When I was little, imagination drove my sand empire and my castle in the woods. It brought me playmates made of dancing leaves and shadows in the sunlight. As I grew older, it sparked my curiosity about adulthood, and it led me to a career that fuels others’ imaginations.
Some believe imagination wanes as we mature, but it only takes looking at ancient Roman culture to know it exists in people of all ages. It led to the naming of the constellations, the building of arches and roadways, and the creation of the Julian calendar. Indeed, imagination drove the Roman Empire.
Students benefit immensely from using their imagination to make connections with abstractions. You will not find a student in your career who has met an ancient Roman or has visited ancient Rome. Because they cannot immerse themselves in the culture, students must imagine everything.
Reading the written word is not the same as looking at a photograph or a drawn image. While we do have some artifacts from ancient Rome, most of what we know comes from the rich and visceral Latin language. I have told my students that Latin is a language that early English scholars created. Their desire, so I have said, was to evoke imagination in their students by teaching them such a mysterious and confounding language that students were forced to wonder. Then I grin and tell them the truth; we are reading the words of the ancients. Even if it is a real language, though, we should hold on to that wonder.
I would like to share with you two main tools I use to evoke imagination in my classroom, both from Kieran Egan’s book, An Imaginative Approach to Teaching. Egan is an educational philosopher who advocates for the use of imagination as a tool in education. With other titles about longitudinal projects for students and whole school projects, I find his books easy to read and very practical for teachers.
The story was the way early peoples transferred knowledge through the generations, and this same notion can hold true in the classroom. When you tell your students a story embellished in your own voice rather than having them read it, they are more able to connect with and retain the information. The only criterion differentiating a story from a piece of technical writing is the emotional grab a story produces. Once students have an emotion attached to the information in the story, they will remember the information.
However, the story does not have to be limited to cultural content. You could tell a story about the Oracle of Delphi and its utterances in Latin, or (my personal favorite) the Present, Past, and Future: “Past arrived at a party the Present is holding. Future will be here soon.” So long as you grab your students’ emotions with the story, they will remember the meat of it. Creating a meaningful story both in content and emotional grab will take time and perhaps a bit of frustration on your part, but with practice, the stories you create will be powerful tools that aid in the retention of facts.
People have collected things from the beginning of time. Whether they collect berries for sustenance or stamps for a hobby, collecting items and ideas is crucial to harboring imagination.
Take bugs for example. If someone asked you to collect bugs, where would you begin? How would you categorize? When does it end? These questions all evoke imagination and encourage executive functioning skills.
Although collections and hobbies generally wane in adolescence and nearly disappear during adulthood, I find that giving my students the opportunity to create a collection or develop a hobby surrounding the topic allows them to discover their own way of learning. There will be a sea of resources for them to swim through, and some may need support but overall collecting and developing hobbies is a more “hands off” approach to piquing curiosity.
Some of my students have collected quotes with the future tense in them or images of classical buildings around town. One collected knowledge of gladiator equipment and started making paper doll gladiators. With an inexhaustible amount of information to collect, it is necessary for students to take a step outside their microcosm and reflect on the world holistically, but it is worth it.
Imagination can keep students engaged. It can cement information in their minds and can lead them to have a more complete and well-rounded understanding of the material. Try these two tools, and if you have other ideas for sparking your students’ imagination, connect with Wayside on social media: follow WaysidePublishing, @WaysidePublish & join Proficiency Talks LIVE.
Egan, Kieran. An Imaginative Approach to Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.