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INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCEON IMAGINATION AND EDUCATION
Maria do Céu Roldão
Sponsored by IERG – Imaginative Education Research Group - Simon Fraser University; British Columbia, Canada
HOW USEFUL IS IMAGINATION?
This paper is a result of a relatively long process of my own professional development, based on a permanent questioning of teaching practices – my own as a teachers educator and a researcher, those of my students, those of the many teachers I’ve worked with in schools. It will be developed along three major lines:
The starting questions
We live in a pragmatic time, where schools are increasingly stressed to respond to “utility” purposes more than anything. If we look at the demands put on school in the last decades, we find the following, in some cases contradictory, among others,:
My second starting question refers to the difficulty associated with imagination in current school practices – Why does it appear to be so difficult for teachers? What are the obstacles? Is it enough to repeat the cliché of teachers resisting to change? Why is that? Is it an individual problem? An organisational problem? Or is it a matter of a professional and institutional culture that schools actually convey and reinforce?
Finally, my last question is about the place of imagination in curriculum – Is imagination something aside the curriculum? Or totally inside? Will only part of the curriculum be possible to work out imaginatively? Or will every single learning be inspired by an imaginative approach?
The centrality of imagination – why?
My central claim as an educator and a teacher educator, and also as a curriculum researcher, is that there is a serious misunderstanding in curriculum and teaching predominant practices, based on the current representation of teachers, and even curriculum makers, on the role of imagination in education.
The debates on the role of imagination in education are frequently perceived as centered on the plus provided by a rich process of teaching and learning that will engage and foster students’imagination, associated with some kind of extra ability, vis-a-vis the “serious” competences that school is expected to enable students with.
Imagination is thus perceived as enrichment or enlargement in school culture, but frequently seen as complementary of the cognitive dimensions mobilized by the diverse areas of learning. Part of this relates to a culturally embedded conception of intelligence and cognitive ability as capacity for logical thinking and mostly abstraction, in western societies. In Howard Gardner terms, the school emphasizes and values, in western societies, mostly linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence, among the seven types (extended later to nine) that this author identifies. (Gardner, 1991). Gardner claims, within his case for an “education for understanding”, in favour of the exposition of the young children, from the beginning, to a variety of modes of understanding and learning (intuitive, disciplinary, apprenticeship) that may encourage, and require, in different ways, imagination as an intelligence tool:
Recent research in neurobiology and cognition has also shown how implied are emotional and affective components within the very action of reasoning (Damásio, 2000) and not, as it was largely accepted before, components that simply relate to each other, or even conflicting with one another. It appears, from more recent scientific developments, that one’s thinking, understanding and reasoning is a much more complex process than structuralism and classic developmentalists had put it. We think not against or even in relation with, but also through emotion and affective perceptions as a key element of the whole process and vice – versa. Damásio illuminates this relation very sharply:
I refer here to affect as part of cognition insofar as the issue of imagination is currently associated, in common sense, with activities and tasks that are said to be affectively attractive for children. The issue of imagination, however, is not simply, in my view , a matter of affect, as it appears very much disguised in many school practices. Teachers frequently say they provide moments for imaginative activities so that “children may have a break” ( of what? of assumed boring tasks?...Why do they not change them?...Lack of imagination, maybe…), a piece of free and funny time, something “they like to do”. Certainly imagination implies affectively engaging, or provides the recall of our affective energies , the engagement of our mind – but is that process only affective? Aren’t affect and reasoning inextricable elements of the very process of understanding?
Imagination is typically associated with affect in common sense of professionals, as well as with creativity, again in a common sense approach, that makes all the three concepts appear as interchangeable, what seems conceptually inaccurate. It is true that imagination is required for, and articulated with creativity. But one may not be particularly creative and still have a rich and active imagination. On the other hand , things we enjoy doing, that are affectively relevant – like swimming or listening good music – may be totally independent of any creativity, and not at all imaginative…
Imagination is a function of human mind. It is, I’d risk to say, the central function of human mind. When analyzing the neurological basis of conscience the Portuguese neuroscientist António Damásio (1999) explains the relation between the conscience and the imagination in these words:
We all probably remember – and I ‘ve sometimes discussed it with my student teachers – the famous Kubrick’s movie “2001- Space’s Odyssey”. I used to analyze it, in my Curriculum classes, on a topic related to Knowledge and Science. We looked at the wonderful first 20 minutes and then I invited my students to find out what was different, and new, in the variety of collective and individual behaviours of that particular group that illustrated, within the narrative, their transformation from monkeys into humans. It was challenging for them to discover that the essential difference was that they were starting to be able to imagine, to see what was not there, – to figure out scenarios, to conceive hypotheses for group problem.solving, to compare their respective value, to anticipate consequences, to conceive new combinations, to dream about what would possibly be… Imagination seems to make a substantial difference. It is the major support for thinking and knowing, along with the capacity of critical analysis that goes together.
It is surprising to verify that, in a certain sense, imagination is relatively neglected in formal education , with tremendous costs for the whole development of children’s minds. As Egan and Nadaner (1988) pointed out at the time “ a clear concept of imagination is needed if the decline of imagination is to be halted. Assumptions about the imagination, left unexamined, can trivialize its role in education (…) The imagination takes diverse forms, and in each of its incarnations it is a distinct quality of thought and feeling, a unique human activity. Through the practice of imagination, meanings are given to appearances, emotions intertwine with thoughts, and the mind finds a satisfying occupation.” (1988, pp.xii, xiv) .
It doesn’t seem to me that the valuing of imagination in curriculum has increased from 1988 till our present time in curriculum and teaching practices. Technicity and rote learning remain very powerful within our schools. That’s probably why people at IERG are promoting this conference – to remember and debate, again, what is important about it, and why, in a variety of curriculum areas and activities.
In this paper I’ll claim for the centrality of imagination as a key-competence, all along the human history, but particularly for the present days and for the time to come, in a variety of domains, that are at the agenda of the 21st century, and that will be tentatively explored. I’ll try therefore to illustrate these assumptions, based on a few data of observation and analysis of teaching practices within a Research Project we’re developing, in collaboration with the University of Aveiro, in my institution – a School of Education that educates elementary school teachers. (Project: Dynamics of professional development in ecological transitions - Research project of the University of Aveiro –CIDTFF; in development, from 2003 to 2004).
This research project is centered on the practices of a group of school teachers and a group of undergraduate teacher students that are working in their classes to complete the practicum. For this second group, we also analyse periodic reflective reports that they write and discuss regularly with the supervisors (both the teachers of elementary schools that receive and co- supervise them, and the professors of the School of Education that supervise the whole process ).
This analysis will be organized along two lines that I’ll try to connect: one will be the identification of supports for the centrality of imagination as a key competence , and the other will be the identification and sometimes description (based on only a part of the data from the above research) of current practices and conceptions of teachers and teacher students, that illustrate the following dimensions of their predominant perceptions of the role of imagination:
The role of imagination in developing scientific thinking appears to be clear: looking at reality to understand and/or explain it implies that one raises questions, imagining the variety of possibilities for explaining it. Conceiving possible explanations and the whole process of hypothesizing is a complex game of sophisticated imagination, that implies conception, anticipation, prediction.
What have we found more often in teaching practices and perceptions?
As John Dewey has put it a long time ago, with respect to the role of imagination:
It is impressive, in the raw data of this study, how frequently moments and activities plenty of possibilities to encourage children’s imaginative reasoning become unproductive routines and lead to mechanical registrations. One example is the introduction of experiments (to observe the changing states of water, for example) , observed or done by the children, totally centered on the sequence of the tasks, omitting any questioning about the “why, possibly…?”, followed by an explanation given by the student teacher and written down by the children.
The neglecting of imagination is associated, in this kind of situations, to the impoverishing of understanding and with the neglecting of the early construction of tools for lifelong learning.
Problem solving is close to the construction of scientific knowledge, but may have another dimension – to deal with daily life problems and to develop competences to solve more practical problems. Having in mind, however, that any practical problem is, at the end of the day, always a theoretical problem,….The solution, to be built upon understanding, has to be found by means of thinking, by imagining and anticipating, by identifying contradictions, so that one can find out what to do to discover a convenient and sustained solution.
Curriculum documents explicitly recommend problem.-solving as a cognitive strategy for organizing curriculum work, particularly in Mathematics (Currículo Nacional, Portugal, 2001).
Looking at the data of our observations of classes, we find that, in some of them, there was a considerable emphasis, from a few student teachers, on introducing the so-called problems to initiate a content. The dominant practice of school, however, soon contaminated this good intention, sometimes very superficial and simply issued from the theoretical approach to problem solving in some of the courses they take at the School of Education.
The most frequent observed procedure was to introduce the so called “problems” as more or less rethorical questions, not as problematic situations, and even less as coming from authentic problems brought by the children. In presence of a open door to imaginative development – a real question of a child, such as “my textbook says this, but I’ve observed something different near my house…so what?” – very little response was given. Typically the teacher explains the apparent contradiction, by “saying what the truth is”, instead of encouraging thinking, imagining, doing some research, anticipating, debating… to have children finding one (or more) response by themselves and clarify, or develop, the problem. Knowledge is perceived as ready to use, not as a laborious construction of an imaginative mind.
Borrowing again from Dewey’s words,
One of the great changes that societies – and consequently schools – are going through is the technological and communication revolution, particularly in the last two decades. The interpretation of this technological and communicational boom in teaching practices – speaking of Portugal, where this process is more recent than in North America with respect to the educational use of new technologies – is predominantly translated into simply transferring the old methodologies to the new support, computer and Internet. Some work is been doing by the Ministry and teacher education institutions (both Universities and Schools of Education) so that teachers may rethink their ways of working in class by making use of the cognitive potential that is available with these new resources and tools.
Such a reflective and productive use of, for example, Internet, requires that imaginative processes will be put in place- by teachers themselves (and this is more than learning to use the “techniques” ) and introducing those possibilities to children in school and class activities.
Even with some limitations, all the Portuguese primary schools are now equipped with some computers and connected to the Internet. It is amazing to observe, however, how strong the dominant transmissive and passive methodologies remain, even when teachers use computers and Internet in their teaching. Typically, there is a transfer of the same format of classroom work – write a text, use a more attractive map or picture, find and transfer information from a page, in the very same way they’d do it with a book to be read in class. Some exceptions were observed in material planned by some of the student teachers, maybe because they belong already to the communicational generation…But the dominant observed pattern, is still one of reproduction of a transmissive mode of conveying information, taken as granted because it is said by an authority, leaving untouched the possibilities of multiple research, of interactive writing, and many other ways of developing imaginative strategies to build knowledge with these tools.
Again it seems clear that imagination, as a means to use better the possibilities of learning through - and not only with – new technological resources and scenarios, is predominantly neglected, in favour of a narrow learning of the techniques, in spite of programs, largely funded by the Ministry of Science and Education and other fundations, designed to introduce a different pattern of work in schools articulated with technological mastery (Nónio XXI , for example).
The traditional culture of schools and the routines of usual teaching appear, in this pre-analysis of part of these observations, to be, for the moment, strongly embedded, and easily and quickly appropriated by the socialization of future teachers in their practicum. This should call our attention to the nature and modes of teacher education, requiring more and more collaborative work among institutions so that researchers and professors may work with and within the schools, so that professional knowledge can be rebuilt with, and owned by teachers, working together over their practices (Roldão, 2000, 2001)
The practices of teaching appear as associating more clearly imagination, in the representation of teachers, to this curriculum dimension. Nevertheless the way of working it is typically little imaginative, expecting the “natural” creativity of children to emerge by itself. A curious and persistent idea is that some children are gifted for this area, some don’t; and the practices of teaching follow this spontaneous approach, not caring about specific strategies to improve the aesthetic competences – to be sensible to, and to be able to do things and objects with aesthetic quality. This pattern of aesthetic competence as a natural gift is however associated with the valuing of imagination in this domain, but again as a “natural” capacity, not as a tool that can and must be worked and developed through purposeful education.
School activities that address aesthetic expression are generally limited to drawing or colouring pre-made exercises or, on the opposite, proposing a totally free task in that area. Rarely we’ve found teachers working that area with intentional and more specific strategies. This seems to indicate a belief in imagination as spontaneous creativity, and both as natural qualities, that are thought to be more present in some of the children by chance or by effect of family or culture.
Citizenship has gained visibility in the curriculum debate after the 80s and mostly in the 90s of 20th century. Part of the motives to that relate to the short and long term effects of mass-schooling and to the growing heterogeneity of societies, as well as to the emergence of new social and political tensions within different cultural and/or religious groups.
Cross-curriculum themes or transversal curriculum areas have emerged in curriculum design all over the systems, with a broad spectrum of intentions and formats (project area, civic education, personal and social education) generically associated with the concept of citizenship. A particular aspect of this recent developments is the multiculturality issue, particularly disrupting when associated with severe socio-economic differences. Cultural diversity has raised the conceptualization, in curriculum, of the idea of differentiation which is largely under debate (Roldão, 2003).
In Portugal, this is a serious issue, by effect of the disadjustment of part of those groups to regular school and routine practices. In this area, we found that it is extremely consistent the way that the teachers refer to differentiation constantly as a leit-motiv, as the idealised strategy for overcoming students’ learning difficulties; a large majority of those teachers claim also to practice such curriculum differentiation in their teaching and in some aspects of school management. Observed or described teaching situations, however, do not confirm teachers discourse, insofar as there is evidence of immobility of group or class routines, and the same patterns of uniformity in teaching work in examples described as differentiating practice. (Roldão, 2003)
Again there is a need for imagination if we want to have students understand and realize what cultural difference means (in the others and in themselves, clarifying the common sense construct of “normal”) by means of imagining, based on information and experiences, what different modes of living and different beliefs look like, to imagine or anticipate what will be the feeling of the other, “to skip into another person’s shoes”. That requires informed and educated imagination.
The data we have indicate very little of this imaginative way of dealing with citizenship in a society of diversity. There is some discourse in class, and in textbooks, on the rhetorics of equity and respect towards difference, but no specific strategies for promoting in children the reasoning and feeling required to a proper citizenship behaviour in this particular aspect.
A synthesis of the comparison between some examples of the processes required for developing imagination (left column) and the data found in the research project I’m referring to (right column) is presented in the table on next page
(a) Pre-analysis of raw data of observation of teachers and student teachers within the Research Project “Dynamics of professional development in ecological transitions”- Research project, coordinated by the University of Aveiro, Portugal –CIDTF ( Project in development, 2003- 2004)
Let’s move back to my initial question and try to reflect about it in a curriculum perspective. Imagination is, in my analysis, a central feature of human mind, the one that is inside and shapes the capacity of thinking itself . No productive reasoning, mathematical or ethical, can be produced without exercising this amazing power of our mind. Nevertheless, dichotomies have evolved along the process of human development that have constructed a number of social representations of imagination as a side quality, a kind of decorative element of the serious functions of rational thinking. Recent research and science have illuminated the fact that imagination is at the very heart of any process of thinking.
School curriculum and education reflects however – and contributes to reinforce, by acritical reproduction of routine teaching practices - the idea of a supposed opposition reason /imagination and the neglecting of imagination, taken as an interesting, but second-order function.
It is then important that educators and researchers put together their knowledge and their experience and work together on a reflective basis on the current culture of curriculum and teaching – to re-examine it, and to transform it in imaginative ways.
Currículo Nacional – Competências Essenciais no Ensino Básico. Lisboa: ME-DEB, 2001.
DAMÁSIO, A. (2000). O Sentimento de Si – O corpo, a emoção e a neurobiologia da consciência.
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EGAN, K. e NADANER, D. (Eds) (1988). Imagination and Education. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
EGAN, K (1997) .The Educated Mind – How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
GARDNER, H. (1991). The Unschooled Mind. N.Y: Basic Books.
Project “Dynamics of professional development in ecological transitions”- Research project, coordinated by the University of Aveiro –CIDTF (Project in development, 2003- 2004).
ROLDÃO, M.C. (2000). Formar Professores – os Desafios da Profissionalidade e o Currículo Universidade de Aveiro, CIFOP.
ROLDÃO, M.C. (2001). A Mudança Anunciada da Escola ou um Paradigma de Escola em Ruptura?. In Isabel Alarcão (org.) Escola Reflexiva e Nova Racionalidade (2001), pp115-134. São Paulo: Artmed
ROLDÃO, M.C. (2003). Diferenciação curricular e inclusão. In David Rodrigues (org) (2003) Perspectivas sobre a Inclusão: da Educação à Sociedade. Porto: Porto Editora, Colecção Educação Especial.
ROLDÃO, M.C. (2003a). Diferenciação Curricular Revisitada – Conceito, Discurso e Práxis. Porto: Porto Editora.
ROLDÃO, M.C. (2003b). Strategies for Enhancing and Disseminating Good Practices and Innovation in Schools – the Portuguese case. In Report of the Schooling for Tomorrow Project. Paris: OECD.