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Tips for Imaginative Educators: #3 Evoke Mental Imagery with Words

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Warning: Reading this post may leave you feeling compelled to talk to people around you about what you just learned. This tip in the Tools of Imagination Series is about the great power of mental imagery for learning and for making all concepts meaningful and memorable to students.

As you well know, mental imagery has indisputable cultural and historical significance. The great cultural stories handed down by our ancestors created emotionally charged images in the minds of the listeners. The more emotionally charged the image, the more memorable the content of the story. Vivid images help us understand and remember content by leaving us emotionally and imaginatively engaged.

Just to be clear: I am not suggesting you show more images to your students. We live in a digital age; we are constantly bombarded in the media with powerful images. While showing students really cool pictures as part of teaching is useful to some degree, it is the mental images we can create for students in their minds with words that most effectively make knowledge meaningful and memorable.

The Massive & The Miniscule

Do you know how big a trillion dollars is? Basically, a trillion dollars is a really big number—like really big. So big, in fact, that it is hard for human beings to actually to comprehend. Do you know how small an atom is? Well, it is really small—like really small. The atom is microscopic on a scale that leaves it hard to fully grasp.

I'm willing to bet that after what I’ve told you so far you’re not feeling any great compulsion to talk to your family and friends about the size of a trillion dollars or of an atom. You likely don’t have any emotional connection to these concepts--despite my clever use of italics.  Imagine that. Mental imagery evoked from words can help.

Example 1:  How big is a trillion dollars?

In my examples today I am going to call on one of my favourite authors: Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson is an expert at using imagery and other tools of the imagination to evoke the emotional significance of things. And he’s super funny. Back to the example: What does a trillion actually mean? (Text altered slightly for this example.)

“Imagine that you are in a vault with a trillion dollars in there with you. You are told you could keep each dollar bill you initialed. Say that you are initialing these bills at one dollar bill per second and that you work without stopping. How long do you think it would take to count a trillion dollars? Go on, humour me and take a guess. Twelve weeks? Five years?... If you initialed one dollar per second, you would make $1,000 every 17 minutes. After 12 days of non-stop effort you would acquire your first $1 million. Thus it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million and 1, 200 days (something over 3 years) to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years, you would become a billionaire... But not until after 31, 709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar.”  (Source: Bryson, B. 1998, Notes from a big country, Anchor Canada; pp. 66-67).

Stop for a moment and think about that.  Every second for 31, 709.8 years.  Gulp.

When Bill Bryson wrote this he had just been to Times Square in New York and see the National Debt Clock. He was astonished at the blur of numbers he saw rushing past him on the clock. Back in 1998 the debt was approximately 4.5 trillion. Check out what it says today. Try not to get dizzy with the blurrrrrr of numbers!

Example 2:  How small is an atom?

Handing it over to Bill Bryson once again: "Atoms are tiny--very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair. On such a scale an individual atom is essentially impossible to imagine, but we can of course try....Start with a millimetre, which is a line this long: -. Now imagine that line divided into a thousand equal widths. Each of those widths is a micron. This is the scale of microorganisms. A typical  paramecium, for instance, is about two microns wide, 0.002 millimetres, which its really very small. If you wanted to see with your naked eye a paramecium swimming in a drop of water, you would have to enlarge the drop until it was some forty feet across. However, if you wanted to see the atoms in the same drop, you would have to make the drop fifteen miles across....Atoms, in other words, exist on a scale of minuteness of another order altogether. To get down to the scale of atoms, you would need to take each one of those micron sides and shave it into ten thousand finer widths. That's the scale of an atom:  one ten-millionth of a millimetre. It is a degree of slenderness way beyond the capacity of our imagination, but you can get some idea of the proportions if you bear in mind that one atom is to the width of a millimetre line as the thickness of a sheet of paper is to the height of the Empire State Building."  (Bryson, 2003, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Anchor Canada, pp. 134-135*)

I warned you:  you might feel compelled to tell people about what you just learned.

Images Have An Impact

Now these are two incredibly evocative images. They help us feel the concepts. So even though we might forget the particular details of each analogy, we won't forget the concept anytime soon.  It has had an emotional impact on us.

You don't have to be Bill Bryson to use an image effectively.  The images you employ in your teaching need not be as evocative as these to have an impact. What any emotionally charged image does is make content meaningful. The oddity of the human mind is that words will cause images and associated emotional responses to arise.  Imaginative teachers identify and evoke with words images tied up with concepts in the curriculum.  Mental imagery--especially in conjunction with other tools of the imagination--is a pedaogical power tool.  

Want more examples?  Learn more about the power of mental imagery here. (This is a section on the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) website that talks all about different cognitive tools.) There are many more examples of images tied to curriculum here. Catch up on the other Tips for Imaginative Educators on BAM radio:  Tips for Imaginative Educators: #1 Find the Story and Tips For Imaginative Educators: #2 Find A Source of Dramatic Tension.  Or, if you prefer, enjoy this brief YouTube video about the power of imagery filmed with IERG representative Dr. Kym Stewart and Kieran Egan. Title: Forming Images in the Mind.

Let's Connect

I would love learn from YOU. Leave a comment and tell me about how you employ imagery in your teaching.  Or tweet @perfinker. I always love to connect with other imaginative educators!  #imaginED that inspires!

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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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Guest Monday, 22 July 2019