Discussion: Imagination in Teaching and Learning

Discussion:

Imagination in Teaching and Learning

Date: Sat, 23 Aug 1997 11:53:46 -0700 (PDT)
From: education-webmaster@sfu.ca
To: Egan@sfu.ca
Subject: Feedback (General)
name: Eileen Spencer
institution: Margaret Stenersen School
topic: The role of imagination in education

general comments: Imagination - the overlooked element of educational development. This is a compelling idea but I wonder if it is an essential element to everyone's development. It seems to me that it is indeed a factor in creative thinking and probably common to every break-through idea which has propelled society from its more usual state of inertia to change and renewal. However, I question whether it is part of each person's intellectual baggage. Unfortunately I also doubt that this indefinable and tenuous quality can be made a feature of curriculum- (most teachers are not equal to this anyway!)

A defining characteristic of most institutions seems to be their resistance to change. Schools are not immune to this. There is a very strong need for our schools to maintain and defend the status quo. Their very purpose has more to do with the transmission and preservation of the established culture than with original and creative ways to break the mold. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the effort which has been invested into the creation of the mold. Joseph Chilton Pearce talks a lot about this in "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg". He describes culture as "a cosmic egg structured by the mind's drive for a logical ordering of its universe.---Each person is a potential line capable of breaking through the circle of reason. Yet the circle is an accomplishment of no small order. An enormous force bends all lines into circles. Each new mind threatens the structure but ages of pressure weigh on the infant to win from him agreement with modification to ,and help in sustaining his cultural circle."

I suspect that the few people who find the 'crack in the cosmic egg' , do so in spite of the educational process and not because of it. They are the odd-balls, the rebels and the slightly insane- they are the behavour problem in the classroom. They may even excel because they are different and their need to be quirky may urge on their excellence - a kind of intellectual stubborness. Perhaps it would not do to encourage the majority of our population to get high on imagination. Most children are simply seeking the skills of survival within the cosmic egg which has been created for them. As a teacher, however, I do applaud your efforts to help us break away from the reductionist tendencies of modern education, and I join with you in your celebration of the imagination!

Here is the first query addressed to a concern with my use of Robin Barrow's criteria for imaginativeness. I asked Robin Barrow to reply, which he kindly has:

Date: Fri, 11 Oct 1996 09:05:29 -0700 (PDT

name: Dave Beckstead

email: dbeckste@sfu.ca

topic: Barrow/Whitehead/Frye

comments re: ITL: While I was quite satisfied with the overview/history/definition of imagination in the first chapter, I am rather perturbed with the repeated citing of Barrow's rather dodgy idea of imagination (unusual and effective). I can see the use of unusual but I think the term effective is problematic at best. It sounds as if Barrow is taking an executive/corporate stance. Perhaps he could use "marketable" as well. If imagination, as summed up in the last paragraph of the first chapter, involves capacity and is the source of invention then I see little room for the notion of effectiveness. If the old style of intellectual history has hit a few snags lately then this definition, no doubt, deserves to be permanently mired in the muck where it most assuredly belongs.

The paraphrasing of Alfred North Whitehead's quote pertaining to the merely well informed (greatest bores on earth) actually reads in print as "the most useless bores on God's earth" I believe. I have no problem with boring people so the "useless" qualifier is important. (People who have spent time with Nelson Mandela find him a pretty boring person.)

Frye's quote, concerning imagination's encouragement of tolerance is about as naive as the notion that music tames the savage beast. One is all too aware of certain high-ranking Nazis relaxing in the evening to Strauss or Mahler after a day of pursuing the most unspeakable horrors. This quote, I think, belongs with that mind set. As Cornel West said, "100 million people have been murdered this century so there is little room for optimism". There is also little room for such naive theorizing on Frye's part. Wordsworth can be forgiven.

 


Barrow's response

 

"Effectiveness" may not be the best word, particularly if readers are going to infer reference to market value as in e.g. cost effective. However, the need for some such criterion seems to me inescapable since the word imagination is normative, i.e. it is presumed to be a good thing and surely nobody could seriously think originality per se (e.g. without reference to whether it works/makes sense/causes pain, etc.) was a good thing. If the word is not regarded as normative, obviously I would not push the criterion. But then equally obviously we would need a separate argument for caring about imagination.

 

Here are a series of questions received via e-mail, with responses:

 

Thanks for your message. I'll take the qs. one by one.

1. How would you define `imagination' and/or the role of imagination? How do you think this could be achieved and/or formed in the classroom?

Imagination is the ability to think flexibly and effectively about the possible. That is the subject of the first chapter of the book. I'm not sure I can add much to it.

2. How is imagination useful in education? What circumstances enhance the imagination?

The first part of this question is what I address in Chapter 2 of the book. Again, I can't think of much to add. And the second part of the question is what most of the rest of the book addresses.

3. How important is the connection between imagination and memory? What exactly do you mean by your statement that "the imagination is limited to working with what exists in the memory" (Imagination in...pp. 52-53)?

This is a difficult question, I think. The quote simply means that if we accept the criteria for imaginativeness that I quote from Barrow--unusual and effective thinking--then the effectiveness criterion relies on our thinking being well informed about whatever it is we think about. I suppose I emphasized that point to counter what seems to me the not uncommon association of "imaginative" with a kind of dreamy, self-indulgent novelty. The imagination is not a distinct thing, I emphasize throughout, but a way in which minds can work; what minds have to work with and on is what they know. So, another theme of the book, and of ROMANTIC UNDERSTANDING on which it draws, is that the common separation of accumulating knowledge and being imaginative is one that seems to me generally false. Other features also come into play obviously, but I am concerned to support Wordworth's observation about imagination being an expression of reason working in its most exhalted way.

4. Do you think it is possible to explore the imaginative early life of a writer (ie. Alice Munro) in order to find commonalities which could enhance and enrich the imaginative lives of all students?

Do you mean common elements between Munro and other youngsters? Surely there will be some things in common. You might find in Munro's work some particularly vivid forms of thinking, perhaps not frequently observed in educational writing, that could be stimulated in all children.

5. In your explanation of the childrens' imaginative lives (Imagination in...p.69) you refer to the "romantic categorization" of children between the ages of 8 and 15. Do you think the imaginative experience is similar for boys and girls in this age range, or quite different?

I think, as I argue in detail in my new book, The Educated MInd, that the major influence on the underlying forms of imaginative experience are the cultural/intellectual tools we pick up, such as oral language, literacy, theoretic thinking. These are common to boys and girls. The ways they are used are subject to social pressures, that may well be different for boys and girls. I would then expect that the fundamental features of imaginative activity will be common, and that relatively superficial differences will be caused by different socialization, and perhaps there is also a genetic factor of indeterminate influence. Take soemthing I use as an example--The Guinness Book of Records. This engages newly literate students, I argue, because it tells in detail about the extremes of reality and the limits of experience. In my informal surveys, boys slightly prefer the book to girls. Both sexes find it engaging on the whole, but there are differences, even if slight, whose cause may be to do with the way the book is aimed preferentially at a male audience, the kinds of 'records' that are given the main focus, etc. etc.


 

Another set:

 

"1. How would you define `imagination' and/or the role ofimagination? How do you think this could be achieved and/or

formed in the classroom?"

 

Imagination is the ability to think flexibly and effectively about the possible. That is the subject of the first chapter of the book. I'm not sure I can add much to it.

 

"2. How is imagination useful in education? What circumstances enhance the imagination? "

 

The first part of this question is what I address in Chapter 2 of the book. Again, I can't think of much to add. And the second part of the question is what most of the rest of the book addresses.

 

"3. How important is the connection between imagination and

memory? What exactly do you mean by your statement that "the

imagination is limited to working with what exists in the memory"

(Imagination in...pp. 52-53)?"

 

This is a difficult question, I think. The quote simply means that if we accept the criteria for imaginativeness that I quote from Barrow--unusual and effective thinking--then the effectiveness criterion relies on our thinking being well informed about whatever it is we think about. I suppose I emphasized that point to counter what seems to me the not uncommon association of "imaginative" with a kind of dreamy, self-indulgent novelty. The imagination is not a distinct thing, I emphasize th

Oops. I can't find the rest of that, and there is a lot more of it somewhere.


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