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Imagination in the Classroom
By Scott Noppe-Brandon

In 2006, Lincoln Center Institute created an Imagination Award. The award is to be distributed annually to a selected candidate among public schools that meet specific criteria designed to show that these schools value imagination as a tool that can be used in shaping young minds. Candidate schools must both teach with imagination and promote learning with imagination.

The idea of the Imagination Award has received wide support. We hope to extend the competition nationwide, but more than that, we hope that the idea of the imagination as central to education will have a life of its own: for instance, we’re talking with Eric Liu, author of Guiding Lights, an inspirational volume on mentorship, about a possible book about the meaning and importance of the imagination. It’s an important step for the Institute, an important step for the world of ideas.

In my discussions about imagination with friends and colleagues, I find that sooner or later we ask ourselves a basic question: What exactly is imagination? Or, what do we think it is?

I’ve been advocating its merits in education for years, and I’ve done my research. It turns out that imagination is different things to different people. Educator John Dewey said something lovely, which I can really identify with; he said: “there is always some measure of adventure in the meeting of mind and universe, and this adventure is, in its measure, imagination.”

On Wall Street, imagination is the great new product, or the art of the deal: it’s the sharp end of the competitive edge. To many scientists, as everything else we do, it is a result of a chemical reaction in the brain.

I am very fond of the notion of imagination as empathy, defined in simple terms as the ability to put yourself into other people’s shoes and feel what they feel. Our world has always been a place of turmoil as much as of joy, and without the nurturing of that ability, I shudder to think what sort of people we would have become. Would we care about Darfur, about the victims of hurricane Katrina, about anything outside of the narrow parameters of our lives?

In his song Imagine, John Lennon asked all of us to imagine a different, better world, a world without war and fear.

To us at Lincoln Center Institute, imagination is all of those things: the special energy that goes into the creative process of artists, and certainly a way to create a better world. Both begin with imagination.

It is important to understand that the imagination is a skill that can be taught and applied. The world will not change if we merely imagine it changing—it is necessary to know how to translate our imagining into action.

That is the Institute’s basic belief. When we launched the award, I spoke before an assembly that included students of the school in which the ceremony took place, and I knew that I had to convey that call to action as strongly as I could, because if I were fourteen, my first thought would be: an award for being able to imagine—you must be kidding me! I can imagine stuff all day… How about space aliens? How about playing air guitar?

No, I had to tell them. There is a difference between imagining something and stopping there and expressing it through a concrete form that others can witness. Playing air guitar doesn’t mean you actually know how to play the guitar, and if you never make the effort of putting study next to your imagination and you’re still doing windmills through the air when you’re forty, people will laugh at you.

Knowing how to shape imagination into a constructive, productive process, is a tremendous achievement: it is knowing how to harness energy and power. In academic terms, it is a rigorous task, a discipline. It requires teachers who can guide students while encouraging their imaginations, and it requires the will and the effort on the part of the student to make it work.

The idea of an imagination award really came out of a larger initiative at Lincoln Center Institute. Years ago, we started something called The Imagination Conversation, where we hosted seminars around the country and brought together people from completely different walks of life—artists, politicians, journalists, scientists, poets. The discussion focused on the effect that the imagination had in their lives and their work. Some of them were surprised to find that it had any place at all in their careers; a diplomat, for example, thought of himself as fact-driven public servant; “imagination” sounded frivolous in his mouth; yet he came out of the seminar having discovered that he often relied on his imagination for the most delicate decisions.

Imaginative problem-solving is hardly limited to the classroom. There is never a “grown-up time” when we don’t need it: think about seeking employment; think about parenthood. Among the children who study in a Lincoln Center Institute environment, there are those who will apply imagination to the way they live their lives day after day. I believe that the Institute’s approach to teaching and learning can help them do it productively. Some will become artists or businessmen and businesswomen, others will dedicate their time to their families or the preservation of nature—all of them will carry in them the endless possibilities for which imaginative teaching will have prepared them.

Nothing could make me happier than to think that they will rely on imagination as they invent spacecraft or to be the best possible teachers or parents they can be. But I also hope that they will go beyond pragmatic uses of the imagination. That they will use it to ask themselves such questions as, who am I? What do I want to do in this world? That they will use it to interact with each other and with all the people of the earth with open arms. As John Lennon said, “You may say I’m a dreamer—but I’m not the only one.”#

Scott Noppe-Brandon is the Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute in NYC and a regular contributor to Education Update.



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