Imagination is the ability to think of things as possible - the source of flexibility and originality in human thinking.
I should be working on my remote learning plan for summer school that starts next week (I found out yesterday that I would be teaching a class that doesn't lend itself to remote learning), or focusing on my research and development of teaching imagination, or my recent deeper dive into SEL, but...
This makes me feel guilty to say, but I'm a bit paralyzed at the moment to make connections outside of what is staring us all in the face. I can only think of one subject, I'm stressed, and worried for the future more than normal. I find it telling how my inability to connect outside of the obvious, and how the stress, and fear stifle certain types of my imagination, while other areas of my imagination are running wild.
I felt compelled to write this before trying to do the work I mentioned above again, and I am reminded of all the work I should be doing to help our country heal.
This post might ramble a bit. I will connect what I'm feeling with the work I have been doing; how curiosity, imagination, and emotional intelligence can be a source of solutions to our larger problems. It includes some journaling and thoughts I have shared on social media.
I saw a police car rushing down the highway when walking with my kids yesterday (I live on the North Side of Chicago right near the highway). I imagined that this person was just called away from his own children and sent into an impossible situation in which they were likely to fear for their life and the lives of their children because it was their job. I thought about how I might respond in that situation and felt a deep empathy for all the good people trying to serve the way they know how and in the way that was offered them. I also imagined that a few might be far too eager to respond with extreme aggression, and how that increased the danger for the officer just wanting to hug their children tonight.
My heart shifted to all the brave protesters who have had enough, feel desperation, some who feel rage, some who feel fear, and also love, maybe all at the same time. I was then compelled to try the impossible effort of imagining and empathizing with what it’s like to be bird watching and have my life threatened simply because of the color of my skin, to have spent my life working to prove I’m more than my skin color, paying my way through graduate school, becoming a doctor or professor and all that being meaningless if someone decided I fit the description of a nondescript Black person who might have committed a crime, the police officers doing their job and questioning me, asking me to get in a squad car while I think of all the other destroyed, once beautiful Black bodies.
I’m called to question a society that has a violent healthcare system because, well, profit; that has too many unnecessary inequities to list, in which segregation on top of a history of oppression that stole from and violated our Black communities, and worse, then forced into poverty without much access to anything, and now struggled through a pandemic with higher death rates than their White families.
I’ve seen the looting. It makes me very sad, but not as sad and angry about a history of oppression and violence which could have ended a long time ago. As a previous small business owner I know what that pain of watching your livelihood burn feels like. I see a lot of unnecessary pain. I know there are creative solutions which are much larger than a few bad police officers, the solutions our brave protesters are fighting for, a fight we keep sending more police officers and military into that seems similar to pouring alcohol on a flame. There are many people who are smarter than me, who are experts in their fields, who have answers to a lot of this, but just as every student requires unique supports in a classroom, every community does as well. One size does not fit all.
Stop ignoring people’s pain. Period. We are all products of this system. Some of us have benefited more than others, some in extreme ways.
As I watch that squad car zoom down the highway towards downtown I felt guilty and uncomfortable because I was having a beautiful walk with my kid on my shoulders. I hugged his little arms closer and prayed he would know a better world, one in which his Black friends and their parents didn’t have to fear death and lack of opportunity because of their skin. I thought about what I could more of or give up to make sure that became a reality.
Love, true equity and then justice helps us all.
Why blame the looting on the protesters? Why blame all cops for the crimes of a few? We are all made less safe by a system with so much inequity and injustice. There are solutions if we are ready to change/grow and that means a lot of us have to give something up, make sacrifices for the many. It requires deep reflection, listening, and questioning of our biases. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who say they want change cringe when it means they have to make some changes.
If this isn’t a time of mourning and reflection leading to growth, I don’t know what is. What is your field of expertise and how can you make changes for the better in that system? I'm a teacher and that's the place I have agency in to change. All systems are designed to perfectly produce the results they produce. We have to ask why and listen to the experts who have devoted their lives to answering that question.
Love is the answer. Not tolerance, but love.
Murray Hunter has identified 8 types of imagination:
Empathy is one of them - which allows our imagination to connect with others and feel what they are feeling, connecting emotionally with what others might be experiencing.
Effectuative imagination combines information to synergize new concepts and ideas.
Intellectual (or constructive) imagination originates from a defined thought structure, is well developed, often ending in a well-articulated hypothesis.
Imaginative fantasy creates and develops stories, pictures, poems, stage-plays, and more expressive, surreal forms of narrative.
Strategic imagination is a vision of ‘what could be’, the ability to recognize and evaluate opportunities by turning them into mental scenarios.
Emotional imagination serves as a bridge for emotion to emerge from our psych and manifest as feelings, moods, and dispositions.
Dreams are an unconscious form of imagination made up of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur during certain stages of sleep.
Memory reconstruction is the process of retrieving our memory of experiences and relationships (prior knowledge) consisting of a mix of truth and belief.
Kieran Eagan argues that imagination develops in about 7 stages in a logical order. Abstract thinking and Metaphor are two of those stages. Abstract thinking allows us to move beyond the concrete and to separate meaning from objects. To move beyond the facts that appear to be present in the here and now. There are obviously some dangers in that type of thinking. Metaphor, an extension of divergent concepts, broadens the meaning and impact of initial connections and is a major shift from binary thought in that a single concept can hold multiple meanings at once; profoundly implicating our relationships with physical reality, cognition, and comprehension.
I have always found comfort in the notion of duality. If you develop your imagination, it becomes easier to simultaneously hold that violence is never the answer, that love is always the answer, and recognize that so much of what we have built has come from violence; whether that’s from a World War (helped us solve economic issues), or on the backs of slaves, and so many other examples, such as our animal agricultural system which is part of the daily violence we choose to ignore on a daily basis
A great artist once said, “I create through destruction.” Savannahs and other beautiful landscapes are formed only after fires, or earthquakes, and hurricanes, plate tectonics, etc... Much of our beauty comes from destruction, is reborn out of the ashes. A Phoenix would be an appropriate metaphor. Destruction of property is one thing. The murdering of people and destruction of flesh is another.
We have to be extremely aware of who and what has been harmed as a result of that destruction and honor them during rebirth. We must recognize and share in the pain caused by years of oppression. This requires empathy for the oppressed and the oppressors.
I believe we can have the imagination to build a future of love. We do not focus on teaching love, socio-emotional intelligence, curiosity and imagination and as a result openness, empathy, reflection, growth, and the ability to see new possibilities outside of our contemporary paradigms. This is the call I feel compelled to answer. To urge my fellow teachers to also answer that call. Thomas J. Sergiovanni said something to the affect of, "I believe it will be the teachers who rise up against the unsustainable educational climate of standardization and seize the motivations and methods of artists." We must rethink our priorities. Imagine a world full of people who have developed their empathy, actualize the 5 SEL Competencies, and regularly engage in the creative process.
We must all be willing to change, to destroy our past selves. Everyone must be willing to challenge their bias through intense self-reflection and painful growth. There is much pain in love. Growth is also often a painful experience. I’m working on this as much as anyone. It requires a culture of curiosity built on an openness and even welcoming of criticism as an opportunity.
I think it’s time someone else in our system bared the brunt of the pain. Our underserved communities can’t take it anymore. We have consumed them in violence and ignored their peaceful attempts to promote change. So many aspects of our system are responsible. Our Justice System, Healthcare, Economy, and Education are some big ones.
We must get to work.
"Imagine all the people."
Does imagination flourish under complete freedom or with some restrictions? How do we work within a box versus without any structure at all?
The #1 response I get from students and adults when I ask them to define Creativity is, "thinking outside the box."
As I work on a podcast episode about imagination, trying to consume more information before framing my argument, I felt compelled to make a quick blog post about one particular aspect of it.
You know those famous studies about people who can’t pick an ice cream? Faced with vanilla or chocolate, a person decides on a flavor. But when they look at 100 different flavors and variations, they become overwhelmed and are more likely to leave without picking an ice cream. On top of that, people with choice paralysis end up feeling worse about the decision they make.
Instead of sitting in brainstorming limbo, use your limitations to propel you forward. A direction to “make some art” is overwhelming in its openness. There are few things more daunting that the blank white sheet of paper. Ask yourself: What kind of art? What medium? For what audience? Try to narrow it down. Imposing constraints in this way gets the action started. In other words, put yourself or your goals into a box, because it turns out that limitations can inspire more successfully imaginative results.
Once you get going, you might notice an odd sense of freedom from your limits. It sounds backwards, but putting a box around yourself gives you something to push against. You’ll find the challenge of a problem creates even more innovation than you might have found otherwise. As Jack White said in Rolling Stone, it’s “the liberation of limiting yourself.”
[Sidenote: there is, of course, a difference between limitations and oppression. Having limited resources for art is not remotely the same as true poverty. Imposing constraints on yourself versus having them imposed by systemic inequality is wildly different. ….And a conversation for another day]
Working within a box can lead to new ideas and different ways of thinking. This can also result in a new skill set. A free-form poet might discover they have a true knack for sestinas when completing a rhyming assignment. Perhaps a 3D artist improves their drawing skills when making a 2D piece. Allow the limits to challenge you, test you, and teach you.
Creating with bare bones also allows you to distill your ideas. I recently gave a TedTalk and had a difficult time fitting my message into the time constraints. I had to pare my speech down again and again in order to make it short enough. It’s possible I deleted some important statements; but I like to think it forced me to convey only the pressing facts--the core--of my message. No tangents allowed! Something I struggle with often.
In whittling down my TedTalk, I had to reexamine myself and my work. I was forced to evaluate what I really wanted to say--what the absolute of my message truly was. So working in a box can teach us new skills, but can also allow us to polish existing ones--or even rediscover them. Maybe the 3D artist completing a drawing learned new skills, but also reminded himself why he works with 3D materials in the first place. Hey, even a teacher trying to convey a message within one class period has to remind themself what it is they truly wants to say!
Steve Jobs once said something along the lines of, "we need boundaries so we know where to push... when you push on one side it's interesting to see what pops out the other end of the box." I have often observed superior results out of students when I give them a restraint, rather than leaving it open. For example, when I ask students to create and illustrate a creative robot I will see a lot of blank stares. If I say that the robot must include an energy source from nature (plant, flower, water, etc...), must have at least 1 arm, and reference a style from a certain decade, then I will see more students diving in right away and better, more detailed & refined results. And of course, I'll have that student who rebels against the boundary and makes something wonderful anyway. Would that rebellious student have been successful without the boundary to push against?
And lastly, limitations can help us to evaluate results. I’m not a big fan of grading for grading’s sake. But having goals for our work lets us “sift effective solutions from the duds.” Maybe we wanted to create a certain reaction in our audience. Maybe we were trying to compose a super-catchy party song. Maybe we want a fashion line for busy moms. Whatever the criteria is, these limits give us a way to say, “This works” or “This is completely wrong.”
There’s simply no way to push the envelope without an envelope. Those limits feel constricting, but are actually wonderful starting points and building blocks. If we’re able to work with our limits instead of against them, we’ll find incredible outcomes. And whatever those outcomes, we’ll certainly emerge with a stronger imagination.
Curiosity may be the very thing that moves us toward a more just world. The alternative--an incurious world--may be one where prejudice and misery reign. Curiosity may be one of the essential ingredients to empathy, something that we can all agree the world could use a little more of right now.”
I have heard that empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings, and compassion is the action resulting from empathy.
I believe deeply in helping my neighbor--that by improving their lot, I’m improving the world. I don’t think being compassionate is a sign of weakness. In fact, I think being kind makes me a better leader and actually improves my creativity.
Let me clarify, though, with my interpretation of “nice” and “kind.” Being nice might mean ignoring the spinach in your friend’s teeth when they smile at you (you don’t want to bring it up and hurt their feelings, right? Make the situation awkward?). Being kind, though, is telling them straight out that they have food in their teeth. Then they won’t spend the rest of the day smiling spinach-ly at everyone (and resenting your unwillingness to point it out in the first place).
Sometimes the kind thing is harder, and more uncomfortable, than being nice.
But being kind and making hard choices doesn’t mean acting rude. Not at all! We can certainly criticize constructively and debate with open minds. As Dr. Todd Kashdan points out, “A culture that values debate, criticism, and quarrelsome discussions [is] more productive, creative--and ironically--harmonious.” When we can work together as a team and band together to creatively solve problems, our roads are smoother. Issues get nipped in the bud.
The key here is “respectfully.” Research by Abraham Carmeli, Jane Dutton, and Ashley Hardin shows that people who interact courteously--with presence, awareness, and positive regard--are more likely to exchange ideas. This kind of nonjudgmental collaboration results in new perspectives and the creation of original, unique resources. As I mentioned in my previous post, curiosity allows us to learn from our mistakes and grow. Respectful collaboration alongside curiosity can lead to constructive criticism and allow us all to work together creatively.
Even when working alone, though, respect can up our creativity game. Remember when we were kindly telling our friend about the spinach in their teeth? This is the same sort of constructive voice we need in our own heads. Berating our own ideas won’t lead to more creativity. Who wants to take risks if we’re immediately torn down?
Learning self-compassion is vital to our creative process. We need to collaborate with others without judgement, and we need to do the same with ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion expert, teaches that “self-compassion provides resilience during challenges, decreases stress and burnout, increases creativity and wisdom, and allows leaders to recognize and learn from their mistakes without shame.” Surely there’s no way to be truly curious--to take risks--if we can’t be kind and honest with ourselves.
What the world needs is people who can solve difficult, interesting problems. If we can be present together and communicate in a way that eliminates division, we can be more creative together. Isn’t it obvious, then, that kindness, curiosity and creativity can change the world?
While researching the creative process, I’ve consistently encountered the idea of a curious mind. Scientists refer to curiosity as a source of learning, a key component of mindfulness, and a precursor to innovation.
At its core, curiosity is about an open eagerness to learn something. It’s like a conversation with a caring friend whose only interest is to see you grow through a dialogue of thoughtful reflection. Curiosity brings about a state of awe as we stare into the universe of knowledge and confront novel subjects. It motivates us to want to learn more.
Curiosity is the soil of learning because it puts us in the mental state required to be open to the world, to build relevance in the content, and to take chances. It encourages the desire to master something and the passion to do it in the service of something larger than ourselves.
A curious mind also allows space to learn from our failures and mistakes. This didn’t work. Why? What might work instead? By arming our attitudes with curiosity, we’re able to embrace a growth mindset and truly appreciate criticism. Creativity is part of a feedback loop that allows us to let go of our ego in the name of progress for everyone, growing from that soil of curiosity.
Dr. Shauna Shapiro writes, “By remaining open to experiences, we are more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, which is crucial to generating original ideas.” Having teachers collaborate--especially across departments and subject matter--is a great way to help students think outside the box. How do math and painting work together? History and writing? Biology and music?
Collaborating within the classroom is useful, too. We need to utilize other people’s perspectives in order to see ourselves more clearly, more completely. It helps us to see beyond our own biases.
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
Everyone knows that Einstein failed at school, but few know why. The fact is, he couldn’t handle the factory approach to learning. He eventually fled that traditional system and ended up in a progressive Swiss school that he said nurtured his curiosity, a key component in his success. As he famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
It’s my opinion that Creativity is largely misunderstood and definitely underutilized. It’s undervalued despite being one of the top skills needed in the current and future economy. It should be considered a top priority in schools, but is rarely taught (and almost never specifically or practically).
I had a student who said he wasn’t creative and couldn’t complete a project because of this. After some prodding, his eventual answer was that creativity is imagination. He explained, “I don’t know, it’s magic–that light bulb that pops up over cartoon’s heads… Well, the light bulb never pops up for me.” I think this is the view that most people hold about creativity: that it has magical, unknown properties.
So what is it?
First, let’s define imagination.
Imagination is simply the ability to visualize what isn’t there. To perceive things not in front of you. Basically, seeing something without the aid of physical sensory inputs.
Creativity, on the other hand, is a process that begins mentally and manifests physically. It starts when you make connections and translate them into a physical experience by creating something new.
“Okay,” you say, “but I’m not an artist…“
You don’t need to be an artist to create something new! It is important, however, that you push yourself past just copying something. Copying is essential to learning and creativity (and something I’ll dig into a bit deeper shortly and in the future), but it does not make you creative.
If we all stop at the copying stage; if we all simply regurgitate information; if we all think the same and have the exact same information we stagnate. Nothing happens.
Now imagine an environment that truly values the process: one that encourages diversity on multiple levels. What could this do for socio-emotional learning? That’s CREATIVITY, the core processor of deep learning. Creativity is about connections, and it’s connected to everything.
Because I like to go meta, let’s end with a bit of neuroscience.
Scientists have recently provided a lot of physical / biological evidence for concepts the social sciences have been figuring out for some time. Neural scientist Semir Zeki’s work has focused on understanding the core functions of the brain, and he concluded that creativity is central. He wrote that this “reveals a parallel between the functions of art and the functions of the brain, which drives us to an obvious conclusion – that the overall function of creativity is an extension of the function of the brain.”
Having read a great deal into it (and based on years of clinical experiences in the classroom), it’s my opinion that creativity is the operating system for learning, and investing in the creative process will save education. It is the core function of learning.