Teaching Imagination

I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about how to innovate education. So that’s why this Good Magazine article caught my eye. It’s about an organization who wants to prepare children for jobs that don’t exist yet. It’s about the future of education.

And their solution is simple: teach imagination.

This irks me.

“Imagination” is an abused word. We colloquially use it to describe “creativity” or “thinking outside the box.” But, really, imagination is rooted from the word “image.” It is the process of turning something non-visual — or non-sensory — into concrete concepts in our minds. That conversion is crucial for a child’s development. It allows a child to take an abstract concept, like “democracy” or “multiplication,” and turn it into real-world things. So, yes, that’s important. But this isn’t the solution to education. Instead, imagination — or at least practical imagination — is something we need to teach, just like mathematics and history.

Let me be more concrete:

When I was in high school, I was a teacher as a place called Kumon, which is basically an after-school education program. I taught advanced math — and I taught it to 10-year-olds. Now, it’s important to understand how Kumon works. There is no actual teaching. They are simply pushed through a series of worksheets, each building upon the other. So my job was simply to grade the worksheets and, often times, it was the advanced mathematics worksheets.

So twice a week, a whole bunch of 10-year-old kids would come to me with crazy calculus problems and ask me if they “got it right.” Most of the times, I didn’t even know how to do the problems. So one day, I asked one of the kids to show me how he worked through it. And he was able to articulate it in five steps. I was impressed. So then I asked him what this meant — how it applies to the world. He had no idea.

Often times, math is simply about moving the numbers around the page — in the right way, of course. It’s not about understanding the symbols on the page. It’s about remembering the steps and executing them. Kids are basically trained to be calculators, albeit cuter — although the cuteness goes away when they start doing integral calculus.

Anyway, this is why imagination is important. Schools often teach concepts, and they assume children will naturally create accurate, real-world images in their heads. But if they were never taught how to imagine something — or how to convert complex ideas into pictures — school becomes an exercise in memorization and execution. So when a teacher talks about multiplying fractions, it takes a lot of work for students to convert the symbols into pictures. Sometimes, we try to teach by using pictures — but, inevitably, we have to convert back to symbols because that’s how we can interact universally with math. And we have the same problem.

So yes, we need to teach imagination. But that’s not the problem.

The first problem is: We have to understand imagination.

The second is: We need to teach imagination. And that means giving them the right tools to be able to imagine. So what’s the key?

We need to teach them how to relate seemingly disparate things.

Think about a child’s brain as a computer. The child only knows things he has absorbed through his senses. So the kid has a whole bunch of disparate parts of knowledge in his or her head. However, the way those parts become a rich knowledge base is by connecting those pieces. Most of the times, connecting the pieces is easy, especially when it has to do with survival. But when we get to school, the connections are increasingly harder. And once we introduce symbols, most kids are lost; the connections are no longer there.

But what if we taught kids how to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas? For example, what if you took kids outside to play capture the flag. And then you brought them in and talked about how it relates to the Civil War. At first, it would be hard. In fact, if you’ve been a teacher, you’re probably saying to yourself: “My kids would be silent and lost.” But that’s exactly the problem! When we teach, we forget that we’re using huge metaphors; we forget to relate convert it back to the real world.

There are some math teachers who do this very well. But it shouldn’t just be about math; it should be about showing students how to connect all the subjects. It should be about teaching kids to relate ideas — maybe football and math, or Pokemon and history — in preparation for the rest of their lives. (And, come on, wouldn’t you love to read a paper about Pokemon and European history?)

Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. He said this because, when developing his revolutionary theories, he didn’t usually work in his notebook with mathematic equations. Instead, he would think about crazy fantasies or he would play the violin. And somehow, he would connect ideas from these random activities to how the universe works — and that led to brilliant innovation.

Einstein values imagination more than knowledge because knowledge leaves a lot to be desires. It’s like having the bricks for a house, but not knowing how those bricks connect or interact. That means we have no idea how the bricks can stack to build a sturdy house. We need to teach how those bricks relate and how they may stack. And from there, more builders may find new ways of stacking and new ways of building.

Why is this important? Well right now, thousands of people are in downtown New York, protesting the inequality in America. They want to fix the problem with new laws and regulations. But instead, as Nicholas Kristof points out, we don’t need to create new systems of equality. Instead, we need to create new Americans, smarter Americans. Once people understand how the bricks in their world relate, they’ll know when someone is trying to remove the cornerstone from their home — and they’ll stop it when it happens, not when their house collapses.

Special thanks to my Powerful Ideas group on education, who got me thinking about ideas.

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