Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Gillian Judson: “Education that inspires is what we’re after”

I don’t know about you, but most of my time at school did very little to foster my imagination. It tended to be viewed as though I had brought a naughty, troublesome friend to school with me, one not afraid to point out the absurdity of most of what we did, and of how we did it.  In today’s education system, with its pressures from league tables, test results and uninspiring curricula, the imagination still struggles to be heard and valued.  Fighting its corner, in Canada at least, is Gillian Judson.

Gillian is a Director of the Imaginative Education Research Group and a lecturer at Simon Fraser University.  She has written many books on the topic of how teachers can bring imagination to the forefront of how they teach, and has trained many to become more imaginative teachers.  She has a particular interest in sustainability, and in how vital it is to engage the body and emotion in learning.  We chatted by Skype.  I started by asking her what, for her, is imagination?  And why does it matter?

“People define it differently.  I work against those people that define it as ‘the imaginary’.  Flights of fancy or the make believe.  I believe it to be much more in line with Vygotsky’s vision of imagination, which is that it’s one of the core intellectual activities of human beings.  It’s at the base of all science and engineering.

It’s not something that we can solely associate with the arts because – here is where I finally get to my definition –  it’s “the ability to envision the possible”.  Because we need knowledge to envision what is possible, and so without imagination we don’t learn.  We don’t engage.

Why do we need it?  Why do we need it in schools?  Because when you engage imagination you wake up emotion.  Any educator knows that you need to emotionally engage your students in order for them to have meaningful learning experiences.  There is research out of University of Southern California with Dr Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, most recently – she’s an affective neuroscientist – who says emotion is at the helm.  I love that analogy because it directs all of our learning.  The things that you most remember and understand have affected you.

So we have to talk about feelings, and when you engage a human emotion, when you tie it up with a piece of knowledge, then it becomes memorable and meaningful.  That is why we need imagination.  We need to evoke those emotions that help us envision the possible, with the knowledge in the curriculum.  I’m not discounting social, emotional learning needs.  That is another whole dimension.

We need students to feel safe and comfortable, but what we’re all about on ImaginEd, is helping teachers use tools, cognitive tools, that will tie up that knowledge about fractions with human emotion.  Igniting imagination and making the thing all the more enjoyable.  Dreary isn’t necessarily better.  We can live a dreary life.  We can put through the hours in schools and get enough knowledge to pass a test, but maybe we can have students that are inspired.  Education that inspires is what we’re after.  So that’s why.

You mentioned about feeling safe.  I wonder if you were to create a list of the pre-requisites, or the ideal conditions for vigorous engaged healthy imagination, what would those conditions be?

Great question.  We can look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Our children need to be fed, and they need to be loved, and they need to feel safe, and they need to feel that the world is wonderful.  They need to be surrounded by people that see the wonder in the world around them.  If their basic needs are met, and they are in a condition in a comfortable community of learners where the teachers and the students there, they share the emotional connection to knowledge, and they’re given space in their learning to envision possibilities in different directions than their teacher’s initially imagined they would, then I think you have some of the basic conditions in place.

How would you, both within education and within the wider Western world, assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018?  How is it doing?

I certainly wouldn’t test for it.  We like to throw tests at school to determine the quality of our schools and I don’t think standardised tests do much to show the quality of a school, but I would like to look at the questions that our students are asking.  I’d like to look at the kinds of programmes we’re offering, and the values that underlie them.

Are we hoping to have great questioners, and students that feel like the world is wonderful?  Are we looking for students that are desperate to get out of school, or ones that realise that they’ve just begun their learning journeys?  It depends.

I mean the people in the world that seek comfort in quantifying things may not appreciate my answer.  But if we look at the quality of the questions, the interest, the engagement of the students,  are they talking about what they’re learning once they’ve left school?  Are they looking at things related to topics in school when they’re on their own time?  Are they initiating conversations with their teachers in different directions than the teacher intended?  So I’m talking about students.

In terms of our cultures we have a long way to go.  I know that imagination is at the core of any attempt to empathise, and accept other cultures.  We can’t empathise with another, we can’t embrace another kind of understanding of the world, unless we have the ability to envision the possible.  It’s at the core of all I think.  What we need in this world is the ability to understand another’s perspective.  I don’t think we can ever fully understand it, but we can’t get even part way without imagination.

So do you think that we live in a time when the structures around us, when the society around, gives imagination enough attention, or enough respect, or enough space?

What’s interesting Rob, is that I think we all jump on that bandwagon for imagination for children.  We talk about how play is important for children.  And then we’re not comfortable talking about how play is important for adults.  How play is necessary in learning.

Play is a basic human learning activity.  We don’t like to talk about it.  Similarly with imagination.  When I work with adults, they prefer to ask me about innovation and creativity.  They don’t like using the word imagination.  We have to rethink– I’d like to say reimagine – but we need to expand what we consider imagination to be because we undervalue it in our society.  We absolutely undervalue it.  Even saying somebody’s imaginative, “He’s a very imaginative person” versus, “He’s an innovative person”.  We tend to think that the innovative one is more successful somehow.  But imagination underlies the innovative.

Which of those two are you going to pay more?

Right.  Because we think the innovator is imaginative, but we still associate imagining ideas and doing nothing with them, and that’s not what I’m talking about at all.

I sent you the link to the interview that we did with Manish Jain in India.  For him, the education system is part of the problem – one of the purposes of it is to “destroy people’s imaginations”.  It has been a big culprit in limiting people’s imagination, filling them with fear.  Is trying to bring imagination into mainstream schools trying to put a sticking plaster on something that is inherently designed to destroy the imagination?  Should we be looking just at building completely alternative unschooling approaches, like he does?  Or do you think that there is the potential to make conventional education as imaginative as it needs to be?

I love what he’s saying there, and I appreciate the political and economic implications of a system that limits change, by limiting imagination.  From my own experience, I would like to talk a bit about the pedagogical background because I absolutely think that we’re in a system that disregards and neglects imagination for a reason.

For example, the way we design and think about units and lesson plans is based on a model for building refrigerators, which you know, I’m sure, being in this field.  The great influencer in education, Ralph Tyler, took the model that Frederick Taylor created for increasing time and efficiency in industrial steel plant.  If you reduce the process of building a refrigerator into distinctive portions, and you determine at the end quality control if you’re initial image matches the end, then you can reduce time and motion and increase efficiency.

Tyler thought this was a fantastic idea for thinking about how we should teach because if you have an outcome, and you break that outcome down into very distinctive, measurable pieces, then at the end you can assess with a test whether the kid knows the x number of things about fractions.  If it matches, he gets an A.  If it doesn’t, he gets a B and what have you.  That is really appropriate in a society that values the language of business.

We talk about bottom lines.  We talk about productivity and efficiency.  I’m not opposed to those things but we don’t teach refrigerators.  We teach human beings, and human beings are, as you’ve seen from my little TEDx, we’re ‘perfinkers’.  We perceive, and we feel, and we think, and feeling as we know is vital for learning.

So what I’m attempting to do – and it’s not as revolutionary as unschooling school, because I think we have a lot of good things happening in schools – everyone that knows me and works with me, we don’t start our teaching by letting the outcomes drive our decision making.  We have our outcomes, but then teachers need to – and this is pedagogical blasphemy –  they need to decide how they’re engaged with the topic.

You can’t be anything but student centred.  Well, I don’t think we can be student centred, unless we are also engaged with the topics we’re teaching.  So teachers need to identify the emotional significance of the topics they’re teaching.  I was never taught that in my teacher training.  The vast majority of educators aren’t either.  They’re taught to break down efficiently and logically the topic they want to teach.

They should use some kind of a hook, which I think is a terrible way to think about imagination.  I picture a fish on a hook flopping around.  Really, imaginative education, engaging imagination centrally, is more like a hug.  We’re creating a context.  So when they’re learning about fractions, their emotions are being engaged all the way through.  When they learn that theorem, it’s connected to a human emotion that makes it more meaningful and memorable.  So within our current system, we have to deal with the industrial mentality and efficiency, productivity language.  That’s what we need to dismantle.

But I think we can replace it with a genuine acknowledgement of the emotional dimensions of all learning.  That’s what these cognitive tools are, that Kieran Egan discusses in his work.  Cognitive tools, centrally guiding instruction, pre-K through higher education, will bring imagination to the centre of the practice.

How’s that being received?  What’s the reaction within the education world to what you and Kieran and others have been brining?

We’ve been running Masters programmes for many years, so there’s a lot of people doing this and our Imaginative Education Research Group is very large around the world.  Kieran’s been travelling and writing prolifically for a long time.

People hear it and they say, “Yes, I know this.”  If you ask a teacher what it’s like when they’re doing a unit and a lesson and their students are engaged, that’s what it’s all about.  But it’s about making those moments more frequent.  So every teacher I talk to, when I say, “Is there something you teach that you look forward to teaching?  You know the students are going to be right in there.  You know there’s fewer disciplinary issues because everyone’s in it, they’re on it, they’re loving it.”  “Absolutely,” they say.

Then I say, “Now you do things you just have to get through, right?  You just got to get through that.”  “Well yes, of course.” Well let’s make that ‘Just get through it unit’ more like the ones we love to do.  We start by saying, “Okay, if it’s punctuation or passé composé in French, whatever it is you’re teaching, if you’re engaged with it, if you can’t find something about it that is wonderful, odd, strange, unique, somehow to engage human emotion, you’re not going far.”

Universally I hear that.  But what I also hear, and this is funny – this is when we get down to the underlying beliefs and values, right? –  is people say, “Well I wholeheartedly believe you.  I just don’t have time.  I don’t have time for it.”  And I say, “Well do you have time to spend a week on something and you don’t learn anything at all?  Do you have time for that?”

There is no learning without the emotional connection, so the people who say, “I’d like to do that”, or, “I’d do that if it was Grade 8 but I can’t do that in Grade 11 science.  We have too much we have to get through.”  Then we’re dealing with very different underlying beliefs and values about the time we’re spending.

One of Kieran’s lines is “it takes just as long to be boring as it does to be interesting”.  We think we’re being efficient when we get the worksheet down and we say, “Do this and practice it 100 times”.  But what if we took that theorem first, embedded it in the context of the human’s hopes, fears and passions that created it, creating that imaginative connect for the learning first, and as we go through, continue to employ the different tools to engage learners?  So very well received.  Most people nod, “Yes, this is what I do when I feel like I’m doing my best teaching.”

I recently interviewed the authors of a book called The Distracted Mind all about the impacts that particularly smart phones are having on young people and their ability to concentrate.  I wonder if you’re seeing the impact of that in the classroom and the impact that that has on people’s ability to be imaginative?

As a parent as well, I worry about the distraction.  That’s one of the things I’m working on in my imaginative eco teaching, is how do we bring back more of that – as deep ecologist Arne Naess talks about – engagement through activeness; through pause, through immersion in our environments, because we’re far too distracted.

How do we learn to live attentively?  If you’ve heard of Emma Kidd’s work, it’s lovely.  It’s for focusing in on the moment now. One of the problems with the media, social media in any form, is that we feed all of it to the students.  We don’t often leave them any space or time for imagination, for their own images.  So we in all contacts argue rather than providing an image of a concept, or something fantastic, first evoke it.  Use words to help it arise in students’ minds first.  Because you can provide them with an image, but it often then prevents them, or discourages them, from coming up with their own image of what that concept means.

I can’t speak for everyone in the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), but I would suggest that we have to spend time allowing them to create their own ideas and concepts.  People say when you’re in this game world for a while, and you come out in the world here, the real world looks a little less vivid.  It’s not quite so bright and beautiful.  We have to somehow preserve that sense of wonder in the world around us.

That’s what educators that are imaginative educators, using cognitive tools, do.  They try to minimise the losses of the tools that engage us most as children, keep employing those tools as we go along so we graduate with those strong.

One of the things that I wonder about is the implications of what you’re talking about for movements; activist movements like climate change, social justice movements.  If you were to design a campaign, a project that was about getting people really involved in doing something about climate change, imagining the future in a different way, bringing a perfinker approach to activism, what might that look like?

That’s a great question and I know exactly what your fears are there, your concerns.  The worry is if you can’t get charged up for climate change in 23 seconds or fewer seconds, then I’m not on board.

One thing is, I would argue that imagination is limited.  A lot of people like to say that it’s limitless.  In fact, we can only imagine with knowledge.  We can only imagine with what we know.  We only can imagine a unicorn because we’ve seen a horn and a horse, you know what I mean?  So one aspect is we need broad depth of knowledge.

We can’t imagine these futures without real breadth and depth of knowledge.  One thing we’re implementing in schools here, just as an aside, is called the ‘Learning in Depth’ programme.  It’s simple but it’s kind of revolutionary.  It’s part of this need to feed in and really feed the imagination.

Ideally when it starts, early-ish in schools, students are provided randomly with a topic.  It could be molluscs.  It could be transportation.  It could be apples.  They’re given an hour a week to study it for the rest of their schooling.  Not just one year.  Not a month.  But this is their Learning in Depth programme.  So once a week everybody’s doing Learning in Depth. It’s assessed but it’s not graded.

Students share out their understanding as they go along at the speed at which they need to go, in any direction they want to go.  After year one it’s quite superficial.  We’ve got students now that have been doing it for five, six years, and their depth of knowledge is different.  Many people would say they’d be bored of the subject by then, but those students that have been at it for five years, they know enough to know they actually would only be bored of it if they didn’t know enough.  We tend to get bored of things we don’t know a lot about.

One thing is we need to provide students with an opportunity to have depth of knowledge.  Real depth of knowledge and expertise about something.  They will end up realising that the world’s knowledge, it’s all connected.  Some say, “Well I want to study hockey.” “Well actually you drew the topic of molluscs.  So you can figure out a connection between hockey and molluscs.”  But it’s a different take, because it’s not graded.  Students are free to go in any direction they want.

How does the teacher keep on top of it all? Well, the teacher requires progress.  They want to see things are moving in whatever direction, and the teacher can support students by using these cognitive tools.  Encouraging them if they wonder, “What should I study next?”  Well, ask them if they’ve found any song lyrics to do with the topic.  Ask them if they’ve ever the most odd, extreme or bizarre aspect of the topic.

There are always ways to support them through engaging imagination.  So to go back to your question about the future of activism, we need students that are comfortable with enquiry.  They see themselves as able learners without being told and graded that they’re able learners.  It needs to be a collective activity because some of the interesting work now in online learning, and how people are learning through these big massive online gaming systems, it certainly is nothing like the traditional teacher-student kind of relationship.  It’s learning through experimentation and it’s learning through collective growth and built-in rewards and things.

We need to think of ways to collectively move forward in our activism.  Collectively and with imagination.  I mean if I’ve just said you need knowledge to be imaginative, that’s why we need the collective, because we come with different areas.  That’s my short answer!

Many, many young people’s experience of education is profoundly unimaginative.  They hang their imagination up on their peg with their coat when they arrive in the morning and maybe pick it up again on the way out.  If you’re brought into a school which is like that, where do you start?  By retraining the teachers?

I would immediately ask the teacher whatever they’re teaching today, I say, “What are you teaching next?  What are you doing in your next class with your students?”  “Oh, I’m doing the constitution”, or whatever.  I say, “What’s wonderful about that?  What engages your emotions about the constitution?”  Few can answer the question.

“Well, no, I just have to get through that.  Get through the constitution and most of the rest of the month and then I’ll do this”, which they like.  Well, no. I really think you need to consider that, because we would like teachers to envision that they’re more like the reporter.  You’ve been sent down to get the story on the constitution.  Not create a fiction about it, but shape it in a way that engages the emotions of your students.  If you do that, you become a storyteller because you’re shaping the knowledge.

Whether it’s about exponents, the idea of exponents, or three dimensional objects, whatever it may be, there’s an angle.  If you were a reporter, you could write about that thing in a way that people sort of went “Ah, interesting, interesting”.  So, we don’t do that in schools.  That’s my question to teachers.  What engages you about the topic you’re teaching?


  1. Patricia Knox
    February 28, 2018

    Emotions make the world go round. A full spectrum of healthy emotions rising up and out through body and mind casting ripples near and far.

    Without emotion thoughts are empty, lifeless. Without thought emotions are ungrounded, illusive. The two complement one another.

    Emotional feeling carries inspiration that logical mind cannot carry. Logical thinking carries information that emotion cannot carry. Together these two parts of one whole make an intelligent delivery of — wisdom.

    Wisdom. Something that reverberates through the ages and the cosmos. Wisdom. Something that lifts us and connects us to that which is larger than ourselves. Wisdom. Something seeded and seeding.

    Thought + Feeling = Wisdom

    Inherent in the child within
    Is enthusiasm about life
    Generating inside out
    Where head and heart meet
    Playfully — at recess

  2. Kittty de Bruin
    March 1, 2018

    Very good interview indeed, and it is as Patricia underlines wIth her wise words. A combination of inspiration, emotion, engagement of both sides, empathy , playing, life time learning ( denmarks programs initiated by Grunvig), practical education for all citizens. That in combination with programs as well described (and presented) by Gillian Judson, can make our education great again. Our theoratical education is not enough, even with or without emotions. Schools with hands on , practicql things next to the other disciplines like poetry,filisofy, maths etc should be re installed in my opinion.

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