Monday, February 11, 2008

How Can We Create an Imagine Nation?

How about a little stream-of-consciousness blogging? Let's start with this:
  1. Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination.
  2. Build capacities of the imagination by supporting time and resources for an education in and through the arts.
  3. Support integrated and interdisciplinary processes and approaches. Save money and time by organizing discrete subjects around a thematic interdisciplinary process.
  4. Relate to learner lifestyles. Know your learner audiences and adjust to contemporary methods.
  5. Teach beyond assessment. Move beyond average and scoring that focuses on the minimum, which ultimately stifles students and educators alike.

These are the five recommendations for educators and policy-makers made in the executive summary of The Imagine Nation report. They seem to make sense for me on a very general level but, at the same time, they seem to ring hollow. Perhaps it wasn't the purpose of the report to provide specific recommendations, but the language is so vague that it undercuts the overall message. What is an "innovative teaching style" and what are "contemporary methods"? How do we "teach beyond assessment"?

Moving beyond the vague language, it seems like these suggestions aren't revolutionary. Innovative education styles, arts education, interdisciplinary learning, addressing different learning styles, and teaching beyond assessment are all ideas that have been around for years and ones that are widely accepted as good educational practice (well, except maybe for arts education!). But, for some reason, we don't do these things in our educational system. It reminds me of Paulo Freire when he states, "An educational practice in which there is no coherent relationship between what educators say and what they do is a disaster."

Hmm... Well, where does this disconnect come from? I'd assume (and maybe that's a bad assumption!) that the vast majority of teachers learn this stuff (well, once again, maybe not arts education!), but the report seems to indicate that teachers don't already practice this otherwise they wouldn't report it. Why doesn't this happen? Is it about the need to demonstrate a learning process in this standards-based environment? (Isn't being able to demonstrate knowledge the goal of the teaching/learning process?) Is it about the system? Is it about teachers and the lack of training in "building the capacities of imagination" of our students? How can we expect imagination in our classrooms when the way we train teachers seldom--if ever at all!!--does not foster imagination?

You know, I find myself even more confused than usual at the moment. We talk about imagination in class and even a class of 40 people who are supposed to value "imagination" can't define what it is or how it can be carried out in the classroom. We may have some ideas, but how do we build these activities to scale and create the change that The Imagine Nation advocates for? Is that even possible? I'd like to "Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination" or follow through with any of the other vague goals of The Imagine Nation, but I'm having a very difficult time--and perhaps I'm showing my impatience--but I'm anxious to move away from the theoretical and experimental and start to get to the somewhat more concrete.

In the arts, we often locate ourselves in the process; we often savor the experimentation phase and I think that is a big strength of the arts. But sometimes, I also think we get stuck there and that can be our downfall. For a federal, state, or even a local policy-maker, I doubt that the findings of The Imagine Nation report would create much action. I'm certainly not an expert on surveys but I found the phrasing of their questions to be somewhat manipulative. How can you disagree with the following statements? "Using imagination is important to innovation and one's success in a global, knowledge-based economy." "Imagination is essential to success in the 21st century." It's not surprising that nearly 90% said yes given the choice between yes and no. But it's when you weigh imagination vs. other curricular goals (that may be more demonstratable) like minimal competency for all students, equality of educational opportunity, math skills, and knowledge of history that imagination falls by the wayside. How do we ensure that it doesn't? Or how do we create educational opportunities that suggest that all of this and more can be done with our students and our society?

It's not that I hate "process" or don't find the work enjoyable or valuable, but I have a fear that I will find myself stuck in the experimental and questioning stage. In essence, I don't want to be so immersed in the theoretical that I neglect the practical. If we aren't satisfied with the educational practice, how do make it better match what we say it should be? What have people done with imagination that have worked? What was successful about them? Is that transferable and/or scalable?

S-301 is dedicated to the research, policy and practice. I'm not under any sort of illusion that anything will be solved by studying these aspects of arts in education, but I am excited to see what happens as we shift our focus. Onwards and upwards!