Imagination’s Role in the New Culture of Learning

Imagination by Richard Johnson

Learning is an adventure in imagination where context plays a leading role. We have a harder time understanding our world without understanding our worldview. Sometimes we refuse to take in new information because it conflicts with the way we see the world.

In Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Isaacson describes how the scientist came up with some of his theories. He says:

Einstein relished what he called Gedankenexperimente, ideas that he twirled around in his head rather than in a lab. That’s what teachers call daydreaming, but if you’re Einstein you get to call them Gedankenexperimente. As these thought experiments remind us, creativity is based on imagination.

If we hope to inspire kids to love science, we need to do more than drill them in math and memorized formulas. We should stimulate their minds’ eyes as well. Even let them daydream… [The] ability to visualize the unseen has always been the key to creative genius.

As Einstein later put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Thought experiments are useful in that they have as goal to explore the potential consequences of the principle in question. In Thought Experimentation: A Cognitive Approach L.B. Yeats says:

A thought experiment is a device with which one performs an intentional, structured process of intellectual deliberation in order to speculate, within a specifiable problem domain, about potential consequents (or antecedents) for a designated antecedent (or consequent.)

Thought experiments are powerful devices for attenuating belief. Einstein, for example, refused to believe in Black Holes despite evidence that was later developed from his own work. 

Curiosity is a manifestation of imagination. Scientists share one common characteristic with children — they are curious about questions that seem simple on the surface. Things like: What keeps the stars up in the sky? What makes the grass green?

John Seely Brown, visiting scholar and adviser to the provost at University of Southern California and independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge says we should look beyond creativity to imagination:

The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.

On the value of understanding context he says:

It’s easy to hire a “smart” person. But we need people who can read the context of a problem—and that takes more than IQ. Emotional intelligence and social intelligence are worth a fortune.

In A New Culture on Learning, Seely Brown tells the story of how a nine year old was learning to learn from others without actually being formally taught:

Sam went to camp in Chicago where he was learning to program using Scratch. Scratch has an online community where kids like Sam post their games, and other kids not only play but also see the code, modify it, and comment on it.

When we asked Sam what it meant to be a good member of the Scratch community, he didn’t say building games or posting animations. He said, to “not be mean” in your comments. In other words, he got the coding, but the real thing he was learning was how to work with other people effectively. When we asked him what he looked for in other people’s programs, he said, “something really cool you would never know yourself.”

For another example of situational awareness and emotional intelligence, Seely Brown talks about an episode from graduate school that never left him:

When I was in grad school, I worked with Anatol Rapoport. One day this guy came in to give a seminar. At the end, Anatol asked three leading questions that got the guy to realize that what he was saying was wrong. Afterward I said, “I don’t get it. You could have asked one killer question that would have destroyed that guy.” He said, “It takes nothing to make someone look foolish. It takes genius to allow someone to save face and discover something for themselves.”

When we learn to probe the boundaries, compare and contrast different bodies of knowledge, and suspend our belief long enough to let our curiosity take center stage, we build the muscle to understand how systems work. Rather than seeing the world through just one lens — of using ourselves as the only filter — we develop the ability to play with ideas, to see the world in different ways.


[image via Richard Johnson]