Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.
In my last blog, which was about teaching and learning, I asked, down in my conclusion, the following question:
Is there anything bigger (or more important) than knowledge when learning, and if so, what might this bigger (and more important) thing be?
I’m now ready to answer this question. I’ll borrow my answer from a famous quote by an even more famous thinker, Albert Einstein. Said physicist and philosopher once asserted that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He made this claim because he felt that “knowledge is limited; whereas, imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
So, that’s my answer. Imagination is more important than knowledge. And, by extension, the imaginative person is more intellectually powerful than the person who simply has a head stuffed full of facts.
This is a pretty revolutionary claim because the acquisition of knowledge has historically been highly prized and has been looked at as the sign that someone is erudite. The aim of most systems of education seems to be to develop students (and experts) who can deftly move information from one location to another. (I discussed this idea in my last blog.) But Einstein has said that knowing stuff—even if it’s knowing a lot of stuff—is less important than being able to use the stuff you know to achieve some creative end.
Thus, I’m calling for an Einsteinian revolution. It must begin with the way we teach and learn and in the things we put value on when we teach and learn. If I were suddenly given power to revolutionize the education system so that it put more emphasis on helping students develop their criticality and creativity (as opposed to fixating on finding ways to stuff their heads fuller and fuller of factoids), this is what I’d do.
Revolutionary Idea 1
I’d take a critical look at the concept of “failure.” It seems that we treat all failure in the same way—we punish those who don’t live up to some expectation of performance that has been established by an authority empowered to hand out evaluations or grades. In fact, some people fail because they put very little effort into doing work. Others, on the other hand, might fail because they put tremendous effort into doing something that was very challenging but just fell short of the mark. Those who fail because they don’t try are very different from those who try hard to do something that might be just beyond their ability.
By treating all types of failure the same way, we actually encourage students to take the safe path and avoid risks. This has the effect of providing an incentive for students to behave conservatively and to remain within their comfortable zones. If we could begin rewarding certain kinds of failure—the kind that occurs when students shoot for the stars but miss—we would create a population of learners who are courageous and creative.
Revolutionary Idea 2
Quit thinking in binary terms. We need to stop seeing the world of education as made of up of those who teach and those who learn. We are all learners and we are all teachers. Labeling some as “teachers” and others as “students” causes those who wear such labels to begin to behave in ways that discourage genuine intellectual growth. Thus, I think we need to give “students” more opportunities to teach. (Any teacher will tell you that the best way to truly learn anything is to prepare to teach it to someone.) When students are put into teams and asked to teach parts of the course, they are empowered and are required to think metacognitively and rhetorically about their audience, the subject to be taught, and their role as instructors.
Revolutionary Idea 3
Require students to keep a learning journal and encourage them to fill it with entries that help them reflect on how they think when they think. Or ask them to connect the things they are learning to other things they already know or to their own life experiences. Often, students see learning and critical thinking as something we don’t do in real life—that it has no connect to what we do outside of school. By helping students understand how thinking and learning about external things can provide them with insights into who they are, they begin to see that schooling is not just about information acquisition; it’s about self-learning too.
Revolutionary Idea 4
Encourage research. Empower students by allowing them to pursue their own interests and passions. One of the reasons so many students struggle to decide what they want to major in when they go to college is because they’ve never been given the opportunity to follow their bliss. Let students learn themselves and they’ll find out who they are and how they want to live. They’ll also discover what turns them on and what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
Have I left anything out? What say you about my revolution? Do you think I’m being too radical or too conservative? What larger implications can we draw about the ways all of us—even those of us who are no longer is school—approach learning and growing intellectually.