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Cultivating Imagination for Student Agency

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Photo by Xavi Cabrera

Over the fall break, I had the opportunity to renew my imagination. I spent five days visiting my grandson who is two-and-a half. In his presence, cardboard boxes became forts, make-believe ice cream cones were delicious, and LEGO animals could fly planes. It was rejuvenating.

Children make sense of their world through their use of imagination and play. In theory as we grow up, the world in which we live should make more sense, yet in our current times rapid change has left us feeling unsure of what might happen next (Thomas & Brown, 2011). As adults, I appreciate my colleague’s definition of imagination as “a source of information about who we are, how the world might be, what futures are possible” (Morris, 2018, para. 29). Thomas and Brown (2011) also explain that in the workplace imagination is key for innovation, yet our educational systems can inhibit the imagination that we need most during these changing times.

Maxine Greene, an educational philosopher who writes about imagination in education writes that educators “have wanted to believe that education has been a means of giving every living person access to any sort of discourse…” only to discover that students who are “marginalized are made to feel distrustful of their own voices” (1995, p.110). Our very intention in “teaching” becomes part of the oppressive fabric of what Freire (1970, 1993, 2018) refers to as the “banking concept of education” (p. 72). Moore (2019) expresses this same idea in his words when he writes, “Teachers often have the idea that they know things you don’t know, and they’re going to give you those things” (p. 16).

To ensure that I am not contributing to a “banking” model of education, my courses must be critically designed for student agency. What do my students want to know and be able to do because of their choices in our graduate program? My graduate students decide what they, as scholars, want to investigate and how they will share their critical thinking in our community of practice through discussions, peer feedback, and shared practitioner-based research artifacts. This means that not every student chooses to contribute to the group discussions in the same way, and with respect to student agency, who am I to say they must contribute so many words in a weekly discussion and respond to so many classmates by a given date? This prescriptive method created in the 1990’s does not create meaningful discourse; yet many instructors continue to use this technique as a means of accountability.

Instead, I prefer to ask scholars to self-reflect on what their own participation means to them, and how they measure their own participation in the course (Morris, personal communication). “As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling [students] to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity” (p. 120). It was 1995 when Greene wrote, “These may be times of pestilence for us. That is why we need to be attentive and vigilant if we are to open texts and spaces, if we are to provoke the young to be free” (p. 121) and to use their imagination to create transformation in these current times.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury. Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. Jossey-Bass. Morris, S. M. (2018, June 21). Imagination as a precision tool for change. Sean Michael Morris. Thomas, D. & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change.

This piece was originally published as my contribution to a weekly Monday Morning Message for the School of Education and Human Development doctoral studies community at the University of Colorado Denver on December 6, 2021.

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