Imagination and Learning Science
KeywordsScience Education Thought Experiment Science Learn Pretend Play Narrative Form
Imagination is central to human thinking. In induction it is the imagination that helps bring some order to the elements of sense experience and intuition. And in deductive reasoning one has to go, through the use of the imagination (i.e., through suppositions, hypotheses and conjectures), well beyond what is actually present and what is actually noted. Despite its complex nature, imagination can be understood as the ability to form mental images and also to think in terms of possibilities (Egan 1992). The role that these abilities have played in scientific work, although not reported in scientific papers, can be found in the literature where scientists (e.g., Maxwell, Einstein, Planck, Feynman, Polanyi) talk about their own research or the development of scientific knowledge in general. Their views reflect the centrality of the imagination in science, whether the latter is viewed as a creative/artistic activity, that contributes to new ideas or as a daily laboratory practice that involves problem-solving, experimentation, etc. Perhaps it is van’t Hoff’s metaphor for the imagination as “the building material of science” that best captures the imaginative element inherent in the nature of science itself.
Gerald Holton is one of the very few who have written about the scientific imagination. In stressing the imaginative element of scientific work, Holton talks about three kinds of scientific imagination, namely, the visual, the metaphorical, and the thematic. The visual imagination in particular has played a catalytic role in scientific discoveries and the formulation of new theories and ideas. The history of science testifies to the fact progress in science is made possible because of scientists’ ability to visualize and to create analogies. Galileo’s and Einstein’s thought experiments are perhaps best known for the power to illustrate their originator’s ideas, while Young’s analogy between sound and light, albeit an unsuccessful one, was decisive for our understanding of the wave nature of light. The role of the imaginative element needs to be acknowledged and recognized even in the thematic imagination, even though the imaginative element is not as evident as in the other two kinds. For as has been observed, it is the thematic imagination (i.e., the scientists’ tacit or unconscious preconceptions and presuppositions) that helps shape and even determine scientific ideas, despite available evidence from empirical data or current theory that disagrees with these ideas (Holton 1996, 1998).
Imagination in science, as the ability to form mental images and visualize and/or to think in terms of various possibilities, has been directly or indirectly linked to scientific creativity. Indeed, scientific creativity presupposes the imagination (e.g., one can be imaginative without being creative, but one cannot be creative without being imaginative). This is so whether one considers the scientists’ imaginative leaps, like those resulting in original ideas that contribute to scientific progress (e.g., Planck’s mental leap to move from radiation itself to the radiating atom), or simply such thinking skills as problem-solving and inquiry, which scientists use in their daily work. The fact that “imagination” and “creativity” have been considered by both scientists and science educators to be two ideas that students should know in relation to the nature of science reflects the importance that science educators attach to imagination. This importance is also reflected in the view that imagination can make scientific creativity more concrete, thus offering more opportunities for a better understanding of the latter in the context of science education (see “Creativity and Learning Science”).
Scientific creativity, especially in the form of thought experiments through which knowledge can be acquired through mental manipulations alone, provides support for the central role of the imagination in conceptual change in science and contradicts the epistemology of empiricism that dominated the philosophy of science for the most part of the past century. Thus the recognition of the importance, if not the centrality, of the imagination in science education, came with the epistemological shift from empirical inductivism that took place during the last three decades of the twentieth century. Although some scientists and philosophers had long argued that scientific ideas (e.g., concepts, hypotheses, theories) are mental constructions and therefore they are not directly derived from observation data but are invented in order to account for these data, the role of the imagination in science education was acknowledged with the rise of constructivism, that is, an epistemology which criticized the standard, positivist, empirical view of science (see “Constructivism”).
Jerome Bruner’s hypothesis concerning two distinctive but complementary modes of thinking, that is, the paradigmatic (or logico-mathematical) and the narrative, was decisive for the rediscovery of the importance of the imagination in thinking and learning. While the paradigmatic mode is concerned with the formation of hypotheses, with the development of arguments, and with rational thinking in general, the narrative mode is concerned with “verisimilitude,” that is, lifelikeness, and the creation of meaning. It seeks explications that are context sensitive and particular (not context-free and universal), is entirely divergent, and employs literary devices, such as stories, metaphors, and hyperboles, in order to evoke meaning. Both modes of thinking are “natural,” in the sense that under minimal contextual constraint, they come spontaneously into being (Bruner 1986).
The narrative mode of thinking has been considered central to science and science education. Metaphors and analogies (see “Analogies in Science”, “Mataphors for Learning”) rely on the narrative mode. Even thought experiments are not simply visualizations (e.g., riding on a beam of light, free falling inside an elevator); they do have a narrative form (i.e., when one narrates the thought experiment), and through the listener’s or reader’s imagination, the situation that the narrative describes, no matter how realist or unrealistic that might be, becomes understood. In short, a thought experiment is always conveyed in a narrative form. What should be pointed out though is that the narrative mode is not as imaginative as one might think, since the paradigmatic mode tests ideas through the use of available evidence and logical arguments. And it is in this sense that the two modes of thinking are considered complementary.
The hypothesis concerning the existence of the narrative mode of thinking captures the notion of “possibility thinking” and supports the argument that imagination cannot and should not be linked only to imagery and visualization (e.g., Medawar’s view that central to the scientists’ work is “the ability to imagine what the truth might be” does point to a conception of the imagination as the ability to think in terms of possibilities). In science education both the ability to visualize and the ability to think of the possible rather than the actual are considered crucial (see “Visualization and the Learning of Science”).
More specifically, imagination is required for the generation of analogies and metaphors, for the construction of thought experiments, and for problem-solving and scientific inquiry (see “Problem Solving in Science Learning”). In the context of science education, with the exception of thought experiments, in which the imagination is stimulated and used regardless of whether those experiments are teacher or student generated (with the creative imagination necessarily present in the process of generation), the above mental activities are not necessarily imaginative. In the case of analogies, helping students understand a science idea (e.g., teaching Coulomb’s law as an analogue to Newton’s law of universal gravitation) is not as imaginative as is the generation of the analogy, notwithstanding the misconceptions that can arise sometimes from their generation and use. Problem-solving and inquiry can be imaginative activities too but their implementation in a step-by-step fashion, or generally in ways that restrict students’ freedom and imagination (e.g., through guidance toward an accepted solution or idea), does not make them imaginative.
As well as the construction and/or use of thought experiments, other imaginative teaching/learning activities are (a) open inquiry, (b) storytelling, and (c) artistic/creative activities (e.g., poetry, drama). All three activities require the stimulation and use of the imagination, through the search of various possibilities (e.g., possible factors that might affect the growth of a plant or the illumination of a room, possible combinations of words to write a poem, possible actions in role playing) and imagery (e.g., Newton under the apple tree, Archimedes in a tub, the trial of Galileo). All three can be meaningful, in the sense that they can encourage engagement with science. Such engagement can be explained by the emotional element (see “Emotion and the Teaching and Learning of Science”), particularly present in storytelling and the artistic/creative activities, thus providing support for the link between emotion and imagination. This link is extremely crucial in the case of young children who role-play and pretend play in order to learn science.
The power of storytelling to stimulate the imagination can be enhanced by encouraging a “romantic understanding” of science. Based on Egan’s notion of “romantic understanding,” a romantic understanding of science can be defined as a narrative kind of understanding which enables students to become aware of the human context of the science content that they are supposed to learn, by associating, at the same time, such content with heroic human qualities, with the extremes of reality and experience, with a contesting of conventional ideas, and also by experiencing a sense of wonder. This definition of romantic understanding, while different from that of conceptual understanding, nevertheless relates to the content of science in that science is full of extremes, can evoke a sense of wonder, and provides ample opportunities for associating the concepts of science with people and even things that have heroic qualities. Moreover, scientific content can be associated with the contesting of convention if such content is associated with scientists who struggled against conventional and prevailing ideas and beliefs (Hadzigeorgiou et al. 2012).
The notion of “romantic understanding,” which can be traced to the romantic conception of science, is in line with the view that the stimulation of the imagination facilitates thinking, and this can take place through strange and unfamiliar situations and also through the elements of paradox, mystery, and wonder. The power of wonder, in particular, to stimulate the imagination and facilitate thinking is central to the so-called “aesthetic” approach to science teaching and learning. This approach is based upon Dewey’s notion of “aesthetic” experience, that is, an experience in which reason, imagination, emotion, and action are united (see “Dewey and the Learning of Science”).
Although the extent to which science education can stimulate students’ imagination has not been specifically researched, evidence from studies on the role of thought experiments, storytelling, romantic understanding and drama in science education (see “Role Plays and Drama in Science Learning”), and the ways these approaches encourage engagement and learning is quite promising.
- Bruner J (1986) Actual minds, possible worlds. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
- Egan K (1992) Imagination in teaching and learning. The Althouse Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Holton G (1996) Einstein, history, and other passions. Addison-Wesley, ReadingGoogle Scholar
- Holton G (1998) The scientific imagination. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar