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The Demise of the Imagination

in School

 

BY SIDNEY TRUBOWITZ

I recently visited a middle school classroom where students were making papier-mâché puppets. Paper, paste, paint, glue and scissors absorbed the attention of each boy and girl. It was a scene of creativity unleashed. About 15 minutes into the session, the teacher interrupted the flow of energy to remind six students that they needed to leave for tutoring to prepare for the standardized tests. The teacher informed me that art classes had been cut to make time for test preparation.

As I witnessed this wrenching of students from their immersion in a world of creative expression, I thought about the demise in schools of respect for the imagination; about the tragedy of arts programs having fallen victim to diminishing budgets and shifting values; of missed opportunities for children to air out their heads, permitting fresh views to enter; and of lost moments of pleasure for themselves and those around them.

Schools rarely have nurtured the imagination. In my elementary school days, opportunities for expression of inner feelings and thoughts were limited to copying Thanksgiving pumpkins and winter snowmen and mouthing made-up words to musical selections such as the “Minuet in G Major.” Attention to the teacher’s words and textbook print was demanded. Flights of fancy were anathema.

Artificial Stimuli
Little space for the exercise of the imagination may have existed in my day, but the restraints on students have grown even greater in today’s schools with the emphasis on standardized test scores and the growing popularity of teacher preparation programs designed to capture students’ attention through the application of specific techniques.

I read Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion, in which one of the teaching techniques described involves making certain all students’ eyes always are directed at the teacher. I remember mastering the trick of staring at the teacher while allowing my mind to drift to thoughts of the Brooklyn Dodgers or to the girl up front with the olive skin and soft eyes.

When I visit schools today, I seek without success for students to have moments to daydream, to drift into reveries, to deal with make-believe. The ongoing mantra is “Time on Task.” There are no moments to look out of a window, to enjoy silence, to escape from everyday routine.

Technology has taken over the teaching-learning process. Schools flood children with a variety of artificial stimuli. Computer software and videos present packaged experiences. Children are denied the time, the leisure and the encouragement to take in information, process it, reshape it and make it their own. Instead, they are delivered canned perceptions that inhibit them from taking steps to absorb and internalize the sights, sounds and smells surrounding them. The power of the imagination to deal with things and situations not actively present has been smothered by a need to cover the curriculum and to respond to pressures for high test scores.

With children spending more time in front of television and other electronic screens, their senses barraged by flashing images and crescendos of sound, creating an addiction to a steady input of sensation, it is little wonder that the plaint of teachers is that students come to school expecting to be entertained. What is more, a recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center shows that as children get older, they spend less time with television that has educational value. They gravitate toward programs depicting characters ranging from the cardboard figures of Saturday morning cartoons to the empty-headed people of sitcoms to the purveyors of violence in crime dramas. What is generally offered provides little nourishment for minds that would otherwise soar above the commonplace.

Even reading a book that might be perceived as the imagination’s last frontier has become the target of the testing movement. No longer are students allowed to simply read a book without interruption, to delve into the lives of its characters without a question lurking in the background, to relish the words without the necessity for recording a definition or to be unconcerned about the demand for the omnipresent book report.

Cultivating Creativity
My wish for schools is that they provide time for more periods of silence and play, the handmaidens of the imagination. I envision teachers who themselves read, write, paint, sing or dance and who encourage children to dream and suspend belief. My desire is for a school committed to the view that cultivating a child’s capacity to imagine and create allows access to the vast heritage of human expression.

Sidney Trubowitz, former associate dean of education at Queens College, supervises student teachers at a middle school in Queens, N.Y. E-mail: trubowitzs@aol.com

 

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