Can imagination – specifically, scientific imagination be taught?
Mendeleev envisioned his periodic table in a dream. The dream, of course, was a function of what the human brain normally does during sleep – organising and consolidating ideas, images, and bits of information that occupy our waking state.
Imagination is considered the faculty or action of forming new ideas or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. On the other hand, knowledge is about facts and information. It encompasses the skills we acquire through experience or education.
In one of the most famous of his quotes, Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” [ Reference: 1929 October 26, The Saturday Evening Post, What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana].
Einstein’s “thought experiments” were the seeds from which his mighty theories grew – riding on a light beam to expose the paradox that necessitated special relativity, taking an elevator to equate gravity with motion. During his period of peak creativity around 1905, he had a day job in Bern at the Swiss Patent Office, where he imagined the consequences of other people’s thought experiments.
Richard Feynman once said, “The whole question of imagination in science is often misunderstood by people in other disciplines. They try to test our imagination in the following way. They say, “Here is a picture of some people in a situation. What do you imagine will happen next?” When we say, “I can’t imagine,” they may think we have a weak imagination. They overlook the fact that whatever we are allowed to imagine in science must be consistent with everything else we know; that the electric fields and the waves we talk about are not just some happy thoughts which we are free to make as we wish, but ideas which must be consistent with all the laws of physics we know. We can’t allow ourselves to seriously imagine things which are obviously in contradiction to the laws of nature. And so our kind of imagination is quite a difficult game. One has to have the imagination to think of something that has never been seen before, never been heard of before. At the same time the thoughts are restricted in a straitjacket, so to speak, limited by the conditions that come from our knowledge of the way nature really is. The problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty.” [Reference: The Feynman Lectures in Physics (1964), Vol. 2, Lecture 20, p.20-10 to p.20-11].
This raises the question of whether imagination – specifically, scientific imagination can be taught?
Certainly, the answer to this question cannot be found in journals where scientists report their research but can be found in books – autobiographies or biographies, where they make an explicit or implicit reference to the role of imagination in their works or the works of others.
Maxwell, in admiring Faraday’s exceptional imaginative thought, said: “Faraday, in his mind’s eye, saw lines of force, traversing all space, where the mathematicians saw centres of force attracting at a distance. Faraday saw a medium where mathematicians saw nothing but distance”.
However, research-based on the life stories of scientists (e.g., Einstein, Maxwell, Faraday, Watts, and Feynman) provides evidence that imaginative skills are not developed by formal schooling. Their development occurs in spite of such schooling.
How do you teach imagination?
If we realize that imagination is not simply a capacity to form mental images, but a capacity to think in a particular way – that is, a way that involves our capacity to think of the possible rather than just the actual – then its significant role in science education can be easily comprehended.
It is in this sense that Einstein considered imagination more important than knowledge. For he is reputed to have said that, while knowledge points to what there is, imagination points to what there can be.
Imagination brings order to sense experience and deductive reasoning. Applying creativity to science education is one way to effectively engage students. In a study (done by Hadzigeorgiou et. al.), researchers looked at how a creative teaching style, emphasising the teaching of scientific content through stories, would affect different aspects of learning in a school curriculum. These findings suggest that a creative teaching framework encouraged emotional involvement with science and facilitated learning. A storytelling approach enriched the learning and instruction by stimulating imagination and curiosity.
Many have a fixed mindset and they believe that imagination and creativity can be used with primary school children but creativity and imagination cannot be facilitated in higher grades or college as a process of learning science.
There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that imagination can accelerate learning and improve performance of all sorts of skills. For athletes and musicians, “going through the motions,” or mentally rehearsing the movements in the mind, is just as effective as physical training, and motor imagery can also help stroke patients regain function of their paralysed limbs.
The question is how will imagination be fostered and facilitated in our present state of education?
- Views of Nature of Science Questionnaire: Conceptions of Nature of Science Norm G. Lederman, Illinois Institute of Technology.
- Influence of explicit and reflective versus implicit inquiry‐oriented instruction on sixth graders’ views of nature of science Rola Fouad Khishfe, Fouad Abd-El-Khalick
- Imaginative Thinking and the Learning of Science, Yannis Hadzigeorgiou and Nick Fotinos University of the Aegean, Greece
- Egan, 1990
- Image credit: Wabisabi Learning