As we approach Christmas, I wanted to share a few words with you about imagination. I was drawn to this theme for my latest blog for two reasons:
First, I was asked to say a few words to the school leavers from John Taylor High School at their Post-16 Presentation Evening this coming week, and I was drawn to look at some of the words I said to them in an assembly when they started at the school seven years ago. Speaking to them about seizing the opportunities ahead, I shared with them an anonymous quotation: “The young are not bound by the prudence brought by experience. Because of this, they attempt the impossible – and they achieve it, generation after generation.” I believe that this is very true, and as a history teacher I also regard this as borne out by numerous examples throughout the ages.
Second, Christmas is a time of year where imagination runs riot for all of us. Again, this is because children are at the heart of it. The author Christopher Moore wrote that “Children see magic because they look for it.” Watching the latest Star Wars film with my twelve-year-old son last week, I could see that he was totally immersed in a story “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” in a way that made me truly envious. Watching children pretend, role play, and problem solve in our schools, its clear the important part imagination plays in their development. It’s a privilege for me to spend time with fantastic teachers and leaders in our schools who cherish and nurture the imagination of the children they educate and care for. Like the most talented people always do, they make it look easy – but I know just how much planning and expertise goes into making such experiences both fun and meaningful for our children.
But back to my forthcoming speech. My message to John Taylor’s amazing Post-16 students, now a few months into university or work, is to hang on to their imaginations for dear life. We know that the greatest ideas come from the imagination: inventions, art, literature, discoveries. Imagination is at the heart of creativity, and creativity is at the heart of every society’s progress. Beyond this, we also all know the value that imagination can bring when we look to escape, even for a brief time, our own reality. Sometimes life isn’t what we want it to be, and we aren’t who we’d like to be. The artist Francis Bacon wrote that “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humour to console him for what he is.” Our alumni will do well to bear this in mind throughout their lives.
Finally, our imagination helps us to envisage things beyond our immediate experience. It provides us with opportunities to consider our world and those who inhabit it differently. We know that rigidity and intolerance are at the centre of so many of the world’s problems. Novelist Graham Greene wrote that “Hate is a lack of imagination.”, and I think he’s right. Again, the history teacher in me would argue that centuries of human suffering bears this out.
Children who lose the ability to imagine therefore lose something hugely precious. It’s the role of parents, and schools, and society to ensure that our children keep dreaming, keep imagining better and more exciting possibilities for themselves and their world. In a time where the focus of the curriculum has moved from skills to knowledge, there is an argument to be made that if education is ‘to replace an empty mind with an open one’ as I believe it is, we need to ensure sufficient opportunities are presented to our children to use their imaginations to the full. We won’t see the direct outcomes of this in school performance tables, but we will in the character of the next generation and the improvements they make to the world they have inherited from us.
Thanks for reading.
It’s no surprise that there is heightened scrutiny at present on how schools work with its most able children, and how we prepare them for happy and successful lives. Only yesterday in the budget, it was again reinforced that the nation’s ‘production line’ of mathematicians and computer scientists, and teachers of these disciplines, is seizing up and needs its wheels well-and-truly greasing.
There is plenty of research around what makes our most able children succeed, and what barriers they face. In a recent workshop for school leaders, I shared with them this slide which typifies some of the tensions faced when working with children who are, by definition, exceptional:
The most able child will often think about our curriculum content differently. They will see things that others do not. Our challenge is to embrace this divergence and extension, see it as a vital component in their development – and their engagement – and a hugely valuable asset for their peers.
I suggested that there are three key facets to work with the most able:
Culture – A culture whereby challenge is not viewed as dissent, where divergent thinking is not rebellion, individuality is not eccentricity, and one of high expectations where we “don’t wish that it was easier, but wish that we were better.”
Curriculum – A curriculum offer that ‘works back from the end’: what do our most able need to be successful beyond school? Subjects of high currency, opportunities for challenge with their peers regionally and nationally through enrichment, developmental provision to bolster resilience, growth mindsets, communication and leadership skills.
Classroom – Specialist teachers who can ‘keep up with them’ where they can, and can ‘let them loose’ when they can’t, with activities and resources that stimulate amazing accomplishment that is supported and appreciated by their peers.
It’s that easy. And that hard! But for individual students, and our schools, and our country we have to make sure that we get the best from our most able, or at least give them our all in trying.
Thanks for reading.