How schools can get pupils to be imaginative

Everyone agrees imagination is important, though you can’t quantify it. So how can schools get their pupils to be better at harnessing this mental power? Dan Worth speaks to the researchers trying to pin down this nebulous concept of the mind
6th March 2020, 12:04am
Tes Focus On... Imagination


How schools can get pupils to be imaginative

Picture a lovely day at the beach: blue skies, a long sandy shore, a faint breeze.

Now place a bright orange elephant on the sand. Then balance a fantastical never-before-seen space creature on top of the elephant - and make it dance.

This task involves mixing memories of things you know (elephants and beaches), with new ideas (that the elephant is orange), and then creating something entirely novel in your mind (an alien). And the reason you can bring it all together is down to the power of imagination.

Imagination is important. Many studies link the development of our ability to use our imagination as a major step in our evolution into conscious, self-aware beings. And being imaginative is something that we place great emphasis on during childhood - particularly in schools.

Yet it’s a nebulous concept. You can’t quantify imagination or provide a set of definitive instructions on the “right” way to be imaginative. So, should we be using the term at all in the classroom?

Not if we want to measure or assess it. While it may be tempting to think we can use creative outputs to see how “imaginative” someone is, Jim Davies, a professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Cognitive Science and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory, says that the two are separate, if similar, parts of how our brains function.

“It’s important to distinguish imagination from creativity,” he explains. “They are often used in the same way, but creativity is about creating something novel - no matter how basic - while imagination is about something you can imagine in your head, that may never actually be created.”

He cites Mozart as an example to explain this, noting that the composer was said to be able to imagine music in his head before writing it down - an act of imagination first, followed by creativity. Others, though, may be very imaginative but struggle to turn thoughts into a creation - think of a time when you can hear a song or accent in your head but can’t then reproduce it out loud.

To see the sea

While we can’t measure it, however, Davies says that we will certainly differ in our imaginative prowess. This is not because some of us are more lacking in this department, but rather because we don’t use it as vividly, he explains.

“It’s about how we imagine the sights and sounds, say, of a beach scene,” he says. “Some people say that they can picture such a scene but with no visual or auditory detail, while others would say that they can do this in vivid detail, hearing the sea, smelling the air and so on.”

These differences may be important. Sophie von Stumm, professor of psychology in education and director of the Hungry Mind Lab at the department of education of the University of York, says that when children imagine things, they are exercising the part of their brain that is key for building more humdrum life skills. “Imagination is key to developing cognitive skills we need: organisation, decision making, forward planning, thinking about the future - what happens if I do A or B,” she says.

One way that we help children get better at these skills is through reading and picture books. They help children to see and learn about things they won’t encounter in real life - from animals to landscapes to fictional beings - building their knowledge base and feeding their imaginations.

Another form of transport

Books may not be the easiest way to do this, though. Because if you struggle with imagination, reading may be something with which you struggle, too.

Von Stumm has been involved in research that focuses on identifying the traits of people who appear to be especially imaginative, in order to understand common factors that seem to point towards those with more active imaginations. Based on data from 219 participants, she and her research partner identified seven behaviours underpinning imagination: transportation, daydreaming, thinking styles, fantasies, dreams, imaginative responsiveness and imaginary friends.

The idea of transportation is of particular interest to teachers: it refers to how “transported” someone feels when watching a movie or reading a book. These activities require you to picture the person being described and the situations they are facing, and believe in the world and story in a film.

If you are less easily transported, says von Stumm, you may be less likely to enjoy reading. Indeed, the variability in this trait may explain why some children take to subjects such as English or history more willingly than others: imagining characters in a book or play or picturing a historical setting are a crucial component of engaging with the subject.

So, besides books, how can we best help pupils be more imaginative? Well, school in general is not a good environment for imagination, because it tends to have set goals and tasks. If we really want to make children more imaginative, argues von Stumm, it would be better if children were given opportunities to be imaginative that were free from assessment and critique.

“We usually find that imagination is most effective for learning if children are not pushed too hard towards a certain goal,” she says. “But in schools, education is saying, ‘Do this exercise quickly and correctly,’ and that is the enemy of imagination.”

This is understandable when education is so metric-driven. But given the importance of imagination as a skill that can help us become creative, problem-solving individuals, there is a growing sense that providing opportunities for children to harness their imagination needs more focus.

One organisation that is trying to address this is the Institute for Imagination, as Tom Doust, its director of experiences and learning, explains.

“We believe that imagination is a muscle that, like all muscles, you need to continue to work at,” he says. “Through imagination, we can problem solve and explore solutions, be more resilient and more able to respond to the unexpected.”

A darker side

The concept of building the imagination muscle is something that Doust and his team are particularly focused on. They are working with teachers to develop new ways of enabling children to use their imagination across arts, science and digital technologies, both within schools and through CPD courses.

“Teachers can improve children and young people’s imagination by offering more open-ended activities in the classroom and creating environments that are more experimental,” adds Doust.

Examples of activities the institute runs include building “chain reaction” processes that ask children to use their imagination about how to get a ball to move between sections - think of that Honda advert from a few years ago - or creating light shows that explore shadow and motion effects to engage in creative storytelling that can also be linked to curriculum requirements.

But before we start putting these things in place, is imagination a universally good thing? While it is chiefly a force for good, it does also have a darker side, as Davies explains. “Imagination can be the root of anxiety,” he says. “People stay up all night because they can’t stop thinking about the future, and this is something only humans can do, really, as part of our ability to plan and consider the future, and this can make you miserable.”

Von Stumm concurs. “People can scare themselves by imagining things they fear could happen: illnesses, accidents and so on,” she says. “Because it’s so vivid, that can be really scary.” Though she adds that this is not something that usually ever manifests in childhood, and the weird and wonderful things children imagine during childhood are perfectly normal - and ultimately something that should be enjoyed.

Indeed, while we perhaps need to be more cautious about how we use the term “imagination” in schools, the main bit of advice from the researchers is to savour being surrounded by it.

“Children have a lot of imagination and that is a good thing,” says von Stumm. “They dream weird stuff and think weird stuff and that is part of the fun of raising and working with children.”

Dan Worth is deputy commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…Imagination”

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