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The Components of the Imagination: Practical Applications of an Innovative but Underused Tool – Faculty Focus


Calvin and Hobbes has been my favorite comic strip ever since I discovered it in my youth. The comic strip was unique in its visuals, hilarious, and highly relatable. As I continue to revisit the strip, the characteristics that I loved it for when I was young remain. However, I now find myself drawn to the strip’s depth – particularly the power of Calvin’s imagination. I’m additionally in awe at Bill Watterson’s, the strip’s creator, utilization of Calvin’s imagination to expand and enliven the mundane and ordinary reality that Calvin occupies. This “enlivening” is inspirational (even in the goofiest of scenarios) to readers, but in the world of the comic, Calvin’s imagination is constantly limited, especially when he goes toe-to-toe with his teacher, Ms. Wormwood. Despite the light-hearted nature of the strip, it serves well as a caricature of education that addresses a real issue – the imagination, quite possibly humankind’s strongest tool, is often limited by mundane teaching practices that mostly measure a student’s ability to memorize. Pursuing classroom pedagogy with a focus on invoking the imagination will encourage students to think about how to apply their knowledge, which could result in stronger classroom engagement and better learning outcomes for our students.  

What is the imagination? 

There seems to be a general agreement among educators that fostering the imagination is important, but it is not clear how or where this happens in the educational process (Egan n.d.). In A.J. Cropley’s (2014, 634) analysis of how teachers view creativity, he found that educators’ “evocation of ‘more creativity’ has been limited to rhetorical flourishes in policy documents and/or relegated to the borderlands of the visual and performing arts.” By limiting creativity to the visual and performing arts, academia has greatly limited any meaningful understanding of the imagination. Additionally, this association feeds into the common error of conflating creativity and imagination, which limits robust thinking about what the imagination is. Creativity is a major component of the imagination, but if we fail to look past creativity then we fail at any chance to fully invoke the imagination.  

I’ve quickly found that the imagination spans more than we can understand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue further discovery. Instead of defining the imagination, I aim to focus on some key functions of the imagination that are not typically considered: memory recall, reframing, and perception of possibilities. Kieran Egan (n.d., 12) explains, “[Imagination] is not, in particular, something distinct from reason, but rather it is what gives reason flexibility, energy, and vividness. It makes all mental life more meaningful; it makes life more abundant.” If the imagination is as life-giving as Egan describes, then explicit awareness of the components of the imagination is a major step for educators to learn how to better invoke students’ imaginations and therefore create more engaging, abundant, and meaningful classroom experiences. 

Memory recall and schemas 

At its simplest, imagination is one’s ability to create mental images of something not present. Wang, Ginns, and Mockler (2022) researched how students at both the grade school and college level perform when they are encouraged to use their fingers to trace visual concepts and then take time to imagine those concepts before solving math problems. In both groups, students who traced and imagined were able to solve problems faster than those who didn’t, which showed that the combination of tracing and imagining helped them to build a schema.  

When applying this to the classroom, students should be guided to engage with the material in several ways that help them become familiar with using different senses. Tracing is a good option but think about how your concept might play out in a real-world situation and help students play those situations out. For example, an organizational theory course might take the many components of a theory and apply them singularly in different situations. This reduces cognitive load as they are learning one component of a theory at a time, and it engages the imagination as they are forced to think about the organization in one specific way. As students progress through all components, the instructor can then move on to putting them all together. Since the students already have an imagination on how to use these components, they won’t need an additional push to imagine what it looks like to bring the components together into a schema for future use.  

Reframing and empathizing 

In its most practical and applicable form, imagination allows us to connect with each other. Without imagination, we are not able to empathize, understand varied perspectives, or see past our biases. I don’t expect every student to find a deep connection with class material but positioning them to think about it in different ways can aid learning. Andrew Taylor’s (2020) focus on developing the moral imagination explains that med school students tend to turn patient stories into cases, which effectively dehumanizes patients and their situations. He argues for the use of pathographies, which frame patients’ experiences with their illness as biographies, to mitigate dehumanization. Taylor found that students who learned about medical issues by engaging with pathographies developed a more robust knowledge of how the illnesses experienced occurred. 

Not every subject we teach will have these types of stories, but instructors can use their own stories (or appropriate biographies of subject-related individuals) to tell a story and make a connection with students as they learn about concepts. This could also be laced with why you, the instructor, believe it to be an important subject to learn about and how it affects the world. These stories engage the imagination and as it expands and becomes more meaningful for students, the possibility of increased intrinsic motivation grows.  

Perception of possibilities 

Lastly, imagination is vital in how students perceive possibilities in the future by providing the ability to consider how choices can affect their futures. Jung, Flores, and Hunter (2016) describe the imaginative process as drawing upon previous experiences to achieve future goals. In my opinion, their description falls short in that it assumes that future goals will be achieved by drawing on previous experiences, but that’s not a guarantee. My critique is nitpicky, but I believe it to be important because Jung, Flores, and Hunter’s description suggests a good imagination should result in achievement. Imagination can help us achieve our goals, but more importantly, it allows us to picture alternatives to reality that we can then choose to act upon with wisdom, which implies that goals are not the highest pursuits of our imaginations. 

To practically apply the perception component could be as simple as saying, “Begin with the end in mind,” but that limits how the imagination can be used. Yes, we must help students develop goals for their education, but by not encouraging more thought on what those goals might look like in the future, we are missing an opportunity to help students see how the pursuit of certain goals has effects in other areas. For example, encourage students to imagine what a world would be like in which they achieved their established goals. Do they like who they are? What were the costs and the benefits of achieving those goals? Does this change the shape of your goals? Answering questions like these can help students develop more thoughtful and perceptive goals. A deeper connection to these goals will help increase intrinsic motivation in pursuit of the goals.  

My current exploration into the imagination does not claim to cover every component, but it seeks to encourage implementing these components to boost engagement by allowing students to imagine and play with their learning experience in different ways. By no means are my suggestions comprehensive, but there is a need for instructors to attempt to captivate and guide students’ imaginations in their learning, and this provides some points to aim at when doing so.  


Micah Mitchell is a PhD student at Baylor University studying Higher Education Studies and Leadership (HESL). He has 10 years of higher education experience in instruction, admissions, residence life, and student advising. He currently serves as the statewide lead for a student success team at Texas State Technical College.

References 

Cropley, Arthur J. 2014. “Neglect of Creativity in Education: A Moral Issue.” In The Ethics of Creativity, by Seana Moran, David Cropley, and James C. Kaufman, 250–64. New York: Palgrave MaMillan. 

Egan, Kieran. n.d. “Why Is Imagination Important to Education?” 

Jung, Rex E., Ranee A. Flores, and Dan Hunter. 2016. “A New Measure of Imagination Ability: Anatomical Brain Imaging Correlates.” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (April). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00496

Taylor, Andrew. 2020. “Cultivating the Moral Imagination.” Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas. Electronic Thesis and Dissertations. https://utmb-ir.tdl.org/handle/2152.3/11250

Wang, Bo, Paul Ginns, and Nicole Mockler. 2022. “Sequencing Tracing with Imagination.” Educational Psychology Review 34 (1): 421–49. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09625-6

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