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Nadworny: Imagination

11/02/11 7:55AM By Rich Nadworny
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(Host) If you tell a child they have a good imagination, it's a complement. But if you say the same thing to an adult, it's almost an insult. Commentator Rich Nadworny has noticed a number of people trying to change that dynamic.

(Nadworny) A few weeks back the Flynn Center in Burlington put on a panel about Imagination. The great performer and artist Laurie Anderson participated, while the panel itself was part of an ongoing series of Imagination conversations started by the Lincoln Center. One of its key goals was to recast the role of arts and imagination in education.

Moderator Jane Lindholm kicked off the panel by defining imagination as the capacity to conceive of what is not. The question the panel wrestled with was how to do that in business and education. It was a pretty hard question to answer.

Laurie Anderson had some good examples from her life. She talked about how, when she was little, she looked up to an art teacher who broke all of the school rules. Breaking rules and imagination seem to go together.

I recently attended the Cusp Conference in Chicago where the theme was "The Design of Everything." Needless to say, the presenters talked about imagination a lot. Another artist, Laurie Rosenwald talked about her own art, and how she tried to teach her students to always start from the wrong direction or to consciously take the wrong way. Her premise was that making mistakes on purpose actually helps imagination by not confining it to the "right" answers.

Another speaker was Van Phillips who lost his foot in a boating accident. Growing up as an active person, Van refused to accept the artificial foot he was given and told to accept, because it was painful and didn't allow him to do the things he loved. So he used his imagination to design a new foot to get his life back. Somehow, after studying diving boards and Cheetahs running he imagined a new prosthetic: The Cheetah Leg. Now people might compete at the Olympics using that fake leg.

The big question for me is this:

If we accept the idea that imagination is thinking of things that haven't existed before, how do we fit that into an educational system where we grade everyone on the basis of how many pre-determined answers they can produce? Imagination seems the opposite of what we're doing now.

At the Flynn some of the panelists admitted they had a hard time connecting the concept of imagination to their day jobs in the business, non-profit or education worlds.

Let's face it: today an adolescent or adult with too much imagination is often looked on as someone a little weird.

And that's probably the biggest roadblock for this initiative: Fear. We're human, so instinctively we fear the unknown. Yet imagination is the act of embracing that same unknown.

Here's the good news, though. All of the speakers I heard said exactly the same thing: You can teach people to be more imaginative. It's not a talent some people have and others don't. We all have it. But just like any other muscle, if we don't flex it, it atrophies.

Imagination in education might be a huge leap. But personally, I'm imagining a great success.

VPR Presents 'Imagination'

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