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Little is left to the imagination

Ted Wragg argues that children's curiosity must not be killed by SATs and league tables

I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When,

And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling could easily have been talking about teaching when he penned these well-known lines. Children's learning is driven by curiosity. Their own and teachers' questions open up and release this natural inquisitiveness.

My worry, however, is that curiosity and imagination, so long at the forefront of British primary education, are increasingly being relegated to a back seat.

In the mad rush to meet targets, soar up league tables, tick off boxes and fulfil objectives, nurturing the imagination seems to be a time-consuming luxury.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What will children hang their literacy and numeracy on if they are merely programmed automata? We surely cannot be rejecting everything that was discovered in the 20th century about how people learn best when they are well motivated?

While we load up our millennium aspirations with collective targets, the Japanese and Koreans are stressing "individualism". Well aware that their children master the basics and fit neatly into an ordered commercial society, they are looking for more, and imagination is high on their list, both for working life and leisure.

Last spring, I met a primary headteacher who had just had a visit from the inspectors. She had wanted to take the children to see lambing at a local farm, knowing how excited they would get and believing this would then be a suitable stimulus for a literacy hour activity. The registered inspector was not impressed.

No, he opined, this would not count as a genuine literacy hour. After all, where was the 15 minutes of "shared text'', the 15 minutes of phonic ludo, the 20 minutes of individual and group cartwheeling in not more than two ability groups...?

Yet writing is a weakness in the current literacy hour and children are most inspired to write when they are aroused by their topic. What could be more exciting than witnessing the creation of life itself? Such narrow interpretation of policy will eventually kill off inspiration.

Then there are the firms that want to sell you hour-by-hour countdowns to meeting your target: what to do on day 1,day 2, hour 6a, minute 12b.

It reminds me of all those training schedules for the London marathon - day 1: begin with slow jog for five minutes; day 15: 10-minute slow jog, 10-minute fast run, eat three prunes, drink 50cc of apple juice.

This might be fine preparation for a long-distance run, but it is not very inspiring for a marathon teaching session.

Imagination should be top of our list for the 21st century, not buried in embarrassment near the bottom of it. Children who are in school today may have 40 years of healthy retirement. They will have to solve problems both at home and at work and to use their initiative. Robots will be useless in such a rapidly changing world, even if they are reprogrammable.

A few years ago I carried out a research project to find out why British students did much better in the higher levels of accountancy exams than their counterparts in Pacific Rim countries. I thought the answer might lie in language difficulties or access to information. It was neither of these.

In the event, it turned out that British students were much better equipped to cope with questions such as, "A client wants to introduce catering into the theatre he runs; what advice do you give and what criteria inform it?".

In cultures where there had been little or no emphasis on using the imagination, students sought in vain for textbook solutions, but the situation was novel to them, so there weren't any. British candidates were more likely to revel in the challenge to their initiative.

Press and public debate about primary education often centres on artificial dichotomies: progressive or traditional, imagination or accuracy, enjoyment or serious learning. These need not be mutually exclusive opposites. It is perfectly possible to learn tough material and enjoy it, to be both disciplined and imaginative, structured and exploratory.

My fear is that the pressure on schools to achieve can lead to a dreary narrowing of children's experience at the very time in our history when they need to be cultivating their imagination, this unique human tool, for a fulfilling future.

Robots may be capable of digging holes and laying cables, but composing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony needs a little bit more than a smart programmer.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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