Because imaginative thinking hones creativity and improves students’ social and emotional skills, it’s something that teachers and schools should fold into their planning. Ostroff identified several strategies teachers can adopt to encourage older students to activate their dormant imaginations.
Give students more control. Loosening the classroom structure and allowing students more power over their work can activate their curiosity. Ostroff encourages teachers to “flip the system,” so that students understand that the learning is for them, and not the teachers. As a practical matter, this might mean assigning essays and allowing the students to determine their length, or telling kids to turn the papers in when they’re done rather than on a particular day, or simply offering a free-write period, where students write what they please for their eyes only. Teachers also can invite students to decide for themselves how a paper or assignment is assessed, and to encourage kids to reflect on and evaluate their own work. “They start to crack open when they feel like they’re in charge,” Ostroff said.
Have students track their Google searches. Internet search engines can seem to provide all the answers, blocking students from thinking expansively. For Ostroff, “Google is the beginning of the learning, not the end.” She recommends the following assignment: Ask students to Google something that they find intensely interesting. Then, suggest that they click the hyperlink that’s most appealing, and then the one after that. They should keep track of what interested them in each link, so they develop an awareness of their own process. A student might start by searching “Mayans,” then move to “jewelry they wore,” then “precious metals,” then to “mining.” The point is to understand that learning is not simply finding an answer; it’s going deeper to figure out the next question. The first Google search should be the start of a larger inquiry. “Learning is about letting yourself get carried away,” Ostroff said.
Tell collaborative stories. Reading and telling stories is an effective way to learn. To spark imagination, the teacher might start by writing the first few lines of a story or poem on a piece of paper. She then passes the paper to a student, who adds more to the story. Every student receives the paper in turn, but reads only the written contribution of the student before her. (The paper should be folded to conceal all but the most recent addition.) This kind of impromptu storytelling, with its unpredictable outcome, keeps students engaged and thinking creatively.
Try improv. Once the domain of jazz musicians and comedians, improvisation has found its way into businesses and schools. Improv is the practice of telling stories, or playing music, without scripts. One person begins the story with a few lines, and turns to the person next to her to continue it, and so on, until everyone in the group has contributed. The inviolate rule of improv is “yes, and”—meaning every contribution is accepted, regardless of its randomness, and woven into the story. Improv sparks creativity and spontaneity, and its nonjudgmental tone frees up the introverted or fearful. Because improv tends toward playfulness, it also allows some lightness into the classroom, and to learning.
Introduce real-life experiences whenever possible. What might seem bloodless or irrelevant in the classroom can come alive if students see the subject play out before them. To bring energy to science and math, for example, a teacher might take her class to a Maker Faire, where kids (and sometimes adults) use their imaginations and minds to create new things. Ostroff suggests something as simple as taking a walk in pursuit of objects that can be used to build sculptures; or, if a manufacturer is nearby, asking for their remnants to build machines. Another interesting project for teenagers is building a “box city,” in which students construct their own buildings and work to combine them into a model city. Done right, the box city will take into account economics, geography, history and culture, and give children hands-on experience with design and urban planning.
Encourage doodling. Drawing pictures or coloring while listening is both common and useful: it enables the doodler to stay focused and heightens intellectual arousal. Teachers can capitalize on that benefit by including doodling in class work. For example, students can be given notebooks to doodle in when listening, and asked to do a “doodle content analysis” of their scribbles. As well, teachers might ask students to select one or more drawings to modify for an art project, or to combine several doodles into a mural. The point is to be mindful of the value of doodling—how it enhances imagination and improves focus—and to invite students to continue the practice.
Imagine a classroom “creative council.” The council is an imaginary body of visionaries and experts that the students could “create” and then look to for answers to problems. A teacher might ask students to recommend people from the past or present who could “sit” on this council and serve as sources of wisdom. Ostroff writes, “We can tap into their knowledge virtually, by imagining and researching their potential responses and actions.” If students selected Marie Curie, for example, they would speculate about how she would respond to a particular issue. How would she approach the problem? What would she say we’re forgetting? This kind of made-up collective compels students to better understand how another thinks and even provides a kind of “imaginary mentorship.”