An Argument For Imaginative Education

By Fred Harwood (@HarMath)

I recently had an AHA moment about the importance of engaging imagination in education.

I was typing up a blog about a lesson that involved developing empathy and changing students’ perspectives in mathematics. My aim was to increase students’ interest in others’ thinking and to increase the level of math talk they utilized. (HERE is that post.) I had been describing how thinking with students’ imaginative engagement in mind led me to try something differently with good results. I suddenly realized that I was a product of the principles of Imaginative Education. I had a clear argument why this approach should be adopted in all classes.

And here it is–triggered by another teacher asking me, “Where did you find this question?” and my search for Duplo building blocks for my grandniece.

“Where did you find this question?”

I have been asked this question many times in my workshops, via tweets, and in interactions with teachers. This question reveals a mindset often created in a textbook/workbook approach to mathematics teaching. Questions are found. Fewer people focus on the experience of creating questions or posing problems. It is a simple thing to believe that someone, somewhere, some-when created the problem that has been shared. The mindset of “why not me posing problems?” is more foreign. “I am not the creative type!” “I am not a math person.” “I was never good at math.” These are rationalizations to support this thinking. But really, they are a product of the culture we have had in classrooms and math classrooms especially. Too often we are given a set of questions to work through, supposedly to master a skillset given to us by the teacher’s lesson and demonstrations and/or the examples in the textbook.


“What are your options for buying Legos today?”  

I have been reflecting on how Legos™ are sold lately. Everything is in kits. Kits come with detailed instructions on the order and placement of blocks to create the finished product. There are some affordances for this approach: piece recognition, spacial orientation, knob counting, incremental processing, reading diagrams/blueprints, and sequential operations. I see this as paralleling math classrooms. Too often I have seen children finishing the kit and putting the completed works on the shelf to look at. “See, I did this before. Isn’t it really cool looking?”

Where is the play? Where is the creativity and imaginative thinking? Where is the reflection on underlying big ideas of construction, stability and functionality?


These emerge in playful inquiry, in having a vision for some Lego creation and exploring how to piece together parts you have to create a strong, working version of your idea. Related ideas are brought together to create a world to play in. My childhood was spent with Legos for every birthday and Christmas present. This rich, jumbled collection of Lego pieces were used to create underwater cities, submarines and submersibles with access hatches on the bottom to allow entry into and out of the vessels and habitats.

My family and friends then “played” in this under-the-sea environment,

or in space stations and starships complete with space tugs, satellites and astronauts

or in a city with fire and police stations, garages, parks, hospitals and houses

–creating our own storylines, adventures and explorations.

We interacted in this imaginative play, adapting our personal storylines to flow with others around us in acts of creation and imagination. This is where we expressed creativity before our belief in our creativity was assessed out of us. We learned that overlapping bricks led to stronger constructions and braces could be used to enhance strength. We looked at the properties of some bricks and incorporated their shape and/or movability into our creations. We learned about growth mindset as we made mistakes and corrected them knowing we were learning and growing better at building.

There is a movement to ‘nix the tricks’ and ‘ban the worksheets’ in math classes that seems to be an adverse reaction to the ‘culture of telling’ and ‘students practicing what they watched’. Unfortunately, these movements may throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater.

Imaginative Education offers a counter-cultural revolution to change the mindsets of educators.

Creative thinking and problem solving are key attributes of 21st century abilities. We should be encouraging these imaginative approaches in our classrooms if we are to imbue students (and ourselves) with the ability to build ideas like kids build with Legos.

The Power of Imaginative Education: My Story

I reflected on the sources of my own abilities to meld and weave ideas, to unite different genres, to create good questions/problems/activities, and to inspire inquiry and discovery. I decided that I had benefitted from many opportunities to use my imagination and to play in rich environments. I recall creating playful elements in even mundane pursuits.

One summer, two of us were spending 8 hours a day hoeing and hoeing and hoeing. We both loved speculative fiction so we decided to challenge each other with games of our imaginations. One would create a title, the other would have five minutes to come up with the setting and plot line. Then we would reverse the process. Other days, we would alternate paragraphs in a verbal story we created on the fly, or on the hoe as it were. This interactive storytelling made the hours fly by.

Years later, I read that a powerful memory tool was to make your own notes on a topic utilizing a “least favourite genre”—some format that wasn’t your strength or favourite. I chose poetry since I hadn’t enjoyed this genre as a student in school. As I wrote this blog I realized that it was the restrictions of rhyming last words, syllable lengths of sentences and the set rhyming schemes that chafed at my need to create. As I looked at poetry, for this new endeavor, I realized how capacious a genre it was. It begged to be played with, so I did, and found a new love. Poetry provided a new canvas to create on with word play, sight poetry, cadence, parallelism, puns, and much more. My own voice became the meter, not sets of 11 syllables in an ‘aabb’ or ‘abab’ pattern. One word’s accent change would totally change the definition or connotation.

I’ll close with a playful example from a fragment of one of my poems:

Life is a tOrrent of immediacy, a flood of gotta do’s, should do’s looming

I am swept along, b-o-u-n-c-i-n-g from task-to-task, need-to-need

The unending struggle’s purpose . . . to breath . . . to survive

Desperately surfacing for little gasps . . . in stillness . . . in the garden

I found myself losing myself in a hanging basket.

My heartful, headless rush dammed

in time

in space

in attitude

[… then later at the poem’s end]

Yes, I found myself losing myself in a hanging basket

It’s bio-diversity diverting me into this peaceful pool

A gentle breeze turned creation of wonder

To pause me in my striving to ponder

To stand in awe as I wander


in the floral enthusiasm

in the tonal flow of colour

in the artful current of texture

in the varied origins of growth

in the welcoming joy of naming

My heartful, headless rush damned

just in time

here in this place

in gratitude

Enraptured, I turned in the peace of community

Finely seeing

I found myself, sharing myself in God’s hanging basket, Emmanuel!

I am hoping that you might ‘find yourself’ considering providing even richer settings for your students to exercise their imaginations, to play interactively with each other and the materials of your curricula, to pose and pursue their questions, to construct wonder and to strengthen their belief in their ability to solve problems and create newness.

Also by Fred Harwood:

How Playful Thinking (& Reading) Can Improve Learning

Employing Imagination In Mathematics To Achieve Success




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