Expanding the Knowledge and Application of Creative Thinking in China

Dr. Carol Mullen, Professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Tech
May - June 2015 Fulbright Specialist to China

In July 2015, Dr. Carol A. Mullen returned to the United States from a four-week assignment in China as a Fulbright Scholar where she explored people’s perceptions of creativity and accountability in universities and schools. She describes the project she conducted with Southwest University (SWU), Chongqing, as “focused on interventions for learning in China that shape education policy and the civic society.”


Southwest University (SWU) Students

Dr. Mullen designed two courses, one for online delivery, and taught “Creativity and Accountability in Education” to undergraduates. Faced with the problem that her students lacked confidence in their ability to be creative, she held classes in a theater, beginning each with lively Virginia bluegrass music. Before long, students began to self-assuredly express themselves, using microphones to present their 3-D projects on stage.

Dr. Mullen eagerly shared her internationally recognized expertise in mentoring, leadership, and policy, with the goal of contributing to the global scholarly community. At SWU, Mullen gave lectures and held seminars with faculty and students on topics that included good writing habits. She also visited various types of schools–rural elementary, university-affiliated, and Montessori–where she had informative meetings with school directors, principals, and teachers.

To link her Fulbright Specialist host institution with Virginia Tech, her home institution, in an innovative model of educational outreach, Dr. Mullen organized a synchronous teleconference that presented distinguished professors and presidential leaders to packed Chinese audiences of students and professors. From June 3 to June 23, prominent scholars from Virginia Tech were electronically transported through a live video teleconference to SWU. At 8pm, groups of Chinese students and professors heard from a series of speakers whose real-time talks were launched with PowerPoint slides. The speakers spoke on leadership, policy, and science topics as interventions of leaning for shaping education policy and the civic society; outreach and international affairs in higher education; educational leadership and law in the USA; developing interdisciplinary teams for advancing research and practice; China-USA international partnerships and laboratories, and emerging technologies for supporting teaching and learning. The Specialist and her China translator provided mini talks in advance of these sessions. A SWU faculty member co-hosted each session and interacted seamlessly with the audience, translating Mullen’s objectives for the teleconference and each session and, importantly, key points from the speakers’ presentations into Mandarin, followed by Q&A. One of the co-hosts commented that the innovative teleconference had worked well and inspired SWU to try new experimental formats in teleconferencing to reach worldwide audiences.


Dr. Mullen with the Virginia Tech-Southwest University Teleconference Poster

A first-time visitor to China, Dr. Mullen is quick to point out that the learning experience there was two-way. “I found everyone to be very warm and welcoming. They went out of their way to share first-hand knowledge of schooling and experiences of their culture through classes in calligraphy, Thai Chi, and paper cutting.” On her tours of schools, children and teachers alike expressed their creative selves by beautifying and personalizing garden spaces and caring for the environment by growing vegetables and raising fish. “Images of family, dragon festivals, and ancient symbolism,” Mullen noted, “seemed to be present everywhere I went.”

Connecting with university administrators, faculty, school educators, and education students in China, Mullen sought to expand the knowledge and application of creative thinking. “I was particularly interested in building connections among groups in China committed to preparing future educators and leaders and to pursue cooperative ventures to further this mission.”

Customizing her Fulbright visit, Professor Mullen traveled to Shanghai, Nanjing, Jinan, and Beijing, delivering seven keynote lectures at various universities and institutes. She rode the bullet train: “Everywhere I traveled,” she said, “educators and officials treated me royally with exquisite celebratory lunches. I was truly impressed by the meaningful conversations we had (translated of course!)—they seemed to be very interested in who I was and what I had to say. They attracted large audiences to all of my talks and provided translators.” In Shanghai Dr. Mullen lectured on mentoring and self-regulated learning in education at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. Next, in Nanjing she presented on institutional visioning models of faculty collaboration at the Nanjing Institute of Technology. At Nanjing University she talked about the universal journey as a metaphor for critical circumstances that shape people’s lives.

Traveling north to Jinan, Dr. Mullen gave two workshops at Shandong University, one on institutional development in a global context and the other on aesthetics in educational leadership. Her tour ended in Beijing. At Beijing Normal University, she lectured on innovations in mentoring, collaborating, and coaching in the global age. She also spoke on clusters modeling for research institutions at the National Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Ministry of Education. Before returning home, the editor of China Education Daily interviewed her.

Reflecting on her trip to China, Mullen said that “it is important to be extremely flexible with scheduling and to know that others who are responsible professionals will pull through at their end, even if the timing is close.” She observed that her plans in China often changed unexpectedly but that the outcome was typically better as a result. “The respect and care that my Virginia Tech translator and I received throughout the visit inspired me to give wholeheartedly and joyfully.” She developed bonds with ‘strangers’ from a country other than her own in a short time. “I had a life-changing experience that I don’t take for granted,” she added.

This Fulbright Specialist has already received a contract from Routledge/Taylor & Francis, co-sponsored by Kappa Delta Pi, to write a book about her experiences and outcomes in China.

Mullen has made arrangements to continue collaborating on the assignment she had as a Fulbright Specialist. The host invited her to co-author an article on learning environments with the young faculty. She has in turn invited the faculty and students to various international conferences and shared the relevant information. Her assignment as a Specialist was multifaceted and included mentoring as a theme, so she has been mentoring the faculty and students who continue to reach out to her, such as students who, with her guidance, have applied for a Fulbright award and study abroad experiences in the United States.

Mullen plans to continue to be of service in ways that align with the Fulbright project, such as through co-writing, co-presenting, and co-researching. She brought a Chinese doctoral student with her to China and through his language translation services was able to forge deeper personal and professional contacts, just as he was able to through Mullen’s project scope, which included his teaching assistance in her course.

Mullen is continuing to communicate with the creative group of undergraduates she taught, forming a deep bond with her 35 students. In fact, her students sent her a touching video of their goodbye message and upon her departure gave her a handwritten poem they prepared using Chinese characters on a traditional roll.

Professor Mullen expresses gratitude to the U.S. Department of State, CIES Program Officer Carmel Geraghty and hosts Dean Zhu Dequan and Dr. Muhua Wang, in addition to Virginia Tech grant sponsor Dr. Karen Roberto, and lecture circuit sponsors Dr. Li Mang, Dr. Yan Wang, Dr. Yan Zhang, Dr. Yanyan Wang, Dr. Saiqiang Lee, and Dr. Yumei Jiang. Besides the steadfast planning from her husband Dr. Bill Kealy, other supporters included Dr. Faye Snodgress, Kathie-Jo Arnoff, Catherine Bernard, Dr. Guru Ghosh, Dr. Rolf Mueller, Dr. David Alexander, Dr. Diana Wu, Dave Brod, Dr. Yong Zhao, Dr. Grace Feuerverger, and Dr. Bev Irby.