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Tips For Imaginative Educators #13: Go To Extremes For Learning

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Books like the Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley’s Believe it Or Not never stay on the shelf for long.  

Young people tend to be fascinated (even obsessed) with the limits of experience and the extremes of reality--these kinds of books reveal all the record-breaking aspects of the world. I recall leafing through our own home copy of the Guinness Book Of World Records at about age 9 or 10, just consumed by the images of the curling, caramel-colored finger nails of that record-holder or the unsettling size of the world’s largest human, pig, or pumpkin pie. 

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We don’t completely lose that interest in the extreme features of reality—think about the headlines that most engage you now. Often they reveal something that falls outside the normal—far outside. We love the “superlative” tense in life—the fastest, slowest, most and least of all kinds. The most expensive houses. The smallest technologies etc. We are curious about things that are foreign to us, that seem odd, exotic, bizarre and—for many young people—just plain gross.

Just how tall is this tower?

If you’ve been following this Tools of Imagination Series or have visited my blog (imaginED) you’ll know that the pedagogy called Imaginative Education offers teachers a set of tools that they can use all the time in teaching to engage their students’ emotions with course content. When we employ this particular “cognitive tool”—what we call “the extremes of experience and limits of reality”–we don’t ignore students’ fascination with the extremes in the world but, instead, look at what we are teaching and reveal what is most extreme about them. There are “mosts” and “leasts” to be had in every subject area.

How do “extremes and limits” help us learn?

(Some theory for those who want it.)

Time spent acknowledging these super aspects of knowledge is not time wasted; rather it helps to “book end” the reality of the topic. This is where the pedagogical importance of this particular feature of the imagination lies. Dr. Kieran Egan explains that when we become literate we suddenly realize the world is infinitely vast—through the written word we are introduced to events, places, people, and knowledge well outside our immediate experience. As a result, we often realize that we are fairly insignificant. Students seek to figure out the extremes of the vast world of which they are part. We can provide those “limits” by revealing extremes and encouraging students to inquire into these on their own.  Seeking the extremes–revelling in the exotic–is all part of a process of making sense of reality. (Learn more here.)

Here is a YouTube video in which Dr. Kieran Egan talks about this learning tool: Learning Tool Limits of Experience Extremes of Reality

Two Teaching Examples

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Example One: Basketball

Can Physcial Education teachers employ cognitive tools?

Answer: Yes. Always.

Here’s an excerpt* from a unit I develop for engaging cognitive tools in teaching Basketball–for those students who aren’t engaged by the game itself, use of these tools can tap into their imaginative lives too.

What is most exotic, bizarre or strange about the topic?

Besides the fact that the original list of rules just sold for mega millions…imaginative P.E. teachers might mention things like highest scoring games (Pistons-Nuggets matchup on December 13, 1983, when the two teams played the highest-scoring game in NBA history. – 186 to 184 (370 total points). They might discuss features/skills of the best players of all time—is it Michael Jordan or Lebron James–who decides? (I asked my basketball-obsessed husband, Jayson, about that one–feel free to disagree!).  Imaginative P.E. teachers discuss the craziest shots. They question: Just how fast is the fastest player? (men and women) What player has the best shooting record? (man or woman) Who are the youngest/oldest professional players? etc.

(*Contact me if you’d like to see the full cognitive tools shaped unit for Basketball. I'm happy to share it.)

Example Two: Extreme Environments

Imaginative educator Chantal Megrian has kindly allowed me to share this excerpt from an Imaginative Education unit she developed on environments–extreme environments. What I like about this set of extreme facts on Volcanoes is how each is tied to an activity, prompt or question for student inquiry. (Source for this activity: Learning in Depth website.) Please check it out and download the resources.

Take This Home  

Tip #13 reminds us to bring out the extremes and limits of all the topics we are teaching. Engage emotion and imagination. This practice isn’t wasting time or trivializing the topic. It employs one of humankind’s powerful learning tools.

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 


Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 


She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).


She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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