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Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

The Teaching Profession: Is There Still A Place For Imagination

Against pretending that we have it all figured out

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

—Albert Einstein

I think that we’ve come to a point in public education where we’re worried too much about the “public” and not enough about the “education”. More specifically, we’ve become far too concerned about the way our systems look from the outside that our ideas about what should be happening on the inside have become overly skewed. Consider current obsessions with test scores, international rankings and public satisfaction surveys. Each of these, in their own way, can provide some insight into how a system is doing, but to focus on them as the inspiration for the work that we do in our schools is a little like using gas consumption as the primary indicator of whether your cross-country vacation was a success.

For my blogging colleague, Peter Hennessy, some of the transformation necessary in our schools has to do with looking outwards to the power of community involvement and relationship. I agree with Peter that, teaching and learning that is somehow embedded in the reality and relevance of local communities is extremely vital to the life of authentic school communities.

Yet I continue to do great deal of thinking about the need to look inward as well, inward to the spaces and possibilities that could be created in our schools if we were to begin to honour the role of imagination and creativity. And this week, I find myself thinking specifically of this profession that I call home.

When I first began my life as a teacher, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom to bring my own personality and gifts to a fairly general set of educational aims and objectives. This is what motivated me about the work that I was beginning. I remember spending hours in the evening, on weekends and during summer months collecting ideas, creating lesson and unit ideas and dreaming up new approaches that might engage my students. Of course, many of these dreams and schemes needed to be altered once my students walked into the classroom, but that was OK; it was all part of the process. 

In those days there was a sense in which a teacher’s identity was wrapped up in the way that they taught. There were teachers who were known for their use of media, others for their love of music, and others for their affinity for sports statistics. 

While it could be argued that there is still room for imagination and creativity in the teaching profession, there seems to be a growing positivist approach to our professional lives. In many provinces, as much time is spent on making sure all teachers are using the same teaching approaches and strategies as we used to spend on making our teaching styles uniquely our own. Common resources have been mandated by many school districts. Databases of report card comments have served to take teacher voices out of the mix. And centralized teacher evaluation protocols, coupled with copious amounts of data collection have done a good job of ensuring that compliance trumps creativity. 

The underlying narrative of the profession has shifted. We now tell the story that there is a set of truths about teaching and learning somewhere “out there”. As we speak, these truths are being discovered and collected into a massive database. Our success as teachers relies on our ability to learn and adopt these “best practices.”

That’s it, no need for innovation, no need for copious amounts of creativity and certainly no need for imagination! After all, if we’ve decided that something has been deemed “best practice”, why would we be using anything else?

Now before you get the impression that I’m on an anti-research bent, please know that I love education-based research. But my years in the classroom have also taught me that, while learning is a fairly natural part of being a human being, teaching is not. Sure, we need to listen to the experiences of those who have been this way before. We need to listen to those who have spent much of their life’s work on investigating how human beings learn and how that learning is affected and enhanced. 

But I really believe that we have to drop this notion that it is possible, let alone desirable, to figure this whole thing out. In our efforts to rationalize, and even simplify the process of school-based teaching, we are losing sight of just how complex this project we call school actually is! 

It’s a complexity that requires openness, a sense of adventure and a whole bunch of imagination. I’m afraid that in presenting teaching practice as a given, we’re going to dissuade a large number of people from the profession who possess the artistic sensibility and vision that we so desperately need.

Transformation must respect scientific inquiry and the accompanying rules of evidence provided by that perspective. And, I’ll even agree that some standardization of curriculum is likely a good thing. But there’s something that is being lost in our attempt to make teaching and learning a purely scientific, data-driven undertaking. And what’s being lost is the very thing that is going to help re-professionalize teaching. Our conversations need to become more infused with the language of imagination. It is in doing so that we’ll begin to find room for talk of hope, of possibility and of school systems that promote meaningful learning, civic engagement (and, yes civility) and autonomy

And that is the type of school system that I imagine and dream about!

What about you? What is the role of imagination in the work that you do? Would you like to have more room for imagination and creativity? Do you have stories where you were led more by your imagination than your curriculum guide?