Why Educate the Imagination?
by Austin Clarkson
Austin Clarkson is the director of Milkweed Collective, a musicologist and a teacher
Based in the Greater Toronto Area, the Milkweed Collective is dedicated to practicing the arts as a means of promoting personal growth in a community context. The group, which formed in 1995, includes award-winning painters and poets, print-makers and installation artists, therapists and educators. Since 2000, the Milkweed art shows and workshops on the creative process have inspired children, youth, and adults to discover their potential through the joy and wonder of making and appreciating art.
The following article has been taken from the Collective's January 2009 Newsletter.
The struggle between the claims of the reason and the imagination is as old as education itself. Shakespeare envisioned a happy truce in A Midsummer Night's Dream with the marriage of Theseus (Reason) and Hippolyta (Imagination). During the Enlightenment Reason divorced the Imagination and they did not resume relations until the 19th century, with the discovery of the unconscious. Educational reformers-among them, John Dewey, Arnold Gesell, Rudolf Steiner and Lev Vygotsky-championed creativeness, symbolic thinking, and the self-directed maturation of the child. After World War II cognitive science, behaviorism, analytical philosophy, and the computational model of the brain reasserted so-called "scientific thinking." Jean Piaget and his followers viewed the "magical thinking" of children as a passing phase on the way to mature cognition, which should be relatively free of symbolic representations. The pendulum is swinging again, and during the last twenty years a growing roster of educators is promoting the education of the imagination-Elliot Eisner, Maxine Green, John Miller and Bernard Neville. Notable is Kieran Egan and his Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University.1
Findings from depth psychology and neuroscience now confirm what musicians, dancers, actors and athletes have known for countless generations: with focused attention and strong intention, the mind and the body become a seamless entity of the intended action and the action itself. The mental focus of the student is now recognized as a crucial factor in learning. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz observed that sustained mental and physical exercises with stroke patients can restore impaired functions. He concluded that intention is made causally efficacious through attention.2 Norman Doidge, who surveyed the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity, states that the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it; the mental practice of imagining an activity produces observable changes in the structure of the brain.3 Evidence of the brain's ability to transform itself through sustained, intensive exercise of the imagination presents a powerful argument for refashioning the curriculum so that the metaphorical, affective, and holistic contributions of the right hemisphere are given as much attention as the logical, conceptual, and verbal abilities of the left hemisphere.
The 2008 Annual Report of People for Education notes that the emphasis on mass testing in literacy, math and science in England and North America has resulted in a two-tier curriculum in which the arts are relegated to the bottom tier.4 Since the Ontario Ministry of Education does not dedicate funds for specialists in the arts, less than half of all the elementary schools in the Province have a part or full-time music teacher, only 14% of middle schools have a visual art teacher, and a mere 6% have a drama teacher. The situation in high schools, where arts courses are few and enrolments are very low, is no better. 5
The Exploring Creativity in Depth program was adapted from a university course on the creative imagination that was designed to activate the deep structure of the creative process. One of the exercises developed in the course was for focused viewing of a visual artwork. The exercise was incorporated in an interpretive exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1993.6 Of the many thousands of visitors who sat in the booth during its ten years of operation, 1500 left Share-Your-Reaction Cards that reported in words and drawings that the exercise had transformed their experience of the painting. The exercise then became the basis of the daylong workshop Exploring Creativity in Depth.7
At first we gave the program to grades 5 to 8 only. It was so popular that teachers of primary grades asked to bring their classes. With their help we adapted the program so that we now can serve all elementary grades from 1 to 8.
At the end of the program the children fill out a questionnaire that asks what they learned about the imagination, about art, about themselves, and about their classmates. The responses indicate that their education was almost entirely lacking in attention to the imagination. In answer to "What did you learn about your imagination?" they say: "I learned that I have an imagination because before I thought I didn't have one" (boy, gr. 4). "I never knew I had this imagination. I unlocked my imagination" (boy, gr. 5). Hundreds report that they had no idea their imagination was so huge, wild, amazing, free and powerful. They say that now they can travel anywhere they want in their imagination. Some even say that the imagination is better than TV and video games.
The discovery of a hitherto unknown capacity of the mind has remarkable effects on the child's sense of his or her identity: "My imagination can go wild and it's not the same as anyone else's" (girl, gr. 5). "We can find stuff we never knew" (boy, gr. 5). "My imagination literally has no limits" (girl, gr. 5).8 They recognize that the creative imagination is distinct from rational cognition. Nine- and ten-year-olds said: "I found out more than I knew." "Your imagination is a mind of its own." "The things that come out of your mind don't also have to be what you think." Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds differentiate between the reason and the imagination in more sophisticated ways: "I have a lot of things stored up in my mind waiting for me to imagine them." "What you think you see when you look at a painting isn't always what your mind and imagination and soul see." "Everyone has an imagination even if they don't think they do." "I learned my imagination would also make me creative."
When the deep structure of the creative process is activated, the emergent images are loaded with affect: "I learned a new method to start painting and that you can draw from your emotions." "My imagination is crazy but has a lot of feelings and I have a lot of love." "I found out a place I should go in my imagination when I'm sad, mad." "Everyone has different feelings that they bottle up and don't know how to deal with them." Children recognize that they must take responsibility for this newly discovered capacity of the mind: "My imagination can open doors for all kinds of arts and it's my job to use it." "Your imagination will take you anywhere you want to go and you shouldn't be afraid to show that." "Your imagination doesn't have an end. And you should use it to your best."
In small groups the children engage with the images and feelings of their pictures and begin to appreciate their gifts, and the teachers notice an increase in confidence and self-esteem: "I never thought my imagination was so deep. I found out my artwork symbolizes me." "I found out my ideas are really good, and if I look into them I will be good." "I can draw anything I want, even if none like it." "We are all equal in art." Respectful sharing of creative work increases empathy, mutual respect and reciprocity in the class." Asked what they learned about themselves and their classmates, students from a school in a "high needs" area of the city said: "They all try their best and work hard, so just appreciate what they did" (boy, gr. 5). "The more you try, the more you will achieve something in life" (girl, gr. 5). "All of us could bond together and have fun as a class" (girl, gr. 7). "I have come through many hardships, but there is always hope" (girl, gr. 7). "One of my classmates loves to have peace over hatred" (boy, gr. 8). "They have different perceptions on every piece of art" (girl, gr. 8). 9
The attitude to art changes dramatically. Many say that they thought art was boring, but now they see that it is "fun" and "cool." In answer to the question, "What did you learn about art?" grade 5 students said: "Art is awesome!" "Art can transform things." "Art is your imagination in disguise." Students from another school wrote: "Art is the best thing ever" (boy, gr. 3). "There's no right answer in art. It's endless. Like 2+2=4, there's only one answers" (girl, gr. 5). "Everyone is an artist. Even with less answer. In art there are hundreds and hundreds of or more effort art makes everyone beautiful in a way" (girl, gr. 5). "Art is everything. Art is made from feelings, experiences and creativity" (girl, gr. 8).10
Most classroom teachers do not have an arts background and so lack the ability to meet the many expectations in music, drama, and visual art that are mandated by the Ontario curriculum. Children in schools that lack arts specialists (that is most junior schools and many middle schools) are thus deprived of an educated imagination.11 The teachers say on the feedback forms that the ECD helps them to meet the curriculum expectations in the arts. They also observe positive changes in the children's desire to engage in art, to use the creative imagination, to pay attention, and in empathy and social skills. In post-program interviews teachers say that they have applied the ECD approach to other subject areas, including language arts, social studies, math and science. Their lessons combining the imagination and the reason are being plans for compiled in an ECD Handbook for Teachers.
An assessment of the 2007-2008 ECD programs analyzed feedback forms from nearly 400 students from grades 3 to 8. The study found that 97% of females and 90% of males gave positive responses to the question, "What did you learn about your imagination?" Their answers fell into the following categories:
The assessment concluded that the ECD program "promotes a greater understanding of art and creativity through personal growth while supporting peer relations in a cooperative learning environment," and that it "offers students an opportunity to develop greater self esteem and confidence in their abilities while appreciating individual differences among classmates."13
An assessment of the 2005-2006 programs compared the ECD to similar arts programs provided by the City of Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Art Gallery of Ontario and found that the ECD provides a "level of personal creative exploration that can be found only in much more costly programs." It concluded that the ECD program is an "ideal mix of affordability, the attainment of visual arts curriculum expectations, and most importantly, the authentic exploration of individual creativity and imagination." The report recommended strongly that the program be expanded in future years.14
The demand for the ECD program has in fact increased, and we supply as many programs as we can afford. Each class that comes demonstrates that activating the imagination and channeling the emergent images and feelings into pictures and creative writing has a powerful effect on the child's sense of authentic identity and motivation for learning. As one ten-year old said, "Art is your imagination in disguise." Art is a conduit for the exchange of meanings between the unique reality of the child's inner world and the collective reality of the social outer world. Art is thus both means and end. As a means, art subsumes imaginative and rational realities in a more comprehensive mental standpoint, while as an end art fascinates the child with the wonders and wisdom of the human condition.