Celebrated American author Ursula K. Le Guin — dubbed by the Library of Congress in 2000 as a “living legend” for her contributions to science fiction, who died in January at the age of 88 — had strong feelings about the imagination.
“In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order,” she wrote in Words Are My Matter. But the ability to imagine is what drives all creativity, enables clear thinking and inspires a sense of humanity. “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses,” she wrote.
Imaginative play comes naturally to children, but it’s a habit of mind that needs to be taught and reinforced throughout life: “Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy,” Le Guin wrote. “This need continues as long as the mind is alive.”
Imagination might be vital to a clear mind, but it’s not something that’s widely taught or understood, especially among older students. In a 2007 study of prospective teachers, 68 percent said they believed students needed to focus on memorizing the right answer rather than thinking imaginatively. In his improbably popular TED talk on creativity and schools, Sir Ken Robinson said that humans are born with creativity and “we get educated out of it.” Jenny Smith, who graduated from Millburn High School in 2013, said that her secondary school focused singularly on academic benchmarks. “No one really cared about trying to develop our imaginations,” she said. “There was a curriculum, and they stuck to it.”
Researcher Wendy Ostroff, author of Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, is a student of imagination and curiosity. Like Robinson, Ostroff believes many schools are set up in such a way as to wring out kids’ natural imaginativeness. “School is very oriented towards concepts,” she said, with walls between the creative classes like art and drama and “real” subjects where students have to perform. Lacking flexibility and time, teachers are required to hit “learning outcomes” and hew closely to lesson plans. Students respond by trying to please the teacher and get A’s, often losing any intrinsic interest in the subject along the way. “This is the opposite of imagination and creativity,” she said.
Because imaginative thinking hones creativity and improves students’ social and emotional skills, it’s something that teachers and schools should fold into their planning. Ostroff identified several strategies teachers can adopt to encourage older students to activate their dormant imaginations.
Give students more control. Loosening the classroom structure and allowing students more power over their work can activate their curiosity. Ostroff encourages teachers to “flip the system,” so that students understand that the learning is for them, and not the teachers. As a practical matter, this might mean assigning essays and allowing the students to determine their length, or telling kids to turn the papers in when they’re done rather than on a particular day, or simply offering a free-write period, where students write what they please for their eyes only. Teachers also can invite students to decide for themselves how a paper or assignment is assessed, and to encourage kids to reflect on and evaluate their own work. “They start to crack open when they feel like they’re in charge,” Ostroff said.
Have students track their Google searches. Internet search engines can seem to provide all the answers, blocking students from thinking expansively. For Ostroff, “Google is the beginning of the learning, not the end.” She recommends the following assignment: Ask students to Google something that they find intensely interesting. Then, suggest that they click the hyperlink that’s most appealing, and then the one after that. They should keep track of what interested them in each link, so they develop an awareness of their own process. A student might start by searching “Mayans,” then move to “jewelry they wore,” then “precious metals,” then to “mining.” The point is to understand that learning is not simply finding an answer; it’s going deeper to figure out the next question. The first Google search should be the start of a larger inquiry. “Learning is about letting yourself get carried away,” Ostroff said.
Tell collaborative stories. Reading and telling stories is an effective way to learn. To spark imagination, the teacher might start by writing the first few lines of a story or poem on a piece of paper. She then passes the paper to a student, who adds more to the story. Every student receives the paper in turn, but reads only the written contribution of the student before her. (The paper should be folded to conceal all but the most recent addition.) This kind of impromptu storytelling, with its unpredictable outcome, keeps students engaged and thinking creatively.
Try improv. Once the domain of jazz musicians and comedians, improvisation has found its way into businesses and schools. Improv is the practice of telling stories, or playing music, without scripts. One person begins the story with a few lines, and turns to the person next to her to continue it, and so on, until everyone in the group has contributed. The inviolate rule of improv is “yes, and”—meaning every contribution is accepted, regardless of its randomness, and woven into the story. Improv sparks creativity and spontaneity, and its nonjudgmental tone frees up the introverted or fearful. Because improv tends toward playfulness, it also allows some lightness into the classroom, and to learning.
Introduce real-life experiences whenever possible. What might seem bloodless or irrelevant in the classroom can come alive if students see the subject play out before them. To bring energy to science and math, for example, a teacher might take her class to a Maker Faire, where kids (and sometimes adults) use their imaginations and minds to create new things. Ostroff suggests something as simple as taking a walk in pursuit of objects that can be used to build sculptures; or, if a manufacturer is nearby, asking for their remnants to build machines. Another interesting project for teenagers is building a “box city,” in which students construct their own buildings and work to combine them into a model city. Done right, the box city will take into account economics, geography, history and culture, and give children hands-on experience with design and urban planning.
Encourage doodling. Drawing pictures or coloring while listening is both common and useful: it enables the doodler to stay focused and heightens intellectual arousal. Teachers can capitalize on that benefit by including doodling in class work. For example, students can be given notebooks to doodle in when listening, and asked to do a “doodle content analysis” of their scribbles. As well, teachers might ask students to select one or more drawings to modify for an art project, or to combine several doodles into a mural. The point is to be mindful of the value of doodling—how it enhances imagination and improves focus—and to invite students to continue the practice.
Imagine a classroom “creative council.” The council is an imaginary body of visionaries and experts that the students could “create” and then look to for answers to problems. A teacher might ask students to recommend people from the past or present who could “sit” on this council and serve as sources of wisdom. Ostroff writes, “We can tap into their knowledge virtually, by imagining and researching their potential responses and actions.” If students selected Marie Curie, for example, they would speculate about how she would respond to a particular issue. How would she approach the problem? What would she say we’re forgetting? This kind of made-up collective compels students to better understand how another thinks and even provides a kind of “imaginary mentorship.”
Lighten up. “The message kids are getting in school is that learning isn’t fun,” Ostroff said. High school kids especially, who are reminded regularly to get serious about their studies, lose their sense of playfulness and replace it with a grim determination to do well. For their part, teachers feel the weight of lesson plans and standardized testing, all of it compressed into shorter days. Ostroff appreciates the challenge for students and teachers who are caught up in an efficiency model of education. By relaxing lesson plans, trying improv and giving students more voice in their education, teachers can shed some of the burden and restore the joy in learning.