Imagination as “curriculum”- building up context competencies

As part of my Humphrey Fellowship during the 2023/2024 academic year, I am “imaging” a University of Teachers: a model for lifelong teacher training that supports the inner goals process as a foundation for teaching and learning with 21st-century competencies. The key word is imagining.

On imagining..

  Imagination: is more important than knowledge. Knowldge is limited imagination encircles the world!”

Albert Einstein

You see and sense an idea of what this work could be, “half-backed concepts”, then you completely let go of any pre-informed thoughts, everyday little “sneaky” judgments, and fixed images, and allow your work to be shaped by the context both spacial (place-based learning) and time (complexity of the world and issue around us). 
My first question and reflection is noticing and allowing one to perceive context: “How does one pay attention to their attention?”. I will courageously ask something that I heard 5 or 6 years ago from a Finnish principal “We observed the systems we benchmarked and also their mistakes”, my question “How does one observe mistakes and stay open, not judging, stay humble and kind, in services of the new learning possible?”, as one’s work is in need of innovation. Leadership professor at Harvard University Dr. Linda Hiil, decodes Albert Einstein’s definition of innovation as “combinational chemistry…about half baked notions, competencies, notions and assets that already sit out there and combining them.” 

Here is the image I hold, or it might be that the image holds me, as I land and prepare to start the work in the American leadership education context. It is from the novel Island by Aldous Huxley.

We start with ecology so we do not give children the chance to imagine that things exist in isolation…ecology is relationship lakes streams wood field village etc science of relationships with ethics of relationship”

“We teach them to notice how they perceive the world around, based on their language habits of thinking..bringing all the sense together …one educational process:
What my eyes and ears record one thing
What words I use
The mood I am in
And the purpose I am pursuing allowing me to perceive make sense and act upon.”

Imagination as the practice of receptivity 

Receptivity, as the learning process creates the space for the students to notice their process of building views/images of the world. If I make myself receptive it means something is important. Hence imagination via receptivity is a way to move from rumination. Rumination is the mental fatigue process that makes us feel less able to integrate information and knowledge and allows updates on ourselves and our perspectives. 

One always has the agency to replace a ready-made notion with the best insight of receptivity

Receptivity is the turning point to go toward deep learning, the capacity to stretch instead of quickly conceptualizing, as that actually moves the students away from scientific thinking. Imagination strengthens the muscle of not jumping too fast to conceptualize, judge and classify; tolerating not knowing at the human level and scientific level holding the tension. Dr Sarah Lewis in her book “Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery”, offers evidence of the impact of teaching students to hold this tension for developing scientific thinking.

As we meet Prof. Catherine Loss, Associated Dean Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, she is co-creating the image of the timeline of the “American system of education”, my attention rests when she points almost with certain rhythm the tensions, which might actually make the “American System”, my half baked idea to follow. Here are some examples of tensions in the system: individual vs. collective, control vs. liberation, localism vs. equity. 

  • Decoding receptivity in the classroom, teachers process:

Level 1: Abstraction– observation, yet it is through the lens of the subject one teaches ( what Platon called the projection mind). Observation is correct yet selective. As we “extract” the subject from the whole context and teach it as something abstract, as something on its own.

Level 2 Bridging.  A G Sertillanges in the amazing pedagogical work on scientific thinking titled “Intelectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods ”, bridging the “abstract teaching” back to the “real world”, preparing the mind for looking at the same information, and phenomena from multiple perspectives, of the many different subjects, coming back into a unified sense making as part of our everyday learning and teaching.

Level 3 Awareness – Strengthening capacity for experienced-based learning; one does not categorize immediately one takes it, practicing “ taking it easy with naming and conceptualizing matters too quickly”.  This implies the practice of tolerating confusion.

Level 4 Sustainable learning– Teachers and students care what they are learning about, it has meaning for them. As students, tolerate for a while taking in more than taking out (that is why we cultivate patience with the student’s learning and why over-assessment doesn’t work, or as research shows, very little impact with young learners, especially summative assessment.

  • Case study

Here is a short case study for experience-based learning and teachers’ practice moving through these levels from a dear math teacher, an Italian high school. She quickly introduced a “break” or check-in session: for 4-5 minutes they will practice in lessons when they have to move through more “challenging” topics, what we call a haiku of our attention. Students closed their eyes or simply downcast and took a respectful collective break and she prompted them to rest their attention on an image that forms, an emotion that takes shape, and an action that would bridge the image with the emotions. She was the most surprised of all, to see that it actually works. She came back saying that they all reflected that they were actually more relaxed at the beginning of the lesson and that allowed them to move “quickly” through what they had to cover in terms of material and allowed more time to deepen the conversation, explore new ways of using the knowledge.

Here is a definition for experience-based learning, I love, from the same novel “Island” by Aldous Huxley.

“Integrated mini sessions..attempting the impossible to describe in words the experience..what does it mean ..what does it make you think, feel, imagine …it will help you understand the difference between words and events, between knowing about things and being acquainted with them.”

Experience-based learning offers a clear image of “learning happens in relation”. As the relationship between me the one doing the learning, and the “learning” the object, a concept described by Martin Buber as “I, Thou”, the objects of learning become portals of imagination and this will be unique; there will not be 2 experiences the same, which means we create a context for students to learn, unlearn, and practice the willingness to relearn again, essential for creative thinkers and learners (Lonka, 2019).

Imagination as Integrated Curriculum

To raise new questions, new possibilities to regard old problems from new angles requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.

Albert Einstein

Teachers as facilitators of “micro Integration sessions”, students have the opportunity to practice going with clear intention, becoming better at learning/understanding, and then allowing the rest of the “lesson”/lessons, events, readings, dialogue with peers and teachers to inform. A more pedagogical definition is bridging the intention with everything around. This is decoding “learning outside the classroom”. Learning outside the classroom doesn’t mean going to the museum, theater, park, up on the mountain, or meeting guests that tell us about different jobs in our society, although these are wonderful events, nothing wrong with them. To actually “learn outside the classroom” is the mental framing, an inner process of opening up and seeing connections, and the teacher’s facilitation process to hold that space for the students it is a different kind of practice.

Collective imaginary

Imagination as a class learning process, supporting the movement from IQ to EQ to WEQ, what we call collective intelligence, the class as an “orchestra” the collective intelligence is more than the sum of the individuals, just like the music of the orchestra is the capacity to hold together.  

Integrating sessions at class level, holding one’s interest, one’s source of curiosity, and allowing different topics, encounters, and lessons during the day to speak to one’s interest in a way it is like you would have multiple spaces to tryout your learning. Your learning encounters the one of another peer, and we move beyond any convincing or negotiating of these ideas, into relational learning, where your idea meeting my idea shapes new learning, and the new learning has no “owner”. There is a deep sense in the classroom, of a collective effort.

The orchestra is more than the sum of the instruments

Divertimento (2022)

In the wonderful, inspiring movie called Divertimento (2022), following the journey of the young Zahia Ziouani female conductor, we hear from the roleplaying of renowned Sergiu Celibidache Romanian conductor: “What is music? We do not know…all we can do is speculate, the music is inside not objectified spontaneously you must convey its spontaneity.”

The teacher is like the conductor of an orchestra. One student asks Sergiu Celibidache “Do we actually need a conductor?”, and Celibidache answers “If they repeat enough, there might not be, yet without a conductor the energy of the orchestra dissipates”. We call this pedagogy of the silent teacher or more facilitation in the classroom and the inner skills of the teacher that prepares them for this demanding and complex new shift. The student’s practice and competence from mini-integration lessons is the brain’s capacity to move away from rumination, from automation ( the education of the 20th century) into choosing what is relevant, and move into deep learning (Newport, 2016).

Imagination as critical  thinking

Given that all of the issues that face us demand an understanding of complexity, interrelationship, and nuance, the ability to seek and understand context is nothing less than a collective survival skill,

Jenny Odell

Young learners can practice imagination as critical thinking when they are mirrored back by adults, and teachers on “the image as the ones learning”. This would be a good time to pause the article and just think of a situation when with your feedback the student/ the child received “some information” or an “image” that supports clarifying “their own mind/image/idea” started in their mental process and you could see it on their face. The opposite works as well, it happened to all of us, jumping too soon, and “saving the day” by imposing our clarification onto others, and again reflecting on the facial expression. If I reflect on my similar cases, the first one would be a facial expression of awe, and in the second case, it would rather be a face of confusion, being a bit lost or actually maybe even a little bit contradicted, or sad. 

Let’s decode that. It starts with non-judging as a key practice for teachers leadership in the classroom. What would teacher’s process of non-judging look like? We are humans, in the words of Dayna Cunningham, U-school Faculty member, we will judge on a daily basis, and the matter is to observe, the pattern, to stay present and curious, when is the judgment starting, as good opened detectives “catching a thought before being shaped by our consciousness”. Then we have the autonomy to decide if it is serving or we can let go, as there is another thought, another image that is more authentic to our purpose, to the learning. The thing is that curiosity dissolves judging, when we stay in the service of curiosity, we move away from judgment. And students as early learners too will mimic the adult process and behavior in the classroom. And they will continue to have the tools “to remain curious” instead of being moved away from our curious nature, as schooling has that effect, according to the data. 

 Imagination as “forgiveness”

In a dialogue renowned vulnerability and “Dare to Lead” researcher Brene Brown and Mike Erwin on “Leadership is Relationship”, talk about forgiveness. “Little” forgiveness moments as when you think you deserve apologies from a colleague, the principal, or a parent and you never get them. Practicing with little moments during the day “ the let go” is an inner process, not transactional, we do not count how many such “mistakes” we forgive, and we do not step away with self-doubt. We cultivate forgiveness that in the end serves to cultivate our attention as “discarding the imaginaries that are less useful to our authentic work”, so we allow the ones that serve our purpose to have space (awarness) to co-create with our teaching and learning. Students will mimic this, and they will have mental tools to build the image of the one learning, as critical thinking for 21st-century education.

Instead of a conclusion..

Here is an Invitation to reflect on little moments during the day, 3 to 5 minutes after a moment of breaking from habitual thoughts, or work on the imaginary, that has been running our day, write down 1-2 elements of this imaginary, and how is that informing your wellbeing, your future actions. Notice how your attention shifts, after running these “micro-moments” of practice.

Our lives are authentic to whether we are aware of the role of images and our ability to choose and discard or transform the imaginary that rules our interactions with everything

Robert Moss


  1. On Dr Cathrine Loss, Peabody College at Vanderbilt Univesity
  2. On Critical thinking, and creative process, proprioception for thinking skills in the classroom, Lonka K (2018)”Phenomenal learning from Finland” ( 2016)
  3. On attention, and cultivating context, Odell J (2020): How to do nothing: the new guide to refocusing on the real world
  4. On Imagination and Imaginary Moss R(2007) : “The Three “Only” Things”
  5. Divertimento (2022) movie follows Zahia Ziouani dreams of becoming a conductor while Fettouma, her twin sister, a professional cellist.
  6. On Imagination and Innovation Hill L. (2014): Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation
  7. Leadership as Relationship podcast
  8. The image/picture of this article is from the 1937 original gym, still functional and holding sports lessons, and competitions of West End Middle School, Nashville TN

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