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  • Jennifer Smith

How Can We Avoid A Failure of Imagination in Education?

Over the course of the past year, I have heard the phrase, “a failure of imagination” replayed over and over in news and expert interviews. From our failure to imagine the pandemic to our failure to imagine citizens may not heed expert advice to the failure to imagine the actions of white supremacist groups. This year, Americans have failed to imagine the possibility of challenges and also effective solutions for the most dire circumstances.


We have been woefully unprepared to face the most challenging situations of our lifetime. And yet, Americans are often noted for their ingenuity. Consider the inventions of electricity, the assembly line, the internet, the personal computer, space shuttle, Post-It notes, social media. For hundreds of years, Americans solved problems and imagined solutions to unique problems. What has happened? How do we harness the imagination of future generations to ensure a successful future?


What is imagination? According to the Google dictionary, imagination is “the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.” Are we losing our ability to be imaginative or refusing our ability to be imaginative?


We did have many individuals using their imagination during the course of the pandemic to solve problems of the crisis. Physicians attempted new treatment strategies, and regular people redesigned ventilators to accommodate more than one patient. Grocery stores redesigned pathways and check out counters. Restaurants offered curbside pickup, family meal plans, and to-go cocktails in order to stay in business. Yet as a society, we needed more creative solutions to managing and living in a pandemic.


Over the course of the last 20 years, our educational system has focused its efforts on developing specific skills. Legislation by policymakers and politicians restructured school systems and forced more standardized testing leaving less time to develop creativity, problem-solving, and imaginative skills. We have emphasized the importance of basic reading, writing, and math skills to the detriment of other important life skills. Understand, I do value the importance of developing basic skills; however, we need to balance our instruction to incorporate creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking to meet the needs of the future.


Having students sit on Zoom for 6 hours a day is not an imaginative solution to education. Granted, schools needed to flip immediately to an online platform to avoid tremendous loss of learning in the spring of 2020. However, where were the creative thinkers during the summer months? Why were we not imagining and dreaming what education could be like? Why were we not imagining unique solutions to engage students both in-person and online? Why were we not imagining scenarios to bring back small groups of students safely? Guidelines were put into place by medical experts, state education boards, and administrators. Where were those that spend their days in the classrooms in these decisions? Why did leaders not imagine that teachers and students would have creative solutions to difficult problems? Where was the imagination?


Disney is heralded as one of the most imaginative companies in the world. The worlds Disney has created are unbelievable and incite curiosity and wonder to all who visit. In order to do so, Disney has a group of coveted thinkers, the Imagineers. The Imagineers are credited with creating some of the most engaging and creative elements of the Disney theme parks. Ideas are welcomed. Questions are posed. Creativity is not dismissed. We need to create an educational system more like the Imagineers.


Imagination is a muscle. The more we work the muscle, the stronger it will become. When we expose students to new ideas and challenges, the muscle is flexed and grows. When we provide children with space to dream, create, and design, the muscle strengthens.


Moving forward, we need to allow and provide space for educators to reimagine teaching. We need to redesign programs that allow for creativity and imagination. We need to provide opportunities for students to dream, question, and wonder. We need to allow students to ask, “what if?” and “why not?”. We need to expose students to new ideas, allow them to collaborate and hear others’ ideas. We cannot spend our time teaching only content and basic skills. We cannot dismiss students’ inquiries. We must encourage the dreams, aspirations, and ideas of educators and students alike.


Our lives may depend on it.





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