Imagination—the Elements of Teaching 7.1

BEHIND ALL GOOD TEACHING, though rarely acknowledged, lies all teachers' ambition for all students they have ever taught-that their students be more knowledgeable, more open to life, more understanding of the world than when they first entered the teachers' classrooms. Good teachers thus have the ability somehow to imagine themselves in their students' places, and then to help those students imagine themselves in other times, locations, and circumstances not immediately present to their senses and, for the most part, never previously experienced. Teachers-whether teaching physics, literature, or arithmetic thus lose a bit of themselves in their students while helping them lose themselves in their subjects. This is what William James had in mind in his valuable Talks to Teachers. "In teaching, you must simply work your pupil into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach him," he wrote, "that every other subject of attention is banished from his mind; then reveal it to him so impressively that he will remember the occasion to his dying day; and finally fill him with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with the subject are."

The "state of interest" to which James referred can exist only if students' minds are prepared to be interested. Without prepared minds, students are not likely to learn. Yet how do teachers prepare their students' minds? First they learn the ways to interest them-by imagining how to capture their attention, get them to work hard and gain satisfaction from doing so, and make knowledge relevant to their lives. The key to that preparation will differ from student to student. So good teachers try to contrive ways of using their students' varied interests to lead them to learn on their own.

This need to help others transcend their own lives is required by the very challenge of transmitting knowledge; teachers must prepare their students' minds to acquire knowledge by imagining what possessing it might mean for them. The urge to do so is prompted by an empathetic regard for their situations, for they are mostly young, dependent, comparatively ignorant, and inexperienced. They need help, and teachers must figure out how to help them.


In this, imagination has to be assisted by memory. Teachers must summon recollections of their own struggles to learn, must recall their own frustrations and failures to grasp their teachers' lessons when they were at their students' own stage of learning. Imagination must also be complemented by compassion, by a teacher's understanding of the energies students expend and the risks to the accustomed ways of thinking they assume in gaining any knowledge. It is thus imagination, above all other elements
of teaching, that requires teachers to see themselves again at another, earlier stage in life with lesser, because comparatively less formed, intellectual powers- a stage now occupied by their students. The process is much the same as in films and plays, when the director anticipates the impressions of audiences and guides the actors accordingly. Good teachers accomplish the same ends by analogous means; they project themselves into the minds of their students to estimate their capacity for learning, to anticipate their reactions to instruction, and to envision their use of knowledge.

In some respects, there is no such thing as "unimaginative teaching." The term is an oxymoron; the simple act of teaching always involves a stretching of the mind into a fresh state of awareness. But there are unimaginative teachers; they are the ones who make no effort to understand or to enter into their students' minds and spirits or to engage fully the subjects they teach. Yet all teachers, except for the most obtuse and cynical, believe that their teaching will be effective, that their students will learn, and that the goals they set are within their students' reach. That belief is based on the clarity with which teachers can envisage their students' future lives and can articulate a vision of what is possible for their students, who do not yet know what they are capable of achieving.


Imagination is also the quality that allows teachers to tackle subject matter in novel and attractive ways. Playing with knowledge, finding fresh and distinctive approaches to putting facts and arguments together, requires teachers to respond to the interests and situations of their students. Even the most matter-of-fact material, like multiplication tables, gains appeal through relevant examples and illustrated use. Imagination also usually requires casting loose from the contents of textbooks
and prescribed curricular plans. Imaginative teachers illuminate and clarify material before their students encounter it in their textbooks; in that way, students are more prepared and open to the lessons the textbooks have to teach. Imaginative teachers do much more than merely echo those dry if essential books; after all, they know more than the books' authors of the needs and receptivity to knowledge of their particular students.

Imaginative teachers are also sufficiently aware of their students and their place in the world to be able to choose lessons and examples that will prompt their students' more conscious recognition of dimensions of their own lives in the subject matter at hand. This need not-should not-be an intrusion on the privacy of students but a tool that teachers can make good use of in assisting their students to attain new learning and new levels of comprehension.


Anya Lu

Anya Lu