Children learn best when they use their imagination
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Children learn best when they use their imagination

Unleash the learning potential of imaginative inquiry in your classroom, says Tim Taylor…Imaginative inquiry: it doesn't take a dressing up box to tap into a child's imagination.

As a child I loved games. Playground games, skipping games, card games, board games like Risk and Colditz, obscure data games like Logica and, most of all, role-play games, where I could imagine being someone else involved in dangerous and exciting adventures.

My love of games continued into adulthood and when I became a teacher I wanted to use them in my lessons to engage and excite my students. In this purpose I was incredibly lucky. As a first year teacher I met Luke Abbott, adviser and former student of drama and education specialist Dorothy Heathcote.   Luke and Dorothy taught a demonstration lesson with my Year 1 class using imaginative inquiry.

Within a few minutes of the lesson starting the children and Luke were involved in a full on mission to rescue the inhabitants of a village, which had been swallowed up by a giant hole. Children who I knew well (some of them reluctant learners) were working in active collaboration with each other, sharing ideas, talking animatedly, drawing, writing and making plans. My classroom no longer looked like a traditional classroom, heads bowed, teacher at the front, but more like a functioning workplace with people operating together as a team. Learning was happening everywhere, all at once, not in a tidy linear way; objective, success criteria, activity, plenary, but in a complex, multi-levelled, environmental way. It was emerging in all directions, both from the children and the adults, driven by the needs of the context.

For me it was a revelation and I've spent the rest of my career learning how to teach like Luke and others who use this approach.

What I recognised that day was Luke and the children were involved in a game. The rules were obscured by the way they worked, subliminal, not discussed or agreed, but there nonetheless. And allowing Luke to create with the children an imaginary place inside my classroom, a place where people were trapped underground, and needed rescuing and a place where a rescue team made plans, collected equipment and went into the darkness. As part of my observation I made a list of the curriculum learning that was happening during the lesson: making maps, writing notes and signs, planning, questioning, working in collaboration, discussions on rocks, soils and materials, light and darkness, respiration, lengths of rope, angles, distances, counting, adding, subtracting, and multiplying. Early years teachers will recognise huge swathes of the Key Stage 1 curriculum.

In follow up sessions the children wrote reports of the rescue, newspaper headlines, and letters of thanks, poems of remembrance, safety leaflets and instruction manuals. Over the coming weeks, following on from Luke, I was able to teach almost the whole year 1 curriculum through a single context and the kids loved it.

Fast forward 20 years and I'm working with a class of year 6 students. The context we have developed over the previous weeks is a Tudor house, now a museum, but once used by Henry VIII for a secret meeting with Anne Boleyn. Winding back history, the children are waiting for Henry's arrival by river on a barge (think A Man for all Seasons). Henry has been corresponding with the people of the house and has made it known he wants time alone with Anne away from his wife Catherine and his chancellor, Thomas More. The household are, understandably, nervous; dealing with a king as notoriously short tempered as Henry is a terrible worry.

As the session develops the children organise themselves into factions, each one representing different points of view within Henry's court. Those within Henry's household that support his wish to divorce Catherine; those within his household who don't support the divorce, those that represent Anne's household, and those that represent Catherine's. Within each household are those that are loyal and those that are looking to exploit the situation for their own ends.

The session comes to head when Henry (represented by a boy called Ryan) dismisses Thomas More (represented by a boy called Simon) from his household because Thomas refuses to give him what he wants. The moment is electric; Henry/Ryan lifts his hand and points at the door, Thomas/Simon bows and leaves. As he goes the other members of Henry's household (who have waited for this moment) crowd round his chair and take his place. Simon comes out of the story; he's furious, close to tears. "Why would he do that?" he asks, "I've been his friend for years." The rest of the class is just as animated. Some argue from Henry's side, others from Thomas'. What is clear is this matters; they are genuinely bothered. This is not an academic study, dispassionate and objective, but a real argument, respectful and reasoned, but also heated and heartfelt.

A lot has happened in education since I started teaching: the literacy and numeracy strategies, Ofsted, league tables, international comparisons, three changes of government and countless education ministers. But what still holds true (in my mind) is that children learn best when they are engaged in their learning, when it matters to them, when its contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership and agency. The best learning I've been involved in has not been 'delivered' to a class, but built, over time, in collaboration with students. Explored, examined and argued over.

The curriculum is a dry document, full of the kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding we as a society believe are beneficial for children to learn. By all accounts the next one is going to be even dryer. But, however boring and prescribed the curriculum becomes (and of course the tests) there is no reason for our pedagogy to be the same. In fact, Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw are at pains to make this very point. I believe we should take them at their word.

As a profession we should renew our efforts to research and develop modern, engaging and effective teaching methods. Ones that incorporate recent understanding of how the brain learns, help children develop the skills and aptitudes they need for a rapidly changing world and build on the work of our profession from the past.

Imaginative inquiry is based on a well-researched pedagogy with a long history of practical application in the classroom. Teachers use it in many different ways, some as a single lesson, and others as a year-long project incorporating wide areas of the curriculum. It is a flexible approach that most teachers find, once the context is established, is easy to plan and resource. However, getting a project started can involve a substantial amount of detailed planning which can be difficult and time consuming. It is however worth investing this initial time, in order to reap the benefits thereafter!

Tim Taylor is an AST working in Norwich, a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University and a teaching and learning consultant for mantle of the expert. He edits and writes for mantleoftheexpert.com and imaginative-inquiry.co.uk.

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