The MIND. Engage imagination before opening. To maximize academic performance, academics must be taught as a subset of the larger project of maximizing mental capacity. For both, imagination is essential. When you watch children at work and play, you see that something inside of them agrees.
At The College School in St. Louis serving children from three-years-old through 8thgrade, you can see and feel imagination at work everywhere, all day long. At the end of a six-khour day, children of all ages are still actively and happily engaged in various forms of work, both on their own and in cooperation with others. In a kindergarten room one group of three is creating an imaginary social situation in the loft area. Another girl is in the process of constructing the most incredible molecule-type thing out of Space Links. Many are sitting at tables writing stories with markers, pencils, and paper. A boy and a girl who had been having conflicts lately are playing together with blocks. They have walled themselves into a corner and together are building the most amazing, complex structure.
InThe Work of Imagination, Dr. Paul L Harris, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lays out in detail the results of twenty-some years of work on the centrality of imagination to education. Chapter titles include: “Pretend Play,” “Role Play”, “Imagination and Emotion,” “Counterfactual Thinking,” “Obligation and Volition,” “Beyond Possibility,” “Language and Imagination.” When you visit a classroom, you can feel whether or not imagination is engaged.
In another school, eighth graders are in pairs thinking creatively about arguments for an upcoming debate. Fourth graders are trying to determine whether a golden bar labeled “New Zealand Gold Rush, 1861, 12 oz” is really gold by applying the formula for specific gravity and solving the complicated arithmetic problems in their heads. Second graders are inventing dozens of different equations, searching for patterns related to the number 30 (the day of the month). On the playground first grader Matthew comes up to me and says, “This rock is magical. It is going to take me forward in time. Every second is ten years, so in ten seconds it will be a hundred years into the future,” and runs off.
Seeing imagination at work is always delightful — each child lit from within. The teamwork between students and teacher was apparent in the structure of the rooms and the orderliness of the groups, but the actual energy for the work comes from a light burning inside the students. That light—the desire to work with others and create something of value—is the central, critical element in all education.
Imagination is best engaged in community. Listening to each other, sharing ideas, building on each others’ ideas, disagreeing, coming to agreement, taking risks and solving problems together, individual imaginations trigger each other. Imaginative play can certainly happen alone, but the possibilities for brain development increase exponentially with each student that is added.
Dr. Harris says “the capacity to imagine alternative possibilities and to work out their implications” plays a central role in capacities such as empathetic understanding, causal reasoning, and the evaluation of hypotheticals and counterfactuals. These are the kind of things that are critical to the present and future success of our children—and for that matter the future of the human race on the planet.
Covering the curriculum is easy if the activities are rich and complex and the atmosphere playful. But there are many schools where imagination is unappreciated. Sometimes there even seems to be a silent attempt to purge school of imagination. When the mathematics curriculum reduces math to arithmetic and breaks arithmetic into minute bite-size pieces devoid of creative challenges, meaningful problems, and when it requires the suspension of curiosity and collaboration, it begins the process of making children hate math.
Commenting on last weeks’ column, Mark Lauden Crosley writes: “Those of us who were lucky had a few teachers who encouraged kids to have their own opinions and to resolve differences in ways that were not just peaceful, but were learning experiences in themselves. But we all had teachers who were bullies, who expected children to do only what they were told to do, and speak only when called on. … Now we have a nation of citizens who were taught to behave, rather than to think and collaborate. And a bully-in-chief leading us. Will the next generation have the wisdom to revive our democracy?”
In “Playing to Learn,” Williams College professor Susan Engel writes: “Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.”