou, 2012; Kolmos, 2013, Zhou, 2018). All of these new models are student-centered in their philosophy and approach to learning; moreover, among them, PBL has been particularly regarded as a promising strategy for fostering creative talents in China (Zhou, 2012; Zhou, 2018).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Transformative Learning: It refers to the process by which we transform our take-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets), to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. Through transformative learning, personality-integrated knowledge is developed on the basis of which associations can be freely made in all subjectively relevant contexts.

Co-Creation: From an organizational management perspective, co-creation is a joint creation and evaluation of value with stakeholding individuals, intensified and enacted through platforms of engagements, virtualized and emergent from ecosystems of capabilities, and actualized and embodied in domains of experiences, expanding wealth-welfare-wellbeing. Introducing the concept of co-creation to an educational context, it means to design a curriculum by involving the following elements: 1) students’ active and reflective participation, 2) changes of teachers’ roles towards becoming facilitators of learning, 3) a dynamic and interactive process of teaching and learning, 4) multiple channels of resources of teaching and learning, and 5) increased levels of individual and collective students’ responsibility for their learning.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL): As an innovative educational model, problem-based learning (PBL) has been widely used in diverse disciplines and cultures throughout the world. In PBL, students’ learning centers on complex problems that do not have a single answer or solving real-life projects. Students work in collaborative groups to identify what they need to learn in order to solve the problems. The teacher acts to facilitate the learning process rather than to provide knowledge. So “student-centered learning” is the core philosophy of PBL.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT): ICT can be seen as a set of information technological tools that can be chosen as supporting educational environment. The technological resources can support the creation and development of ideas by stimulating the learners to engage into deeper learning process and activities.

Creative Society: It is an expansion or evolution of information and knowledge society. It has been defined both in a narrow sense and a broad sense. From a narrow sense, the creative society labels the society as being creative or interchangeably inventive; creativity is just the one of possible features, likely the most important one, which can be attributed to the contemporary society. From a broad sense, the creative society should be understood as a phenomenon; it is a name of the contemporary society, not limited only to one attribute as being creative, but emphasizing the creativity as state of the society, affecting all other attributes. Creativity and new technology are key enablers in developing a creative society.

Learning: Learning involves any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change. Learning develops knowledge, abilities, understandings, emotions, attitudes, and sociality, which are important elements of the conditions and raw material of society.

Creativity: Etymologically speaking, the term “creativity” means to generate new and useful ideas. The field of creativity was practically started from psychological studies. Today the field has seen an explosion of interest: creativity has been discussed much by the theories such as psychology, social psychology, cultural psychology, social culture, and even philosophy.

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