The Great Creative Power of the Mind, the Imagination, is a 'Means' for Working upon Reality, through Which the Whole Universe May Be Apprehended
As children approach the age of six, Montessori observed that children change physically and psychologically. The Absorbent Mind fades, the Sensitive Periods disappear and an interest in sensorial exploration of the immediate environment faded, but not disappeared.
These children had what Montessori called "a hunger for knowledge and understanding." Exploration of the reasons for all of this surrounded them and became their new focus. These changes in the child necessitated a change in approach. Montessori expressed the situation in the following way:
- Such things as stars and molecules and distant places and times now attracted the child. These were things that could not be experienced directly.
- The power of the child's imagination was required if these explorations were to be comprehended.
- Maria Montessori called imagination the 'great power of this age'.
- The imagination at work has brought humanity to its present state.
- Besides its creative aspect, the imagination has been the chief tool with which humanity has been able to understand the nature of the universe. It is these two uses of the imagination that have enabled human beings to reach their present state and to stand poised to enter a new era of understanding. This understanding is exploration and creation.
- What is the imagination and how does it come to be? How does it operate and what role does it play in elementary education?
Imagination Builds the Mind and is Based Upon Reality
When Maria Montessori considered the imagination, she reached a similar conclusion, stating that imagination was the power to think of things not immediately present.
The imagination builds images; this implies 'something' from which to construct an image. Montessori considered the real-world as the source of images. It provides the raw material with which the imagination operates. She believed that when the imagination began contact with reality, it moved away from speculation and flights of fancy. Little would eventuate and was able to effect change upon the surrounding environment. By beginning with existing, observed facts, humanity and was able to achieve its own acts of creation.
Imagination can only have a sensory basis. The senses helps us to collect from the external world, the material for the imagination. The images that we gather come all of the creations of humanity. The creations of the artist are rooted in the observation of reality. The creations of the inventor find their roots here also. "No genius", Montessori tells us "...has ever been able to create the absolutely new."
It is with and upon images that our mind operates. The measure of these images, the manner in which our mind works with them, is the ultimate measure of the power. One does not carry real objects around in one's mind. All of our experiences are translated into mental images, which the mind is able to abstract.
Dr. Montessori clearly distinguished between imagination and abstraction. In her book The Absorbent Mind, she stated her belief that the human mind had the power to think of things not immediately present (imagination). To assemble and rearrange its mental content and extract an 'alphabet of qualities', from the numberless things that we meet in the outside world (abstraction).
In her view, imagination and abstraction played a mutual part in the construction of the mind's content. The human mind takes from the world through the senses and constructs images. This is the imagination at work. That same mind is also capable of working with the images of the mind; extracting from them common qualities, creating an abstraction.
Imagination in the Elementary Classroom
In the elementary, abstracted qualities are related. This is a new level of abstraction which begins in the Casa dei Bambini with matching games (What objects can you find can you find that are exactly this color?). Now, the abstract idea of 'division' is related to the abstract 'decimal' number and division of decimal fractions is explored. 'Convection' is abstracted through various experiments (Sawdust in heated water; patterns of flow that exist in magma under the Earth’s crust). The cooling of the newly born earth is comprehended as this concept is applied to the beginning of our planet.
By appealing to the child's imagination with 'Cosmic Tales', Maria Montessori brought the universe to children. These were the Great Stories. They incorporated grandeur and mystery in a conscious effort to strike the imaginations of these children. This idea of striking the imagination doesn't mean that the child is to be "excited" by the presentation, but that an impression is made upon his mind, as an impression is made upon clay.
The first of these, "God Who Has No Hands" utilized simple experiments and a series of charts to further feed the imagination.
Science experiments illustrated the various forces and mechanisms which were at work. Small pieces of paper are sprinkled on a bowl of water and amazingly, some clump together whilst others seem to avoid one another. This experiment gives a first impression of the behavior of atoms. Their attraction and repulsion of each other. Pieces of paper are not atoms (and for that matter surface tension is not nuclear force) so it is necessary for the child to move from this real experience into her imagination. Whereas, the atomic forces at work might be better visualized.
The charts utilized in this and many other presentations are also intended to appeal to the imagination. Many are 'impressionistic': They use personification and allegory in order to provide the child with opportunity to exercise the imagination. Hot particles rising above the globe as it formed, and cooler particles sinking down towards its surface, are represented as having 'angels' carrying them. The internal functions of a leaf are illustrated in the form of a factory inside a leaf, where minute workers carry out the various life-functions of a leaf.
In both of these cases, as it was with science experiments. The child must move from an illustration that catches the imagination, to a conception of the real processes at work. The imagination assists the child as the move from angel to convection is made. "It's as if..." the imagination says, to the actual process is brought more into focus.
The mathematics materials also help to develop the imagination. It is not possible, Montessori observes, to 'imagine' the number of animals in the ocean. But, if we express some of these numbers in decimal notation, we are able to deal with such quantities. By utilizing numbers and by building one number upon the other, the imagination is assisted in its task of bringing the universe to the child. It is not possible to visualize one billion or one quadrillion living things. Our minds do not possess the scope for this. It is numbers - 1,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000,000 that help children to imagine such quantities!
Concrete representation of quantity and geometric representation of process contribute finally to an algebraic abstraction. It is not a difficult matter for the child to utilize arithmetic images and images of geometric patterns in order to make a final, generalized abstraction that we call 'algebra'. "That's algebra?" I have been asked by children time and again. "I thought that it was supposed to be difficult!"
The imagination, as we have seen, requires 'something' from which to construct its images. Access to the real world provides the best source for images. Now, as the children become interested in all that surrounds them, the contents of the classroom offer too little. Montessori recommended that we take the children out, showing them real things rather than made objects that are stored in cupboards. "Going Out" was viewed by Montessori as an important way to maximize the store of accurate images in the child.
For every new experience, the imagination is employed as it constructs new images,. It utilizes these new images, perhaps in combination with existing images, to construct novel images of its own. New ideas and concepts are thus built. The mind is further developed and organized, and the imagination is strengthened as its 'muscles' are exercised.
Moral and Social Development
Elementary aged children begin to explore morality and society as they enter the second plane of development. What is good? What is bad? Why does that person behave in that manner? What would I have done if I were that person? How might that person react if I do this? How would this person feel if I said that? How would I feel in the same circumstance? These are the kinds of questions that beset the second plane child, and as is the case with exploration of culture; it is the imagination that must be employed if answers to such problems are to be found.
Exploration of the moral field requires a grasp of abstract concepts (honesty and dishonesty, for example) and the ability to follow and to develop logical arguments. In order to determine what is good or bad, a standard must be introduced. This may be the word of an adult or of a peer. It may be the dictate of a holy book. It may be an agreement reached by a group. It may be measured by degree of contentment or dissatisfaction, or of health or sickness. Whatever the case, each specific must be related to the standard, and according to the standard, a conclusion concerning the moral nature of the matter is reached.
It is the imagination that we find hard at work as the children imaginatively place themselves in the shoes of another.
A similar need for the imagination is discovered when one examines the need in these children to associate with others. Organized activity is the order of the day, and this requires choice of a leader, and agreement as to rules and purposes of the group. As decisions are made regarding the order of action, consequences must be imagined and assessed. As the children develop their own moral codes, it is the imagination that enables them to steer a course. 'In the field of morality, the child now stands in need of his own inner light.' Rules and purposes must be invented. As problems are encountered, new avenues offering possible must be found. It is the imagination that drives these matters.
The moral and social development of the second plane child is founded upon the activity of the imagination.
The imagination is a key tool for elementary children as they explore their culture. Imaginative vision, which has 'no limits' is the only means by which the child may embark upon this new level of exploration. Whatever the interest of a child in the elementary class, it is imagination that provides the vehicle for exploration.
Imagination works in tandem with the other faculties of the mind, building concepts and refining abstractions. It is by working upon images, gathered from the world of impression surrounding each child, that the content of the mind is built and ordered. The work of the imagination brings the universe within reach of each child.
Why does the wind blow? Simple experiments and selected charts enable the child to extrapolate from the classroom, to the neighborhood, to the globe. Understanding is achieved through the action of the imagination. It is the imagination that enables the child to apprehend the marvels of natural phenomena, giving rise to a sense of wonder that encourages further exploration, and an appreciation for and gratitude towards the animate and inanimate elements of the world that contribute to the harmony of nature.
It is the imagination that provides opportunity for elementary children to originate their own creations and inventions. Work with the divided skittles and fraction insets enabled a group of children in my elementary classroom to develop their own abstract procedure for division of a fraction by a fraction on paper. Drawing from concrete experience, they had imagined the presence of the materials, imagined what the materials would do and show, but performed the calculation without them. They had then imagined a general rule/procedure that would replace the material! The Creative Imagination of Science had been at work in these children.
Other children imagined a painting that you could feel, and added sand and other materials to their paint. A three-dimensional, textured painting resulted.
As children learn new skills and develop artistically, they have no recourse but to their imaginations. Creative Imagination of Science, and Artistic Imagination play important roles in the on-going development of the elementary child.
If it is our aim to engender a love of learning in our children. If we want them to absorb to a maximum the knowledge available to them, then it is to the imagination that we must turn. The imagination brings life to what might otherwise be dry facts. If we take the children's love of stories as our starting point, as Montessori suggests, then we may find that there is a new enthusiasm and fascination for whatever we might introduce to them; for whatever they encounter. It is to the extent that the teacher frees and feeds the imagination that the student will learn.