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Conversation: Imagination in Education

This week, the Lincoln Center Institute in New York is holding what it bills as the “first national conference focused on making imagination an integral part of American education.” I spoke to its director, Scott Noppe-Brandon, earlier this week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. This week the Lincoln Center Institute, which is the education arm of Lincoln Center in New York, is holding what it bills as the first national conference focused on making imagination an integral part of American education. Scott Noppe-Brandon is the executive director of the institute, and he joins us now from New York. Welcome to you.

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: Thanks, Jeff. Great to be with you again.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by imagination and why a conference?

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: First, imagination for us is the capacity or ability to think of things as if they could be otherwise, to ask the ‘what if’ question. Creativity, by the way, for us is imagination enacted, using the formal language of a discipline to enact that imagination. And we take it to innovation, which for us is a new outcome pushing the forum in some way. The question of why a summit or why a discussion around it — the answer or the reason is that we believe if we can bring together influencers from commerce, culture and education, including science and business, we can have a discussion of why imagination and creativity in relationship to standards and accountability is an important statement for education in the United States today.

JEFFREY BROWN: The argument, if I get from reading the literature, is that imagination is a skill that can and should be taught in the schools.

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fill that in for me a little bit. What is the problem when it comes to current education?

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: Two things. One is that most of the time when we think about teaching, we’re thinking about the content area or the discipline alone. We’re looking at teaching math, teaching science, teaching English, but we’re not always talking about how you teach it and what’s the method or the creative tools by which you deliver that. So in that instance we’re trying to look at how to help no matter what the students are learning and no matter what the teacher is teaching the delivery system or the education process for that. If you look at it from the perspective of how you can help people become more imaginative, you can build it into education. For us, that’s through what we call the capacities for imaginative learning, which is a series of habits of mind or ways in which any discipline or any subject can be taught.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know that in the last few years, and you and I talked a couple of years ago about this, and leading up to this conference, you have been looking at experiments and ideas from around the country, practices. Give us an example or two to make this as concrete as possible, so people get how the education of the future might change.

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: We have been working around the country over the last two years since you and I spoke to have what we call ‘Imagination Conversations,’ and the conversations have been a series of public discussions with the people from education, culture and commerce to take a look at, to talk about why this is important in that state and how it relates to career development, job skill development, how it relates to human development, public development, community development In each of those instances what we’ve discovered is there is a natural want for continued discussion in that community. So across the country and post the summit, we’re seeing a collection of people come together to ask for this type of teaching and learning in their community. In New York City, we are combining with New Visions for public schools to open a series of high schools over the next five years that New Visions will be taking the lead on, we’re the lead education partner, and these are charter schools, all high schools where imaginative learning is the center piece of all instruction. So what we have is we have advocacy, we have public policy and we’ve got practical application at the school level both in the classroom and starting schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would it would like? What would be an example of putting imagination into the skill set and into the curriculum?

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: It’s taking issues like how do you get kids to notice deeply. How do you get them to attend to details and information in front of them? How do you get them to notice patterns and make connections and be reflective and tolerate ambiguity? How do you get them to know how to take action, and elements like that combined over time start to build that cognitive capacity for imaginative thinking. What we’re saying is, is that there is no real magic here. It’s not as if we are saying shut your eyes and just dream. We’re saying let’s build it into the moment by moment of instruction, whether you are teaching a math course, or a science course or an arts class.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was thinking about the kinds of barriers that you’re up against. Of course it’s an era where all kinds of educators, cities are strapped, so that’s one issue. But what about the — I think you mentioned in part of the literature — about, well, just a sense of fear, a fear of change, a fear of experimenting and if things don’t go well?

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: I think fear — everyone is afraid of change. It’s the old adage. Let’s change; you go first. Or, you know, it’s a great idea; let’s do it when we have time. That’s always going to be there, and I think what we’re trying to do is show that with this collection of both influencers and needs that we can put that fear on the backburner a bit and rewrite the narrative or reconsider the perspective. Jeff, one of the things that we have discovered over the last couple years, and this is true in every city and state we’ve been in, is that everyone wants there to be an improvement in the education system. We just keep getting into these either/or discussions. Is it accountability, is it standards, is it imagination, is it creativity? Where does fact/reason play into that? We’re merely trying to say, let’s put them in the same sentence. Let’s not have an either/or; let’s have a both/and discussion. And what I can tell you with 100 percent certainty is that both policy makers in education and in the communities are not only ready for this, but they’re hungry for it. Absolutely hungry for this conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are holding the conference, and finally what comes next? What do you want to come out of it and what happens over the coming year?

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: Post the conference, post the summit, we’ll continue to do conversations around the country. They’ll be held in probably another 10 to 15 states post the summit. But we also will be working with the U.S. Department of Education and the teachers’ unions, some corporations, other cultural organizations to hold a meeting in Washington, D.C., in late fall or early December to take this to the legislative or action steps, not just the talking-about-the-policy steps, and we have commitments from everyone to work with us at that level.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Scott Noppe-Brandon is the executive director of the Lincoln Center Institute. Thanks for joining us.

SCOTT NOPPEBRANDON: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining us once again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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