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Tips For Imaginative Educators #10: Humanize

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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Every learner is unique. Effective teachers know this and they work constantly and creatively to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms. Effective teachers also know that amidst the great diversity within their classrooms, there is something that all learners share: emotional responses.

Every topic you teach connects to an emotional human experience. 

Shared human emotions create the plane upon which knowledge becomes most meaningful and memorable. 

Every topic you teach has attached to it the real emotional account of the person who discovered it, named it, battled to make sense of it etc. You can make the knowledge you teach more memorable by allowing students to experience that emotion too. By connecting human emotions with the content of the curriculum you can maximize learning and student engagement.

You can make a mathematical or scientific equations more meaningful to students if you acknowledge the hopes, fears, or passions of the people–or person–who first discovered or used them. Share those stories. You can make historical concepts more meaningful by evoking the human emotions of those involved. Imaginative educators fill their classroom/learning spaces and moments with human experiences, faces, and emotions. Their teaching contexts (classrooms, living or family rooms, learning centers) are full of ghosts.

Picture the ghosts of great mathematicians floating amongst students in imaginative math classes, the stories of great scientists gliding past students in science labs, or students surrounded with the stories of great authors and poets as they discover their own creative strengths.

Three Examples

#1 My first example shows how the humanization of meaning cognitive tool can frame teaching about different mathematical equations. Click here to see what great mathematicians said when asked to identify what they thought were the most beautiful equations. (Spoiler alert: pi won). (*This article also shows how math teaching can engage students by evoking what is heroic about the topic–in this case mathematical equations as beautiful. Learn more about the heroic quality cognitive tool here: Tips For Imaginative Educators #8: Identify The Heroic)

#2 My second example for SS/History teachers is taken from an Imaginative Education unit on the Industrial Revolution.

This is an example of a possible beginning for a unit on the Industrial Revolution that introduces extraordinary people involved in the industrial era. It is one way we might provide students access to the emotional significance of the Industrial Revolution. What can be seen at the heart of the Industrial Revolution – indeed, at the heart of all technological change – is imagination. It is the creative energy and ingenuity of people like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, James Watt and Samuel Slater who chose to envision possibilities for improving the known world. Students are connected, in a powerful way, with these men of hazy photographs, strange clothes and serious expressions by means of their imagination, the creative energy, optimism and passion that led them to ask “why…” and “what if…”

In the excerpt for download available here you can see the following cognitive tools at work: Humanization of meaning, mental imagery, and heroic qualities.

Sneak peak: 

There is something magical—or just odd—about really old photographs.  Imagine you are holding one. You’ve been rummaging around in an old trunk in your grandfather's attic and you come across it. It feels old to the touch. The paper feels dry, cracked. You can see how old it is, worn at the corners, the image fading. The image itself seems so OLD – so unlike anything you know or have experienced. At some level you feel light years apart from the person in this photo, our lives today so different in so many ways… But at some level you feel a connection. You feel that you are not so different from the person in the photograph.

You’ve found three images.

First, an old photograph taken sometime in the middle of the 19th century shows a rather odd looking man with a very odd name.  Let me introduce Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel appears a small, stiff, top-hatted Victorian wearing a crumpled black suit and dusty boots... (get the whole document here).

#3 I recently discovered a wonderful enactment of the humanization of meaning cognitive tool. Perhaps you’ve heard of a “library” where you meet (“sign out”) an actual person rather than a book?  The Human Library Organization represents a worldwide movement for social change. Its aim is to change stereotypes and challenge misconceptions through the sharing of real stories and the face-to-face interactions of real people. I love the headings “meet our books” and “want to be a book?”  Bring engineering to life through the emotional experiences of an engineer. Bring a face to issues of social justice through the struggles of a refugee. Seek the emotional human angle.

Summing Up

In summary, to employ the humanization of meaning cognitive tool, you want to bring the human dimension to life in your lessons. Put a “face” to the topic you are teaching. Final tip: We are, of course, hoping to create engaging accounts that intrigue our students…so don’t offer them the life stories of people they already know about—the already famous and popular. Instead offer them the less-well-known. The odder, the more eccentric or unbelievable the better.

Imagination doesn’t play favourites–it is involved in the learning of all the topics of the curriculum. All ages.


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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.

  • Guest
    Robert Ward Wednesday, 04 January 2017

    This "human" element in learning is absolutely essential, Gillian! I know it is crucial because as an educator I myself must find that human/emotional/personal connection to everything I teach and learn. Why would we think our students are any less passionate or not searching for the same types of connections as their teachers are?

  • Gillian Judson @perfinker
    Gillian Judson @perfinker Wednesday, 04 January 2017

    Thanks Robert! You are such a great support--we totally see things the same way. Connections matter SO MUCH. No connection, no learning.

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Monday, 09 January 2017

    All learning is emotional. We know now that the stronger the emotions the more memorable the learning is. Excellent post my friend. I will definitely check out and use the resources you give here and link to.

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Guest Monday, 22 July 2019