Curiosity and Imagination

Senior Consultant to Avenues: The World School

Editor’s note: Edward (Ned) Hallowell, M.D. is a child and adult psychiatrist, author and senior consultant to Avenues. He writes periodic blog posts that appear here.

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“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.”
—Samuel Johnson, 1751

“He that imitates the divine Iliad does not imitate Homer.”
—Edward Young, 1759

“As a rule, indeed, grown-up people are fairly correct on matters of fact;
it is in the higher gift of imagination that they are so sadly to seek.”
— Kenneth Grahame, 1895

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What distinguishes a great education from a good and solid one is the extent to which the student’s curiosity and imagination flourish and grow and the extent to which a student remains curious and loves the life of the imagination after school is done.

One can be well educated but emerge from the process knowing a lot but unable to conceive of anything new. Indeed, the very notion of rigor in education—so often equated with excellence—usually corresponds to the degree a student can recall facts, recite ideas and master material more advanced than most students of like age. Rigor rarely refers to a student’s ability to ask deep questions or create something new on his or her own.

In our information age, an age in which fear looms over schools like an ominous ghost threatening doom to those who fail to excel, tests define excellence, and tests rely primarily upon the mastery of prescribed facts, techniques and skills.

Without meaning to, and in an effort to provide the best education, many of the best schools kill the fire within the minds of their students as they weigh them down with massive amounts of reading, problem sets and data to commit to memory, all in the name of rigor and its sibling, excellence.

In so doing, they provide their students with a good and solid education; they turn out young people who as adults will never be embarrassed at a dinner party because they do not know who de Kooning is or who wrote the Decameron; and they graduate students who will perform admirably and reliably in whatever path they follow.

But these students will not likely find new paths. During their education they lose whatever they might share with a de Kooning or a Boccaccio. By not putting a premium on curiosity and imagination, by trivializing personal expression as self-indulgent or scorning off-beat ideas as irrelevant or impractical, schools may indeed prepare students to work at a high level in business or the professions. But they do not prepare them to lead the world, to discover new knowledge or to relish the life of their own minds. They prepare them to be “realists.” Unintentionally, these schools can become dream breakers, not dream makers.

How important it is today for schools and parents to promote not just the acquisition of knowledge but also the preservation and promotion of qualities with which every child is born: curiosity and imagination. Today, more than ever, the world needs innovative solutions, outside-the-box thinking, creativity in its many forms and ideas that turn old notions upside down or inside out.

Some say curiosity and imagination can’t be taught. But they need not be taught, since we are born with these qualities. However, as we grow up, these qualities can be destroyed. Or they can flourish. So much depends upon what the culture does, what the school does, what parents do and what peers do.

How can one help curiosity and imagination to flourish? Here are five simple ways. There are millions more.

  • Ask questions. Always ask questions. At dinner, in the classroom, in the car, ask questions. Encourage children to do the same. Questions instantly activate imagination, unless they are put-you-on-the-spot test questions. So ask questions that probe: “How could President Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address so quickly?” “Why did Grandma burn the cookies?” “Is the set of odd numbers smaller than the set of whole numbers?” “How can one infinite set be smaller than another?” “What causes tides?” “What does falling in love mean?” “When does a child become a grown up?”
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  • Give each student—or your child—a pile of junk. The assignment is to make something out of the junk. You can leave it at that or specify a certain characteristic, like make something that can fly, or can float, or looks like a certain animal.
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  • Have off-beat days or portions of days, like a backwards day when you have to say the opposite of what you mean; or a silent time, when you must communicate without sound; or a discovery day, where each student must discover something about the world that he or she had not known before, then report back; or a strange person assignment, in which each student invents a strange person, then imagines how a real person could get that way.
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  • Do automatic writing. Each student puts pen or pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard and writes automatically, putting down everything that comes to mind without any care for order, sense or reason.
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  • Do dream reports. Assign each student to keep a dream diary for a week, then share with the class those dreams he or she is comfortable with sharing. Discuss where dreams come from and what, if anything, they mean.

These kinds of exercises pull for imaginative engagement. They encourage curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking. It is a mistake to assume only certain people can develop curiosity and imagination. Everyone can.

Great schools—and great parents—take seriously the playful sport of promoting curiosity and imagination … because they know the world depends upon it.