Imagination is what drives all creativity in our world; it enables clear thinking and inspires our sense of humanity. Imaginative play comes naturally to children, but it’s a habit of mind that needs to be taught and reinforced later in life.
While imagination is vital to a clear mind, it’s not something that’s widely taught or understood, especially among older students. In a 2007 study of prospective teachers, 68% said they believed students needed to focus on memorizing the right answer rather than thinking imaginatively.
Researcher Wendy Ostroff, author of Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, is a student of imagination and curiosity. 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 include in their planning. Ostroff identified several strategies teachers can adopt to encourage older students to activate their dormant imaginations.
1. 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 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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