Imagination in Teaching and Learning (Introduction)

Imagination in Teaching and Learning (Introduction)

Kieran Egan


It seems generally agreed that imagination is a good thing and that it ought to be stimulated and developed in education. Two related obstacles stand in the way of our routinely achieving this; first, it is difficult to get a clear grasp on what imagination is, and, second, whatever it is, it does not seem the kind of thing that lends itself to practical methods and techniques that any teacher can easily employ in classroom instruction. The purpose of this book is to try to make a little headway against both of these obstacles. I want to combine a more articulate grasp on imagination with the normal requirements and constraints of classroom teaching and learning, to come up with some practical help for the teacher who wants to engage, stimulate, and develop students' imaginations.

When talking with students, teachers, educational administrators, or professors of education about good teachers, it is common to hear teachers commended as "imaginative". The kinds of things they do in class are frequently -- to use Barrow's (I990) joint criteria for imaginativeness -- unusual and effective. Such teachers show a flexibility of mind that enables them to present a subject in a new and engaging way, a way that enables students to understand it better and also to take pleasure from the learning. Given the frequency with which, in informal discussion, imagination is identified as a crucial feature of good teaching, it is surprising to find it almost totally ignored in research on teaching effectiveness. (In a review of such research, O'Neil [1988] identifies twenty "research factors", but "imagination" is not among them. Similarly, Porter and Brophy's [ 1988] review and synthesis of research on "good teaching" also ignores imagination.) This is no doubt in part due to the difficulty dominant research methods have in coming to grips with imagination, but it would be a great pity if its virtual absence in empirical research should encourage us to focus on the kinds of behavioural repertoires prominent in that research and ignore something so obviously central to good teaching as imagination. There is something in this of the old joke about looking for a lost key on the clean pavement under the bright street lamp because it is easy to see there, even though the key was dropped in the long grass further down the street where there is no light. Even though this book may occasionally seem to be feeling its way through tangles, it is at least, I think, looking in the right place for keys to effective teaching.

This book, then, is not about unusually imaginative students and teachers. Rather, my focus is on the characteristics of the typical student's imaginative life and how this can be engaged in learning, and on how the typical teacher might plan lessons and units to achieve this aim, and on how the typical curriculum content of science, social studies, language arts, mathematics, and so on, might be shaped also to help achieve this aim.

Mary Warnock, in her study of imagination (1976), asserted that "the cultivation of imagination...should be the chief aim of education" (p. 9), and that "we have a duty to educate the imagination above all else" (p. 10). We might reasonably feel wary of such bold claims. Though perhaps we need to say first, "It depends what you mean by 'imagination"'. It will be obvious that I think it is important to cultivate the imagination, but one of the reasons I have some reluctance in agreeing wholeheartedly with Warnock has to do with the persisting difficulty, despite her admirable work and that of others I will draw on in this book, of getting clear about what imagination is, or about the range of things the word is used to cover. We can begin by observing that people, even those who have been most intimately involved in studying it and promoting its value in education, mean rather different things by the term.

This variety in the meanings of imagination was brought home to me a few years ago when I co-edited with Dan Nadaner a book entitled Imagination and education (1988). Dan and I were delighted with the quality of the essays we were able to solicit from so many outstanding educational writers, including Robin Barrow, Maxine Greene, poet laureate Ted Hughes, Gareth Matthews, Roger Shepard, Brian Sutton-Smith, and many others. But when it came to organizing the set of essays, we faced unexpected problems. Central was the fact that many of our authors clearly conceived of the imagination rather differently. Indeed, one would be hard put to show that any two (including the editors' contributions) meant quite the same thing by imagination.

And yet we all use the word fairly confidently; confident, that is, about more or less what we mean and that what we mean will be understood by others as what they more or less mean by the word. I think this confidence is not misplaced. That is, we use "imagination" to refer to a range of capacities we share. There is, I suspect, a fair amount of intuitive agreement about what this range involves. Once we try to excavate it, and categorize it, and label the parts, however, we seem to create disagreements or, at least, dissatisfaction with the characterizations. The problem seems to lie in the complex and protean nature of imagination, and in the fact that imagination lies at the crux of those aspects of our lives that are least well understood.

When people try to describe the imagination, most frequently they refer to the capacity we have in common to hold images in our minds of what may not be present or even exist, and sometimes to allow these images to affect us as though they were present and real. The nature of these images is very hard for us to describe, as they are unlike any other kinds of images we are familiar with in the "external" world. It seems, also, that people experience these images quite differently -- some having clear access to vivid quasi-pictorial images, some having such hazy experiences that the word "image" seems not appropriate. And the same person may be familiar with this range of what seem like different kinds or degrees of "images".

Imagination lies at a kind of crux where perception, memory, idea generation, emotion, metaphor, and no doubt other labelled features of our lives, intersect and interact. Some of the images we experience seem "echoes" of what we have perceived, though we can change them, combine them, manipulate them to become like nothing we have ever perceived. Our memory seems to be able to transform perceptions and store their "echoes" in ways that do not always or perhaps very often require quasi-pictorial "images", (as in the cases of sounds and smells, say). Novelty in ideas has nearly always been connected with the powers of imagination to "see" solutions to problems. Our emotions seem tied to these mental images; when we imagine something we tend to feel as though it is real or present, such that it seems our "coding" and "access" to images is tied in with our emotions. The logic of imagination seems to conform more readily with that of metaphor than with any scheme of rationality we can be explicit about.

Most of these observations about the imagination, which one finds in the literature on the topic, tend to draw on the obvious connection between imagination and imagery. But we also "talk quite properly of imagining reasons, differences, dilemmas and lies, of imaginary wants and happiness, of imaginable caution and torment, of imagining what, why and how, and of imagining that, e.g., we believe so-and-so, that we can do such-and-such....Yet none of this is imageable" (White, 1990, p. 6). By recognizing that our everyday use of"imagination" refers, perhaps most often, to the non-pictorial and non-imageable, we realize that the imagination is not simply a capacity to form images, but is a capacity to think in a particular way. It is a way that crucially involves our capacity to think of the possible rather than just the actual.

In Chapter One, then, I will try to give a brief account of the range of meanings people have ascribed to "imagination". As our current complex concept is in significant part a product of past uses, I will try, as it were, to unroll the senses of imagination that have rolled together through the centuries. I will try to be as explicit as I can about the sense of imagination that we use today with some confidence of being understood, of partaking in a shared meaning. I will then use that "more articulate grasp" through the rest of the book to work on imagination in education.

This historical and theoretical chapter seems to me appropriate in what is intended as a practice-oriented book, because of the common imprecision that has accompanied discussion of imagination in education. I think a more explicit and clearer conception should help one to apply the ideas from the rest of the book. But I do recognize that such an introduction might seem unnecessary or redundant to some readers whose primary interest is in the book's main practical purpose. That is, I think one can simply accept the generally prevailing, intuitive sense of imagination and one can read and make sense of the book beginning with Chapter Two, but that working through Chapter One should prove worthwhile for later practice.

In Chapter Two I will consider why it is important to stimulate and develop the imagination if one hopes to educate. I will begin with general claims such as those of Warnock cited above, and John Dewey's: "The imagination is the medium of appreciation in every field" (1966, p. 236). I will use the articulated conception of imagination from Chapter One to refine these observations, not to disagree with them but rather to move them to a point where we can see more clearly what to do in order to stimulate and develop imagination in teaching. So much of the focus on students' cognition is in terms of logico-mathematical skills that our very concept of education becomes affected. I hope that by taking the imagination more seriously in education a more proportionate concept might be encouraged.

Chapter Three will focus on learning, and in particular on those characteristics of typical students' imaginations that can be used to aid more meaningful learning. I will try to outline prominent characteristics of students' imaginative lives in order to see how we might design learning activities that engage the imagination. There is very little research to draw on here, and I will provide what might rather grandly be called an analysis of ethnographic studies of the materials and activities in which students' imaginative activity is most intensely engaged.

In Chapter Four I will draw on the previous chapters, especially Chapter Three, to design a framework or model for planning teaching that aims to stimulate students' imaginations. I will begin with a fairly comprehensive framework and describe it by showing an example of its use in planning a unit of study. Thereafter, I will consider less formal ways in which teachers might draw on the characterization of students' imaginative lives in order to plan more engaging lessons and units.

Chapter Five is intended very briefly to emphasize the usefulness of forming and articulating vivid images in teaching. So much educational literature, encouraged no doubt by the consistent focus on Iogico-mathematical forms of thinking, emphasizes the development and use of concepts that it sometimes seems the educational uses of images is often neglected.

In the final chapter I will give examples of how the framework can be used to plan teaching in a variety of curriculum areas. I will try to show how one might use the principles articulated earlier in the book to teach in an imaginatively stimulating way such topics as the geometrical theorem that parallel lines cut by a transversal form congruent alternate interior angles, and a science/environmental unit on trees, and a social studies unit on government, and a language arts unit on mythology. Along with the example in Chapter Four, which is on eels, I try to show how the framework and the principles it embodies can be put into practice in different curriculum areas.

While the focus of this book is on students' imaginative lives, this is a teacher-centred book. This does not mean that it seeks to depreciate the value of student activity, initiative, or construction in their learning. Nor does it seek to suggest that the classroom should be made up of active, energetic teachers dominating passive students, or anything like that. Far from it. Rather, it is teacher- centred simply in the sense of being a book designed for teachers, and it will be looking at the classroom and students' learning and imagination from a teachers' viewpoint. If I emphasize teaching and planning for teaching, and so on, this is not to imply that I consider no other activity has a proper place in the classroom.

The subtitle refers to the middle school years. I mean middle school rather generously, intending this book to be of use to teachers of students from about ages eight to fifteen. I recognize that this is rather an odd age-range for an educational text, given the enormous changes of adolescence and the fact that virtually all psychological theories etch significant stage divisions within this period. We do not have any developmental theories that focus on the imagination. But if we reflect for a moment on the typical range and forms of imaginative activity in childhood, youth, and maturity, there is little to suggest that such a theory would readily parallel those developmental theories that focus primarily on logico-mathematical intellectual activity. The typically progressive, "hierarchical integrative" form of psychological theories of development seems, on the face of it, not likely to capture adequately what we may informally observe about the changing character of imaginative life as people grow older. So, while the age eight-to-fifteen period does not fit easily with current psychological theories or the administrative arrangements of schooling, I think there are sufficient similarities in the forms of imaginative life during these years to justify, and even require, treating this age-range together.

As I try to characterize prominent features of students' imaginations in Chapter Three, I hope teachers familiar with this age-range will recognize them as indeed accurate: will recognize that their students do indeed exhibit these characteristics. This should be the case, as the characterizations have been derived from a study of the materials, books, games, T.V. shows, songs, films, and experiences that students typically find most imaginatively engaging in this period. In this short book, designed primarily to be of some practical help to teachers, there is not the space to provide the extensive theoretical support for my claim about the appropriateness of dealing with this age-range together, nor to do more than cite examples to support my characterization of students' imaginative lives. But perhaps I might mention that this book, while intended to be sufficient in itself to the aims of providing a more articulate grasp on imagination and practical methods for stimulating and developing students' imaginations, is a part of a larger project. Among the purposes of this larger project is to supply what I noted above as lacking: a developmental theory that focusses on the imagination. If you wish to follow up the topic of this book in greater detail, or consider related ideas on imagination and learning among younger children, other books in this project might be of interest.

This book is, as it were, vertically related to Teaching as story telling (Egan, 1986), which tries to do a similar job for younger children -- up to about age eight. It is, as it were, horizontally related to Romantic understanding: The development of rationality and imagination, ages 8 to 15 (Egan, 1990), which deals with a much wider range of students' "sense-making capacities" and looks at them in much greater detail than is possible here. In this latter book may be found the grounds to support treating the eight-to-fifteen age-range together, along with a much fuller theoretical and empirical support for the characterization of students' imaginative lives. (Teaching as story telling is similarly related to Primary Understanding: Education in early childhood [Egan, 1988].)

Teaching as story telling and this book are designed primarily to take some of the central ideas related to students' imaginative development from the larger and more theoretical works, focus on their practical implications, and move in the direction of techniques that teachers can add to their set of professional skills.


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