Stirring Students’ Imaginations

Three strategies for helping upper elementary and middle school students develop their mind’s eye.

People often tell children to use their imagination when approaching a task, which comes from the understanding that imagination is a kind of hotbed of potential for learning and creativity in humans. I often give that advice in my own classes, and that was what led me to study imagination in the field of psychology.

What exactly happens when you imagine? There are various explanations. One idea is that when an individual absorbs information, it is likely that some aspect of that new unit of content will be perceived through visualization by an internal mind’s eye. Research has found that individuals engaged in simulation often report imagery or what is called seeing with their mind’s eye.

For example, when I say, “Use your imagination,” people are likely to go inward to what could be called an internal visual world. One’s eyes might even shift downward or inward, or one might close them entirely. This occurs naturally and tends to demonstrate that imagination is a type of experience that happens inside of people, as if it were glimpses of a projected film that you view.

Researchers continue to speculate that this internal mind’s eye is capable of many things. It helps perception go beyond the constraints of time and space. As a result, an individual can visualize or predict the imminent or distant future by filling in information. Imagination can also help people visualize worlds they may read about or create through suggestion.

If you wish to increase upper elementary and middle school students’ comprehension and problem-solving skills, here are three imagination strategies to try out.

1. Use the Language of Imagination With Intention

For imagination to be valued in any learning setting, the language of imagination should first be fostered. When you say, “Use your imagination,” let the intention of it come from a sense of knowing that it is an innate experience for many to go inward to their mind’s eye and have that unique experience of visualizing images that may or may not exist.

Follow up with other language such as visualize or see, sense, perceive, mental image, and experience, as these terms are congruent with imagination’s role in human consciousness. While visualizing is typical to humans, mental images may vary, so affirming differences is also critical.

2. Encourage Visualization to Go Beyond Time and Space

After a more active task, you can activate the imagination to calm students by telling them they’ll take a mental journey. Tell them to close their eyes and take a moment of silence as they listen to your voice. You can play calming music with no lyrics to encourage a feeling of travel or transcendence.

Afterward, tell your students that they’re going to take a journey to a new world, silently. Speak slowly and provide guidance in the form of suggestions. Tell them, “This world is a safe one that feels good to go to.” Tell them they can travel through time and space, and ask, “How will you get there?” Students should not respond as they are visualizing content. You can state that their arrival will happen in five seconds and count down, slowly.

When they arrive, let students know they can explore the world. Questions you might ask: What do you see/hear/feel? How do you move through this world? What is something you see that is different from things on Earth?

It’s recommended that you not only speak slowly but let a bit of time go by between each suggestion. At the end, have students share what they saw with a partner or partners, and have students write about what they imagined.

3. Use Gap-Fill Storytelling

This exercise can be used with native and non-native English speakers starting as young as second or third grade, and will support their ability to use their imagination to fill in information.

Take four images from a children’s book or a magazine, or draw four images yourself. Make sure the images have a shared setting and that there’s a similar character in each image. Sort students into groups of four (or let them set up their own groups), and have one student per group come up and look at only one of the images. Tell the students to create a mental image of the picture, as if they had an internal camera to take a photo. When they return to their respective groups, each student reports what they saw. Have the second member of each group come up to see the second image, and so on.

After all students have shared what they saw, have each group write a “once upon a time” short story, as a group, that integrates the photos in a creative way. Each group should then read their story aloud to the class. If you want to increase creative capacity, they could act it out using dialogue and action, props, and costumes.

Based on these strategies, what do you imagine it would be like doing these exercises in class? Take a moment to visualize how you could engage imaginative processes in your classroom.

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“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
~ Helen Keller


9 Strategies for Motivating Students in Mathematics

I came across this article in Edweek and thought the strategies below for increasing student motivation can apply to all content areas.

1. Call attention to a void in students’ knowledge: Revealing to students a gap in their understanding capitalizes on their desire to learn more. For instance, you may present a few simple exercises involving familiar situations, followed by exercises involving unfamiliar situations on the same topic. The more dramatically you reveal the gap in understanding, the more effective the motivation.

2. Show a sequential achievement: Closely related to the preceding technique is having students appreciate a logical sequence of concepts. This differs from the previous method in that it depends on students’ desire to increase, not complete, their knowledge. One example of a sequential process is how special quadrilaterals lead from one to another, from the point of view of their properties.

3. Discover a pattern: Setting up a contrived situation that leads students to discover a pattern can often be quite motivating, as they take pleasure in finding and then owning an idea. An example could be adding the numbers from 1 to 100. Rather than adding the numbers in sequence, students add the first and last (1 + 100 = 101), and then the second and next-to-last (2 + 99 = 101), and so on. Then all they have to do to get the required sum is solve 50 × 101 = 5,050. The exercise will give students an enlightening experience with a truly lasting effect. There are patterns that can be motivating, especially if they are discovered by the student—of course, being guided by the teacher.

4. Present a challenge: When students are challenged intellectually, they react with enthusiasm. Great care must be taken in selecting the challenge. The problem (if that is the type of challenge) must definitely lead into the lesson and be within reach of the students’ abilities. Care should be taken so that the challenge does not detract from the lesson but in fact leads to it.

5. Entice the class with a “gee whiz” mathematical result: There are many examples in the mathematics realm that are often counterintuitive. These ideas by their very nature can be motivating. For example, to motivate basic belief in probability, a very effective motivation is a class discussion of the famous birthday problem, which gives the unexpectedly high probability of birthday matches in relatively small groups. Its amazing—even unbelievable—result will leave the class in awe.

6. Indicate the usefulness of a topic: Introduce a practical application of genuine interest to the class at the beginning of a lesson. For example, in high school geometry, a student could be asked to find the diameter of a plate where all the information he or she has is a section of the plate that is smaller than a semicircle. The applications chosen should be brief and uncomplicated to motivate the lesson rather than detract from it.

7. Use recreational mathematics: Recreational motivation involves puzzles, games, paradoxes, or the school building or other nearby structures. In addition to being selected for their specific motivational gain, these devices must be brief and simple. An effective execution of this technique will allow students to complete the recreation without much effort. Once again, the fun that these recreational examples generate should be carefully handled, so as not to detract from the ensuing lesson.

8. Tell a pertinent story: A story of a historical event (for example, the story of how Carl Friedrich Gauss added the numbers from 1 to 100 within one minute when he was a 10-year-old in 1787) or a contrived situation can motivate students. Teachers should not rush while telling the story—a hurried presentation minimizes the potential motivation of the strategy.

9. Get students actively involved in justifying mathematical curiosities: One of the more effective techniques for motivating students is to ask them to justify one of many pertinent mathematical curiosities, like the fact that when the sum of the digits of a number is divisible by 9, the original number is also divisible by 9. The students should be familiar and comfortable with the mathematical curiosity before you challenge them to defend it.

Teachers of mathematics must understand the basic motives already present in their learners. The teacher can then play on these motivations to maximize engagement and enhance the effectiveness of the teaching process. Exploiting student motivations and affinities can lead to the development of artificial mathematical problems and situations. But if such methods generate genuine interest in a topic, the techniques are eminently fair and desirable.

You can find more examples of how to use these strategies in Stephen Krulik’s book, Effective Techniques to Motivate Mathematics Instruction.

9 Strategies for Motivating Students in Mathematics

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Teachers, parents, and school leaders have a role in fostering student empathy, particularly when children are very young, writes Jessica Sager.

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