21st Century Skills--Imagination
The Pulitzer Prize committee chose not to bestow an award for fiction this year.
Novelist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto and Run) wrote about this decision:
"Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings."
She continues to note that “following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking. . .” and allows us to be “quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.” (NY Times, 4/17/12)
Patchett’s thoughts on imagination took me to a book I’ve just completed, Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers--Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012). Boo is such a graphic writer that it doesn’t require much to visualize the real lives of Abdul, Sunil, and Zehrunisa, some of the 3,000 residents of Anawandi, a collection of 335 slum dwellings in the shadows of the airport. From the trash heaps you could see “how crazy-lopsided all the huts were against the straight lines of the Hyatt and Meridien hotels that rose up behind them.”
Abdul, for example, is a young man whose skill is being able very rapidly to categorize purchased or stolen paper, plastic, metal waste “in order to sell it.” (Categorization/classification fosters cognitive development.) Others in the slum break into the Air India facilities and take apart new construction for the nuts and bolts--again to sell.
What’s amazing about their stories is that there is hope. They go to school; they strive to graduate and move on to become nurses, professionals, even politicians. Manju’s goal was to become Anawandi’s first college graduate.
As one boy said, “Educate ourselves and we’ll be making as much money as there is garbage!”
There was, indeed, hope for the future, for better lives, but it did take intense imagining to place yourself in the skins of these folks struggling toward the light, for freedom from the crippling corruption that riddled every level of civic life.
What we have here is a tale of human aspirations, the same kinds of aspirations we see in page after page of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. When his schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been damaged by storms or by the Taliban, parents became insistent that he and others fix them, do what they could to return their children to the world of books and learning. In one community struck by disaster, education was being conducted in tents until Mortenson delivered the chairs with writing arms with which we are all so familiar.
A better life for our children is what can all imagine and strive for.
The life of the imagination is one of our overlooked basic capacities. It is the fountain of our curiosity about the world. From our imaginations spring forth those alternative worlds that we grow to live within. We become better persons by being able to create pictures in our minds, move them around in the past, project them purposefully into the future and then take actions toward self-actualizing them.
In every classroom we should be fostering the life of our imagination.
“Imagining a life other than our own” is what we do while reading books in every classroom and we can foster this important capacity by challenging students with questions such as:
“What do the characters look like?
Where do you see them?
What do you think they would do under these/different circumstances?
How are you like them?
What would you do in these situations?”
In history, we must engage our imaginations if we are to understand how George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founding fathers felt during the first days of our new republic:
What were they thinking/feeling during these early days?
What were their aspirations?
Why did they advocate the ideas and actions they did?
How do you imagine they would deal with failure/frustration?
What if you had been at the Constitutional Convention how would you have handled representation among states/any issue?
How would any one of them want to change government today?”
In science we invoke our imaginations as the greats have done:
For Richard Feynman scientific thinking “was a process of putting oneself in nature: in an imagined beam of light, in a relativistic electron. (Gleick, 1922, p. 244) He once asked, “How would I behave were I an electron?”
We know of Einstein’s imagining “thought problems” (gedanken) such as “What if I rode along a ray of light? What would I observe?”
These “What if?” questions require using our imaginations to go beyond givens into areas where physical laws do not apply.
And, in math, where do we use our imaginations?
In turning all those SAT figures topsy turvy in the theaters of our minds in order to demonstrate to somebody in college that we have this capacity. . .
In posing our own “What if?” questions that challenge us to take the data and imagine alternative solutions, problems:
What if I try this approach?
Suppose I draw it out?
What can I compare this to? (“Factoring is like. . .”)
Imagine being the tangent to a circle. What is my goal?
How would I graphically describe myself as a math student.
These questions, if they become part of our ways of seeing problems, put us more in control of our own thinking. We manifest what psychologists have called a sense of “agency,” being in command of our own thinking.
As Patchett said, reading and imagining make us more “empathetic beings” and thereby better able to work and live within our several communities.
Our imaginations are gateways to those unexplored territories where we will make discoveries:
“Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”