Do Schools Kill Imagination and Creativity?

by Jailson Lima

Chemistry Department, Vanier College, Montreal, QC, Canada

“I am not sure whose twisted idea was to put hundreds of adolescents in underfunded schools run by people whose dreams were crushed years ago, but I admire the sadism.” This quote describes so well my high-school student experience that I could not stop laughing when I heard it in the opening scene of the series Wednesday, a TV show about the weirdness of the bizarre Addams Family. 

Despite being an exemplary student, frustration and dissatisfaction were pervasive during my K-12 studies. My head was full of interesting questions that any curious child might have: How is it that humans cannot survive on salty water alone, while dolphins and whales can? How high can an airplane safely fly, and what happens when it tries to surpass this threshold altitude? Is it possible to melt wood? Unfortunately, my school did not address those legitimate questions since it was not a place where students’ learning ecologies were considered. Instead, I recall that period as being made up of a bunch of class activities with no meaningful connection with the real world.

As an illustration of the lack of integration with students’ life experiences and imaginations, I have vivid memories of studying the types of clouds in Grade 4 by just memorizing a table. Although the classroom had a huge window that looked out on amazing tropical blue skies, the teacher never asked us even once to notice the clouds that passed by. Later in high school, the content of the science courses that I took was based on rote memorization from a dogmatic point of view and mechanically solving well-defined problems for which finding the one correct answer was the norm. By relying on a “plug-and-chug” approach that emphasized formulas and equations, the sense of wonder, which could have been fostered with authentic learning experiences, was non-existent. The system failed to capture the richness that the practice of science entails by not recognizing the crucial role of engaging emotion and intellect into the learning process; instead, it created a narcoleptic school environment by adopting an unimaginative curriculum that was as exciting as unflavoured ice cream.

Meaningful experiences and social interactions can nurture children’s imaginations, but the same outcome cannot be achieved by boring teaching strategies that use predictable and pointless assessments that students perceived as mandatory and tedious busywork. Despite our interest in science outside of school, we drudged through our courses as bureaucratic obligations that held no association with the pleasure of discovering new and exciting things. It was hard for me to understand how school science could be so mind-numbing while dealing with the same fascinating topics from our favourite books, sci-fi films, superhero comic books, and TV shows whose plots were full of basic scientific concepts.

Because my unfulfilling experiences as a science student were an integral part of my learning ecology, finding innovative instructional strategies and assessments that engage students in a way that makes learning relevant and memorable became a topic of great interest to me. In hindsight, I now see that I have been trying to bring to life the school environment that I wish I had had. A school experience that would be full of those “This is amazing! I’ve never thought about that!” moments when learning occurs as a symbiotic interaction between imagination and the knowledge that lies dormant in schoolbooks. It took me a long time to acquire the necessary tools to put imaginative education into practice, but reading the groundbreaking work of Kieran Egan was the let-there-be-light Genesis moment in my personal journey. His work proposes a powerful counter-intuitive idea: Instead of starting with what students know, we should start with what they can imagine, and connect everything through a narrative, i.e., “a continuous account of a series of events or facts that shapes them into an emotionally satisfactory whole.”[1]

Despite all the obvious advantages, cultivating imagination boils down to a personal choice.  Throughout my life, I have encountered people from all walks of life who do not want to engage with and do not appreciate imaginative approaches. There is a large group of people who have no interest in exploring their imaginative sides. I have met science teachers who have no interest in any kind of cultural products: movies, music, art, pop culture, or even sports! Deprived of so many sources of inspiration for “what if” moments, their ability to engage their own imaginations may be damaged beyond repair. It seems that teachers, especially in the natural sciences, tend to look down on imaginative approaches for students who are older than toddlers, as if imagination is inferior to rational, Cartesian thought. By acknowledging this fact, we start to grapple with two pervasive ideas in education: The first claims that imagination cannot be taught, instilled, nurtured, developed, or cultivated, whereas the second assumes that imagination is innate. In my opinion, the prevalence of these ideas is one of the main hurdles to both achieving a creative and imaginative school environment and changing the gloomy reality of schools that kill imagination, like the ones that I attended.

I invite you to look back and reflect on your own school experiences. Did your schools promote creativity and imagination? With your current knowledge, what would you wish to have been done differently to enhance your learning experience at that time? And finally, do you really believe that imagination can be an effective tool to teach science at all levels of instruction?

Image: Beyond our Vision by Marie-Chantale Farhat                                                                                    

[1] Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 99.



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