Let me start by telling a story based on actual classroom research. A research psychologist gave 27 students in a high school classroom wireless pagers and told them that whenever they received a ”page” they were to write down on a form he’d given them whatever was going on in their minds at that moment. The students were listening to a lecture about Genghis Khan’s invasion of China in the thirteenth century when he ”paged” them. Only two students were thinking about China. One student was thinking about a great dinner he had had with his family at a Chinese restaurant. The other student was wondering why men in China used to wear their hair in pigtails. Nobody was thinking about the lecture. Instead, as the researcher pointed out, ”[t]hey mentioned their dates, their coming football game, how hungry they were, how sleepy they were etc.” In other words, they were imagining things that were more interesting to them than the lesson.
All that imagination wasted – at least as far as the lesson about Genghis Khan was concerned. The teacher could have told them about how Genghis Khan’s army traveled at lightning speed on the backs of ponies, or described how they were driven back from conquering Japan by a typhoon or ”divine wind” which in Japanese is ”kamikaze.” Which is where the term came from referring to the Japanese planes that dive-bombed allied ships during World War II. These things might have captured their imagination.
The fact is that the imagination – or the ability of the human mind to create inner pictures or images – is the most undervalued and underused learning tool in all of education. For the most part it is not only unused, but actually disparaged by teachers, who refer to it as ”daydreaming.” Daydreaming, re-framed, is simply the act of students using their imagination to picture things that are more interesting to them than the curriculum or the lesson plan at hand.
And how easy it would be for teachers to use this ”no cost” learning tool in their classrooms! One of the easiest ways to implement the imagination is to simply ask students after they’ve been reading something, to close their eyes and picture what they’ve read. We know that good readers already do this. By making it a regular part of reading lessons, teachers can help other students use this technique as well and become better readers.
There are other ways to bring the imagination into the classroom. In a science class, when teachers are helping kids learn about the circulatory system, they can lead the class on an imaginary trip through the chambers of the heart, the arteries, the veins, and the capillaries. When teaching history, the teacher can ask students to imagine the particular historical scene they are studying (this is especially useful when trying to piece together the events that occurred in a military battle). In math class, teachers can teach students how to visualize mathematical operations, geometrical proofs, statistical arrays, or the ”vanishing point” in a calculus lesson.
In other classes, the imagination is not only an excellent resource, but a must. In writing class, for example, tapping the imagination is an important part of writing good poetry, short stories, or novels. In art class, using the imagination to interpret the works of art of other people, or to express oneself through painting, sculpture, or other modes of visual expression, is foundational in developing an aesthetic sensibility.
The big question is: why is the imagination neglected in school? First, I’d have to say that many teachers simply pretend that it’s not already going on inside their students. Very few educators are willing to admit that kids who appear to be learning have their minds on other things besides the lesson. It’s like they don’t want to know. They’d much rather pretend that students are absorbing the lessons, have their minds on the lesson, or if not, that they have a ”learning disability” or an ”attention deficit” preventing them from doing so.
Another reason for the neglect of the imagination in the schools is the fact that teachers can’t control it. To acknowledge it means that the cat it out of the bag. If we acknowledge the value of the imagination, students will be empowered to train their imagination onto all sorts of things outside of the purview of the course curriculum (but, of course, they’re already doing this!). Teachers’ implicit fear is that if kids are ”allowed” to imagine things (e.g. given permission to do so), then all sorts of things might come out, and in particular sexual and aggressive images. And we can’t have that going on in our classrooms, especially while kids are going through puberty. There’s enough hue and cry about courses that teach or touch on human sexuality without allowing it to seep into other courses as well.
And the fact that it can’t be controlled, means that teachers can’t plan for it — anything might come up in a student’s mind, and then the problem becomes how to fit it into the existing lesson plan. Teachers like order, and the imagination is not orderly (unless it is used by someone like an Einstein who visualized accelerating in an elevator flying through outer space to help derive his general theory of relativity). It’s often messy. And the imagination doesn’t easily fit into a teacher’s lesson book or into a text book (”if the student imagines x, then do y; if they imagine z, then teach a”). This loss of control can make teachers very nervous, so best to just ignore it.
Interestingly, though, teachers do value what goes on in the mind. There’s a great deal of attention in education to ”thinking” or ”meta-cognition.” But a lot of it has to do with teaching kids to ”think better” (e.g. to use specific problem-solving strategies etc.). Teachers provide students with scripts to help them order (there’s that word again) their thinking processes. The imagination, on the other hand, is thinking gone wild – and the wilder the better, at least as far as creative expression it concerned – but creativity, well now, that’s another bug-a-boo pervading the education world. In fact, the imagination and creativity go hand-in-hand, they support each other, and education has always had a hard time dealing with both of these capacities.
It turns out that many of the kids who don’t fit into the classroom model of orderly behavior and learning progress, tend to be the most imaginative (and messily creative) kids in the class. And since the imagination is largely ignored by educators, these kids don’t have an opportunity to express their strengths. They simply have their difficulties with orderly thinking revealed, and they undergo a process of constant remediation for their deficiencies. But that may also be why their imaginations are ignored: because their ability to imagine seems tied in some unspecified way to their problematic behaviors (guilt by association).
Before school even starts, most young children possess full-bodied imaginations. In some cases, preschoolers have eidetic imagery – in other words, their imagination is as crisp and realistic as reality itself (put another way: what they see in their mind’s eye is as clear as outer perceptions are to us). And of course, their language, their drawings, their play behaviors, are saturated with imaginative thinking. But once they enter school, and find that the imagination is missing, or even derided, they close up that part of their mind, and succumb like willing victims to the linearity of the ABCs and the 123s.
That connects to what I think is the biggest reason that the imagination is missing from schooling. It isn’t real. In fact, when kids share their imagination in early childhood, they often get the message from a parent or teacher: ”that’s just imaginary!” ”put away that foolishness”’ ”it doesn’t exist, you’re only imagining it.” And so kids put this priceless resource away, only to have it emerge, if it does at all ever again, in their nighttime dreams.
The upshot of all of this is that the imagination is not allowed into the classroom, except that it’s already there, as we’ve seen in our introductory anecdote. My argument is that since it’s already there, why not do something constructive with it? Our greatest artists, scientists, and other thinkers had terrific imaginations. Einstein wrote: ”Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” If we dug deeply enough, we might find that all new and great things that come into play in creating a civilization, owe a great debt to imaginative thinking. Don’t we owe it to our kids to stop sticking our heads in the sand and start acknowledging the potential value of this resource that will help them learn more effectively with a higher level of engagement?
For more on Einstein’s imagination, and using the imagination in the K-12 classroom, get my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education (Praeger).
This essay brought to you by: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong