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Imagination—the Elements of Teaching 7.2

Being infinite in its range and variety, how can imagination
serve teaching?

Imagination in teaching begins with confidence that knowledge is transfirable. Teachers cannot teach without hope, without the conviction that their efforts to bring what they know to the attention of their students and to introduce them to the possibility of a similar level of understanding will be effective. Teachers must believe that there will always be some chink or aperture, no matter how well hidden and obscure, which they can widen into an avenue for discourse between one mind and another; they must believe in the ability of others to gain knowledge, and then they must visualize how they can best get them to receive it. Teachers of first-year Spanish know that all students in their classes have the capacity to speak Spanish more fluently than they think they can; but which of the students believes this to be possible? The cry from them is always, "This is too hard! We can't understand it! We'll never learn it!" The teacher's response must always be, "I know. That's the way it was for me, too. At first, it seemed impossible. But look, it's not so hard. Even I learned it! Let me explain. Of course you can understand. You'll be able to learn this. Let me show you how."

Imaginative teachers find their own ways to enhance learning.Finding those ways is part of the true art of teaching because the ways of helping others to learn are infinitely varied. Each student, each classroom, each subject, and each occasion challenges each teacher to reconsider the best means of introducing knowledge to others. In reevaluating each new situation, a teacher must always be aware of changes, however slight, in each student; a teacher's response to new circumstances must be fresh. Thus imagination is among the most demanding components of teaching, for the success of teaching depends largely on a teacher's rigorous and continual evaluation and reevaluation of students' moods, maturity, aptitude, attitude, and character. To know students well, to understand how their minds work, to recognize their limitations and deficiencies-these are all necessary for excellent teaching, and they are all achieved by the exercise of the imagination.


Though teachers' own lives may be enriched by their work, it is the lives of their students that ought to be transformed by knowledge; to achieve this, teachers must project themselves into those other minds. In this way, imaginative teachers understand students well enough to anticipate and remove their difficulties and confusion in confronting any new body of material even before their students identify those difficulties. Yet the virtues of careful planning must be balanced by spontaneity, by a teacher's comfort in the unplanned and unrehearsed. It requires confidence for teachers to launch themselves into uncharted flights of experiment and play, for freshness and charm can result in bumpy landings. But as long as such voyages are closely linked to the subject their students are studying, the excitement and enthusiasm they generate make the risks involved worth taking.


Imagination means visualising students'futures.Teaching is never an act unto itself; it always invites students to enter into a world of infinite possibilities of thought and vision. And yet the purpose of teaching is to enrich students' minds and spirits so that they can lead full lives through their understanding of life itself. How they will do so, and how well, can never be known to a teacher inadvance. But it is in a teacher's power-indeed it is a teacher's responsibility-to envision what knowledge can mean to the students in any particular class; no less important is envisioning what that knowledge might mean later and helping students to understand that, too. This often means that teachers must relate to their students how particular knowledge has affected their own lives, or help them to see how mastery of particularly difficult material-say, mathematical equations for those anticipating business careers, or the histories of other nations for those who wish to become diplomats-might advance their prospects to achieve what they seek. Knowledge can then be seen to open not just students' minds but possibilities in their lives; teaching then becomes a key into others' futures, and it helps get them there.

Imagination anticipates the needs and reactions of students. "Imagination," wrote Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "bodies forth the forms of things unknown." And as we all know, the unknown stimulates fears as easily as it generates hope. Teachers must present what students do not yet know in attractive and positive forms; and by understanding their students' uncertainty when facing strange obstacles, they will be assisted in this task. They must convince students that they can master new subject matter, play with new knowledge, and create their own understanding of the world. Such confidence, which is founded on a teacher's own experience and knowledge, is infectiouswhen imagination works to make it so. If students have confidence in their teachers, they will also have confidence in their ability to learn and to succeed.


Imagination enhances and facilitates the presentation of subject matter. Embarking on a new topic in the classroom is always a difficult and delicate matter.1.Textbooks do not usually offer teachers much help with the preparation of their students for the shock of the new. In an English grammar textbook, a chapter on participles, for example, will often offer a definition, identify the forms of participles, list examples, and provide some rules for the use of verbal adjectives in sentences, and it may end with a warning against unattached or "dangling" participles. Yet merely escorting students through the chapter will have little effect on their understanding. Imaginative teachers will go further by considering the role of participles in describing the lives of their students. They may make a list of pertinent phrases- watching television, eating lunch, driving cars, reading books-and then point out the difference between verbal nouns, or gerunds, and verbal adjectives, or participles. "A writing desk," they will insist, "is a desk designed for writing, while a writing student is not a surface suitable for inscription." In other words, 2.good teachers will make the strange familiar and the unintelligible obvious by imagining their students' difficulties in advance.


Imagination in teaching means being successfully creative. Imaginative teachers believe that teaching, as an art, involves fashioning qualities in their students that were not present before. Effective teachers every day manage to transform uncertainty into knowledge-an achievement that approaches the alchemy of making something from nothing. And while every such success is unique, each has predictable attributes. Each usually requires departure from routine, even an inversion of customary practice, to achieve its effects. It often involves taking risks. It may take the form of announcing at the first meeting of a class that everyone starts with the grade of F and must work to deserve better, or its opposite-that everyone starts with an A and must work to keep the grade there. And if a teacher's creative attempt fails one day, the next day imagination must work to find a more effective route to pedagogical success. For what teachers are seeking to do is to rivet their students' attention on study, to encourage aspiration, and to inspire learning.

Imagination introduces surprise and excitement into teaching. While some predictability is essential to teaching and learning,especially in the early grades, students regard imagination, which to them connotes the unpredictable, the fantastic, the mysterious, and the make-believe, as their particular province. And should they not? The games that begin with "Let's pretend . ." and the flights of fancy launched with "Let's suppose. . ." are so common among children that the young are often surprised and delighted to discover imagination in their teachers. Those teachers are the ones who can bring theory to life; who put on costumes, makeup, or masks to impersonate historical characters; or who devise field trips that turn regional resources into sites of learning. Imagination that is yoked to learning and experience can carry students far beyond the reach of their own imaginative powers. Imagination kindles imagination.

Teaching is always an act of faith. It requires that teachers perform unceasing imaginative leaps to conceive what may be possible for others to learn and to do, to think and to feel. Teachers must venture into the expansive realm of possibilities; they must continually suspend any fear that something may not be within reach of their students. It is this quality of suspending fear that makes great teaching evangelical and sometimes irresistible. Its power arises from a teacher's sustaining faith in the capacity of knowledge and understanding to enrich life, even when faced with the customary intractability of the human mind to enlarge itself. In this urge to conceive correctly what others may know and what they may accomplish with knowledge lie the sources of effective teaching and the resources with which teachers continually replenish themselves.

Imagination in teaching thus has more to do with potential than with realization. It allows a teacher to take each achievement of instruction as an invitation to envisage the outcome of the next challenge and the ones after that, to picture the realization of that which has not yet been realized. Like so many other dimensions of teaching, imagination is a quality of vision and spirit; it must be summoned from within.


Imagination—the Elements of Teaching 7.2
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