November 18, 2018 / 1 comment
Amy Seefeldt on creating a ‘Centre for Imagination’
Amy Seefeldt set up and runs the Centre for Imagination at an international boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas in India called Woodstock. As I begin exploring what education would look like if it were underpinned by imagination, and if young people emerged from it with their imaginations fully formed, empowered and vibrant, I was keen to hear her experience of creating, in effect, an outpost for the imagination within an existing school. Amy took a year out of teaching to study at Schumacher College, and her thesis, ‘Centring the Ecological Imagination’ documents her process of dreaming and planning the Centre for Imagination. I started by asking Amy what, for her, is imagination, and how does it differ from creativity and innovation:
“As we were thinking about creating this Centre for Imagination, we were throwing around words like ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ first and I felt like innovation is too tech limited. It has a lot of tech connotations in a way. Creativity now, in education circles anyway, there’s a lot of literature around how to teach creativity and that’s not really what I was interested in.
For me, what I was really looking for as an educator is a source of hope and a future direction and I think imagination has a lot to do with hope and possibility and believing that there’s more beyond the horizon. That’s one element of it. Another big piece that I see lacking in many different fields, not just education, is empathy, and I think imagination is at the core of empathy.
I don’t know if you’ve read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but the villain is a villain because he has no imagination (“The imagination hadn’t awoken. That was his strength. He couldn’t see through other people’s eyes or feel with their nerves”). He can’t imagine how other people experience the world and life. Those pieces of possibility and empathy for me are central to imagination. Believing that there’s always another way.
How would you evaluate the state of health of our collective imagination? Of imagination in our culture in 2018?
Impoverished, for the most part. We’re used to being fed a lot, and we also learn from a really young age, in the way that education functions, we learn that many things are not possible. We’re often told this is the way to do something, learn the way to do it, and then you do it that way. So right from the beginning one of the really interesting experiences for me in creating this Centre has been when students come with an idea or a question, and I say yes, they’re shocked.
Like, “Really, I can do that? I can try to build this? Really?” “Sure, why not?” The lack of imagination is also somehow deeply connected to a lack of confidence and that starts when we’re really young. And we’re all addicted to screens as well. That plays a big role in it.
Some people would say you now have in your hand this phone and you can make your own films and you can edit your own art and you can make beautiful pictures and you can put them online where everyone can say how much they love them. In what way from your perspective do those technologies, what impact do they have on the imagination?
On the one hand, I have a student right now who’s working on creating a pyrolysis system for the school so that we can break down plastics in a microwave oven and turn them into oil that could then we distributed to local communities to use for heat during the winter. He’s found all kinds of help online. So I would never say that we don’t need that technology. We do, and it assisted him.
But he had to imagine the solution before he went looking for it. Here again it’s connected to empathy in a way. People use it as an anodyne. They’re afraid to look at the world that actually is because of the trouble that it’s in, and so you sit and you role play online or you binge watch series for hours and hours and hours as a way to avoid looking at what’s actually around.
The only way we can imagine new ways forward is to look at what’s actually around and figure out what’s happening, and watch it carefully. Those technologies limit us when they are designed to addict us, and we use them as painkillers.
Can you tell us about the Centre for Imagination? How did it come about, did it already exist, what’s its genesis and what are you trying to do with it?
The original idea was born about 4 years ago. I had been the Academic Dean here for about 6 years. I was in charge of the curriculum here and teaching and learning, and I became increasingly frustrated because I felt like a lot of change was necessary and the way that schools function, in terms of ‘you take this subject, and then this subject, and then this subject’ and you go around through the day, that kind of system can only be tweaked so much. I was getting frustrated about that.
Then I was noticing that my most valuable interactions with students were happening between the cracks of the school day instead of being the substance of the education. The real questions about what am I going to do with my life were happening in little corners in between. I became increasingly convinced that if education doesn’t help young people find their place in the world, then really what is it for if they don’t know themselves and the world and how those things fit together better.
We began to talk about what would it look like to create a space where we could help young people figure out their place in the world, which is kind of the core mission of the Centre for Imagination, and imagining new ways of learning, basically.
We took what’s the oldest building on campus. It’s an old bungalow that was built for British people in the early 1800s who came hunting here as a guest house, and it had been a staff home, and we moved into that space two years ago. Now it consists of basically three streams. One stream is we invite in scholars, artists, residents, mid-career professionals, lawyers or doctors who have just retired. They come for 3-6 weeks at a time. So right now we have an anthropologist here and then an environmental engineer. They just spend a few weeks with a very light programmed agenda and then a project that they’re working on, and the space just fills organically as people connect and begin to ask them questions and learn about what they do.
Another stream is student independent projects. Any idea or initiative that a student has, just trying to figure out how can we make it happen for them and facilitate that, freeing them up. Freeing their imagination. Then the third stream is creating events and workshops and theories that help young people understand what’s happening in the world right now on many, many different levels. We did everything from screen election results as the Trump election happened through the day, which was incredibly depressing, to film screenings, discussions about current events.
Even we had a problem with bullying, and we ended up facilitating a discussion between the bullies and bullied in a new way to try to introduce principles of restorative justice to the community. Holding workshops in dorms around mental health. Teaching gardening workshops. That’s one thing that’s happening right now. Workshops on how students can grow food in their dorm rooms. Just trying to be very responsive to whatever is happening and alive in the world and in our community. The filter is basically will whatever we’re doing help them know themselves and help them understand the world better, and how those fit together?
How has that been received or absorbed or welcomed in by the existing school establishment? I spoke to a woman in Mexico who in the government in Mexico City. They have a Ministry of Imagination, and I said to her, “How are you viewed?” She said, “We’re viewed as the weird department.” Are you viewed as the weird department or are you viewed with interest?
Definitely initially. But also a lot of people had questions about who is this for, trying to understand which group of students this is for. Or which teachers this is for. The first year and a half were pretty hard. The last six months it’s been a huge up swell of interest from students. A year ago we had three student interns. Now we have 30 who all have specific things that they’re working on around school.
Teachers are much more willing to have these guests who come into their classrooms because they’re starting to understand the value of that and how it makes the classroom learning real for students. But yeah, definitely still seen as the odd one. But I have a lot of confidence that that’s shifting, and that’s been really fun to watch that happen.
Now in the last week, two schools here in India have contacted me to ask about a start-up kit for a Centre for Imagination, which is really exciting. Which was a goal right from the beginning – how could try to shift the whole mainstream paradigm. What does that look like, and how could that work? I believe a lot in organic change, and I’m excited to watch that happen.
From your experience, do you have any advice for people who might be looking to do something similar? If they’re the person going into their school or they get that little break, they have an enlightened Head teacher who says, “Go on then, we’ll give it a go” within a more conventional education very much results driven context, what would your advice be for them having travelled that road yourself?
I found the concept really hard to explain until I came across the Japanese idea of ‘Ikigai’ – a reason for being. The idea that if you find what you love, what the world needs, what will help you make a living, and what you’re good at, then you’ve found a reason for being. People of any age who have come through, even the worst sceptics from the beginning, when they saw that idea it resonates really deeply as something that’s needed.
Yes, our young people do need that. They need to know what their reason for being is going to be, that they shape for themselves. Putting that in the middle unlocked a lot. Before that I would be stumbling around trying to explain what it was that we were trying to do. And somehow having that image, and it’s a diagram that’s painted right by the front door now, every visitor who comes sees it right away.
It’s been really interesting to watch how many people stop and take a picture because it is something for them as adults even that they’re desiring. So I would say focus on that and start small.
Where do you think that conventional mainstream education goes wrong in its handling of imagination?
Part of my experience at least is that everything is so dominated in education by the need to measure that every kind of success must be measured. Continuously. And students are always being measured, teachers are always being measured, and teachers often feel very constricted by all the measurements that are in place around them. That kind of mechanistic approach of measuring everything and standardising everything is really powerful and constrains the imagination immensely.
I had a moment this summer. I was in an airport and realising you could be in an airport in any city of the world, and you wouldn’t know where you are, because they all have the same stores and the same food outlets and there’s nothing that tells you what place you’re in. Schools with massive global curriculums like the International Baccalaureate are the same way. We somehow believe that it’s better to be standardised than it is to have a unique local identity. Not paying attention to place is partly what creates a lack of imagination.
For you how would you identify the vital elements of creating a space in which imagination can flourish? Holding that space? What are the key aspects of that?
Most importantly, I think a sense of – at least for children – safety, and being accepted, no matter who they are or what their idea is. We learn early not to say what we really mean, not to ask the real question, to be afraid that whatever idea we have might be judged. For me it’s been really important to create, both physically and emotionally, the space where people feel safe to say what they really mean, that nothing bad is going to happen if their idea doesn’t work.
It’s not a big deal. We’ll try another one. And that the space should feel calm and inviting. Also given where we are right now, I feel very strongly about this, that natural materials are really important in creating a space for imagination to flourish. Before we opened this I visited a lot of university centres for imagination and labs and that kind of thing and a lot of people go for this all white sleek futuristic feel. It’s all plastic and steel and I think something really different happens when people are surrounded by natural materials like stone and brick and wood and fabric, natural textures. People just start to think differently.
You can measure the change in people’s sense of attachment to the environment, just by putting plants in a room. Those things really matter if you’re going to try to cultivate imagination. Put safety first.
A question that I have asked everybody that I’ve interviewed for this book is if you had been elected as Prime Minister or the President of wherever it was where you were, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make this place imaginative again’ – so you had felt that this was a time in history when nurturing and rebuilding and reprioritising imagination was the most important thing, above anything else, rather than having a national innovation strategy like everyone does, we need a national imagination strategy and a really urgent reprioritising of imagination – and you ran on that platform, you said we needed in politics, in school, in planning, in everything, what might you do once you were elected in your first 100 days in office? Where would you start?
That’s a great question. I would bring together people from wildly different fields to break out of their… People, especially within certain disciplines, develop these tracks. Like, I think like a corporate person, I think like a social worker. I would try to create conversations at every level, in small groups, but of mixed backgrounds everywhere that I could mix it.
Then try to create a container for safe conversation for that to release potential. That would be the first thing I would do. Get people talking to each other, somehow, who see things radically differently. Because I feel like that seems to be what’s missing more than anything else… I mean I’ve been following American politics obsessively, and Indian politics also, and there’s this incredible unwillingness to imagine from somebody else’s view point. And everybody is sure that they’re right.
I don’t think anything can really change until people start really sitting down and doing the hard work of listening. That would be the first thing. One small way to illustrate – one of the pieces that I’ve really learned is that people are sceptical until they’ve actually experienced something of the essence of what we’re trying to do, and as soon as they experience it, they say, “Oh, okay, now I get it” and become supportive. So on a national level, I’d have to think about what that would be, but it would be a fun project.
From the research that you’ve done, what examples of imaginative education have you come across that most inspired you?
One core person for me is Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator. He wrote a book called ‘To know as we are known’ in the early eighties. He talks about how teaching is actually creating a collaborative community space and that’s what you do when you teach, more than anything else.
Paolo Freire is a core person for me around privilege and who gets to speak when, and how, as an educator. And then a third one, who wasn’t technically an educator, but for me core, is Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who wrote ‘The Search for Meaning’. I’ve used that every year I teach and without fail I hear back from students fifteen or twenty years later that that’s the book that they held on to. For education around imagination, because he’s very future focused: the idea of asking what are you living for, what are you trying to do with your life, and crafting that kind of meaning.
As I look around today, there’s a school in Switzerland called Ecole d‘Humanité which is a small progressive school that was started in the 1940s, and they continue to do some really interesting things. It’s a residential school where children live in families with a couple. Instead of having dorms that are aged based, they all run like siblings, and they eat a meal together as a family each day. And the work then that those kids do is pretty phenomenal.
Here, right in the same town as us, there’s a settlement of Tibetans in exile, and some of what they do is really profound, working with children who have escaped across the border. They have a system where in every bunk bed there’s an older student on the top and a younger student on the bottom, and from the time the younger student arrives, it’s the older student’s responsibility to teach them everything about cooking. They have to cook all their own meals. Cooking, cleaning, life, they’re bonded together, and then that younger student becomes an older sibling for a new student. I think those kinds of relationships have created a really strong community that cares for each other. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in education very much.
There’s a place called Mycelium in North Caroline that’s really inspired me around social entrepreneurship. They have really interesting ideas and run great programmes. Then the last influence I would say is some of the groups that are working around rites of passage and how our current model doesn’t help people know when they’ve become an adult, and the responsibilities that that brings them.
You talked about watching the Trump election. Why is it so important that in 2018 that we focus on imagination do you think?
I think for me the Trump election and subsequent events since then, it’s just so incredibly grim and polarised. I was a history teacher for 15 years, and just to see us repeat the exact same patterns over again, is so incredibly depressing that I think imagination is the rescue. We have to be able to think that there’s another possibility and out of that comes resilience and working towards it, instead of just accepting I guess this is how it is now.
I’ve found myself, in imagination, finding an activism that I never had before, as I practice it more. I think when you practice imagination, and just keep trying new things, you begin to develop more and more confidence that it’s possible. It’s not so crazy that to think that we could find another way forward and reverse some of the trajectories that we’ve been on for the last 150 years.
In the thesis you did, you talked a lot about the link between imaginative education and ecology and nature. Why is that link so important? What happens if we have an education where we don’t have any access to nature, we don’t learn about ecology? What does that bring into your work of trying to nurture imagination that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
Just what I’ve seen since I came back the last couple of years of teaching. How powerful it is, and it happened to me. We are often raised to see ourselves as individuals and be able to imagine that we imagine that we are discreet units. Just regular observation of nature and teaching children to start looking at systems, and their place in a system.
Now I’ve done for three years a project of having them visualise the school, to create a visual map of the school, and every year each child’s project is wildly different, but all of them come to this conclusion of we are completely interdependent. We can’t separate ourselves. Once they see that, it changes the way they see everything else after that. So every issue after they’ve understood – truly understood – interdependence, which I think takes imagination, then they begin to practice this idea that you can’t separate any one thing out.
The whole Gregory Bateson ‘ecology of mind’ piece. That also informs the way that they treat other people, the way that they handle their waste, the way that they consume. All of that is shaped then by this idea that I’m not my own separate entity. All that I do impacts everybody else, no matter how far away that impact might be.