Fostering imagination in higher education teaching and learning: making connections

2017-03-03T00:13:38Z (GMT) by Whitton, Joy Tania
The complexity of society’s problems and workplaces means imagination and creative approaches are required in non-arts fields/disciplines where they have not traditionally been taught. I argue that a lack of clarity about what imagination is, impedes teachers fostering their students’ imagination and creativity in higher education. I use a theory of imagination by Paul Ricoeur, which links imagination, reason, and language, and which argues that ‘productive’ imagination involves a form of combinatorial thinking which generates new ideas and shifts in perspectives, through the making of novel connections. I claim that Ricoeur’s theory provides a useful framework to understand imagination’s specific and teachable attributes, which are of particular relevance to higher education. I connect this theory to constructivist views of learning and thinking, in particular Vygotsky’s notion of tool mediated action and Clark’s ‘extended mind’ thesis. This link aims to account for creative insight in the conceptualisation of learning used in this research. The research questions are: What is the role of imagination in learning in higher education, and what learning experiences do educators devise to encourage the imagination of their students? How do the students experience learning that is focussed on engaging their imagination? Does Ricoeur’s theory help us to understand how teachers’ approaches encourage imagination as a facet of learning? The methodology of the research project was ethnography, and the data collected were notes from classroom observation and electronic student discussion forums, course materials and student assignments, and interviews with the educators and focus groups of students pre- and post-class. I tell three ethnographic stories about a fourth year physics course, a first year medieval European history course and a post-graduate finance course. Imagination combines heterogeneous things into new wholes and in the physics case study, this led me to the conclusion that the students were led in a cycle of diagrammatic, mathematical and linguistic forms of reasoning. Each of these thinking tools cumulatively and in combination synthesised the students’ understanding of quantum concepts. In the history case study, I concluded that wielding the tools and techniques of historians involved the students in a constant interplay of imaginative conjecture and critical analysis, allowing new syntheses of ideas to arise that were grounded in evidence. In the Finance case study, I found that strategic reasoning is an imaginative process because it includes imagining the consequences of suggested courses of action if they were applied, and strategy involves mentally positing alternative plans, each designed to produce an outcome. Simulation pedagogy allows students to imaginatively take up at least two positions: banker and learner, and to construct different learnings by moving flexibly between them. Productive imagination entails an awareness of the fictiveness or constructedness of the created artefact. For learners, this means an openness to reconsider how knowledge may be reconstructed in the future. This suggests that imagination’s importance for opening up possibilities has an important role to play in the renewal of knowledge and practices, and for lifelong learning.