Tips for Imaginative Educators: #2 Find A Source of Dramatic Tension

Tools of Imagination Series

#2 Find A Source Of Dramatic Tension In The Topic

A good story often contains some kind of dramatic tension.

We see freedom and oppression play out in Cinderella.

We see the idea of known and unknown worlds play out in Jack and The Beanstalk.

We see safety and danger play out in Hantzel and Gretel.

Dramatic tension is not only the stuff of children’s stories, myths, or fairytales however. Read an engaging news article and there will be some tension within it that you feel. For example, I just read a vivid account of what can happen when an underwater oil pipe ruptures; I was captivated by the sense of potential explosiveness that can occur. The hidden is revealed. The silent suddenly screams.

Imaginative teachers shape their lessons and units in ways that evoke a source of dramatic tension or, what we call in Imaginative Education, an Abstract Binary Opposition (ABO).

Here are a few random examples for primary/elementary teachers:

Gigantic/minuscule can shape a science unit on OUTER SPACE.

Bold/timid can shape an art unit on the ELEMENTS OF LINE.

Apart/together can shape a language arts unit on PRINTING.

Finite/infinite can shape a math unit on NUMBERS and COUNTING.

Gain/loss can shape a science unit on ANIMAL ADAPTATION.

Temporary/permanent can shape a science unit on GROWTH/CHANGE.

And a few random examples for middle-secondary school teachers:

Treasure/garbage can shape an interdisciplinary unit on ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP.

Colourful/drab can shape a social studies/humanities unit on CITIZENSHIP.

Freedom/constraint can shape an English unit on forms of POETRY.

Balance/instability can shape a math unit on SOLVING SIMPLE EQUATIONS.

Or university (I constantly employ this tool in my undergraduate and graduate teaching):

Conceal/reveal can shape an Education course for pre-service teachers on CLASSROOM ASSESSMENT.

Help/hinder can shape a graduate Education course on INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT.

binary opposites #imaginED

Main idea: When you identify a source of dramatic tension in a topic—the Imaginative Education tool of Abstract Binary Oppositions—you tie emotional concepts to the knowledge you are teaching. For teachers of children who are not reading extensively and are still largely oral language users, this is one of the most powerful tools for creating engaging units.  But even for older students, this tool works.

binary opposite #imaginED

Let me introduce your new BFF: 

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(Thank you IERG for this resource!). With this list handy, you can now play with topics. It is even better to collaborate.

Want to add some spice to your next staff meeting?  Here’s how to do so:

  1. Download the list of some Abstract Binary Opposites in advance.
  2. Identify a few curricular topics to discuss.
  3. Play. Or, in adult speak, collaboratively talk about a topic in the curriculum (or a BIG IDEA or ESSENTIAL QUESTION) and decide what powerful opposition or tension it contains.
  4. Discuss how the ABO captures the emotional importance of the topic.  (See Teacher Tip #1)
  5. Brainstorm what you can ask students do in their learning to tap into this ABO and bring it into greater focus.

Some ground rules:

DON’T settle on the ABO that might first seem obvious to you; often times these are not the most potent for engaging your students.

DO choose the opposition that will best encompass and represent the range of content knowledge you are teaching.

DON’T try to find the ONE RIGHT answer—the ultimate choice is up to you in terms of what engages your passion and what, in your expert opinion, can best convey the meaning of the topic you are teaching.

Summary of Tips For Imaginative Educators

#1 Find the story in a topic by identifying what engages your passion; seek emotional significance.

#2 Find a source of dramatic tension in the topic that you can evoke in your teaching.

STAY TUNED, for the next Teacher Tip in this series to help your continued imaginative teaching practice.   Subscribe to this blog to get these Tips for Imaginative Teaching in your inbox weekly.

Learn more about the Abstract Binary Opposition tool of imagination and access more curriculum examples that employ this tool at the Imaginative Education Research Group website.   You might also enjoy this brief educational video on the ABO tool that I filmed a loooooong time ago with Kieran Egan:




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