Education for Change: The Role of Creativity and Imagination

July 13, 2020


A year ago, I had left teaching to pursue a new career path . With a passion for nature and a scientific background in ecology, I was looking to find ways to use my skills and knowledge in solving environmental challenges. I signed up for a youth leadership course in climate change with Youth Climate Leaders and also a postgraduate certificate in Social Innovation Management at Amani Institute. Interestingly, I recently came back to teaching, but with a totally new perspective.

 We live in a fast changing world. Ecological, social and economic crises are creeping in from all corners. The spread of the  coronavirus is also a reminder of that. Despite the challenges,  this is one of those moments to critically examine our society and implement the changes for a better future. . So, the thing is, who are those who are able to ask the difficult but necessary questions? Who is going to make it happen?

 We usually say that youth is the hope for our future. They are the ones who will drive change and create solutions that our last century minds cannot even grasp. If this is so, one may wonder how education is supposed to promote that.

 Well, I have been a student for most of my life. From kindergarten until I obtained my PhD there was not a single year when I stopped being a student. Soon after that, I was teaching. And the more I experience this profession, the more I asked myself: what are we really doing? The manner we teach in schools is not only the same as we did it when I was a kid, it is mostly the same way we’ve been doing it for centuries. Sadly, I know this is not a novelty for most of us, however we have not been able to change this reality.

 Education is still one of the areas that are most resistant to change. And when we talk about change we are typically talking about structural and technical modifications. Nonetheless very important, technology alone is not the answer to our current challenges.

 Facing this moment of world crisis caused by a pandemic, we are all immersed in many issues. In the field of education, we may question ourselves what is the role of education in the crisis? Going even further, we ought to discuss how to support youth to face what’s to come. An education attuned to the needs of our society has to serve the purpose of helping youth to navigate the uncertainties of the near future. 

When we talk about finding solutions to face the rapid changes of the future, we are definitely talking about innovation. If we want students to design promising solutions we have to give them the possibility of creation. How can we encourage students to be creative? 

Here are some non-exhaustive highlight points to improve creativity in education:

  Theory sets a strong foundation, but only when debatable.

We don’t have to start from scratch or redesign the wheel. It is absolutely important to understand the knowledge already built by humanity. However, a good scientific understanding also relies on knowing that scientific knowledge is open to be tested. Emphasizing the changing character of science and how it works is crucial to teach knowledge that allows creativity. Of course – and I cannot stress this enough – it does not mean to allow one drawing conclusions based on personal and non-scientific opinion.

2. The problem contains the solution.

Whatever it is that we’re dealing with, we have to engage students to see beyond the problem – or in this case, the disaster. This is a concept of Permaculture and of course, nature itself can be a good teacher. In natural systems, things are as they come, but they are themselves the very elements to endless future possibilities. Understanding and accepting what are the actual elements of a scenario has to be the key for creation.

   3. Creativity needs experimentation.

This is a tricky point. We learn from theory alright, but experimenting allows us to develop other elements of the learning process. Recognizing intuition, exploring curiosity and building resilience are only learned by experimenting. Although theoretical knowledge can (and must) help us to wipe out options that are not valid nor useful, our intuition and curiosity may counterbalance the certainties to push us beyond what’s safe and already known. Another important role in the process of experimentation is played by failure. When well managed, failure leads to resilience and even an upwards boost in curiosity.

  4. Imagination is key to reach the impossible.

Right now, we face challenges that few of us once imagined. Covid-19, climate change, plastic pollution, and a global ecological crisis. We do not have simple or magical solutions to any of these. Notwithstanding, we most probably do not have a single solution to be applied elsewhere. It means we need to create unknown, adaptive, contextualized solutions to address them. Science is deeply connected to both creativity and change. Imagination plays a very important role in science work. Data and theory are of undisputed importance, but imagination and creativity push us to explore and create beyond the fences of what is already known and certain. Proposing exercises to encourage imagination must not only be in the field of Arts, but also in Science if we want to incentivize youth to go beyond what is already known. Fiction, comics, drawings or even the good old questionnaire are tools that can be used to increase the imagination. A questionnaire can propose associations of ideas between reality and fiction, inserting the need for scientific knowledge for resolution, for example, the analysis of a scene or context of a film can raise questions such as “What is observed in this scene? behind these ideas? What is correct or not according to scientific knowledge? How could this scene be recreated considering this discussion? “.

 Darwin, Mendel or Einstein were unable to see or identify exactly what they were dealing with when designing their scientific explanations of the observed world. However, they dared to imagine these explanations. What they proposed was not set exclusively in the field of science, so much as that their theories were not accepted by the scientific community. There was an important component of imagination in their ideas. Now we live in a much different world. Our knowledge and technologies have grown exponentially and, at the same time, we accumulated systemic problems on a larger scale. We need, perhaps as never before, to use creativity and imagination to dare to change it.

If you are a teacher, what activities do you use to stimulate the imagination? What are the ideas that you can try now?

As a student, what is your experience with creativity in education? How would you like to try something new?

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