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Nurturing the Creative Imagination

The result of the 1997 Ministry of Education National Test of Scholastic Ability showed that while scores in arithmetic calculation were no worse than those of ten years ago, those in solving story problems had dropped; and while there were no difference in subjects involving memorized data such as science and social studies, those that involved explaining reasons had fallen off. This shows that divergent thinking ability (i.e., imagination) has declined. Taking this into account, the conclusion of last year's review on the K-12 educational process--the importance of nurturing the "power to grow," that is, the imagination--is further emphasized.

Up until now, school culture has placed great value on convergent thinking and the ability to memorize and to follow instructions. However, imagination has been given second-class status. This most likely can be regarded as being not unrelated to a school culture that has been influenced by values which emphasize productive and economic efficiency. This should come as no surprise considering that, in the schools, students who solve problems accurately and can memorize large amounts of information perform well on exams. However, in order to go beyond pre-existing notions and come up with new ones, creativity is something we cannot do without.

When they first enter primary school, there is a time when school is fun for all children, there is a time when new experiences are exciting. Gradually, the number of students who come to hate both school and studying grows. As the number of years spent in school increases, environments in which children's individuality can be cultivated slowly, at each child's own pace, become increasingly scarce, and there is less and less room for children to make their own choices about how they want to live. School becomes a tough place for children with a strong sense of individuality, children who are especially sensitive, and children with learning disabilities or handicaps.

One of the reasons for this may result from the school culture's view of ability that emphasizes "deviation value." Although the phrase "deviation value" was abandoned in 1994, this did not extend as far as doing away with the way of thinking it represents, that children's ability is something can be expressed in numbers, that it can be represented in numbers and ranked. This is because it offers an easy way to compare children. By charting students along a single line, typically, half of them then end up being made into failures. No child who is classed as a failure is enthusiastic. This also does immeasurable harm to their discovery of their individuality.

Probably the only thing that exams measure is the ability to memorize, just a single aspect that can be calculated in terms of deviation value. On tests, standards are clearly defined, obvious to anyone; questions are chosen so there is only one route to the correct answer. Here tests are a device to allow children who can quickly produce answers similar to what people have taught them, which they have ingested, into schools with high deviation value--not those who acquire a lot of skill and knowledge, or those who can make their own critical inquiries. Here, there is little likelihood of nurturing the ingenuity to think for oneself, to make judgements and raise objections. There is only one answer; all emphasis is on the ability to memorize the one right way to arrive at the answer (convergent thinking), and the imagination to try a variety of ways to arrive at a variety of answers (divergent thinking) is given secondary importance.

The imagination is something that causes us to think of things we cannot see. Its raw materials are experiences that children accumulate in the course of their daily lives. Imagination is the symbolic function that combines and creates connections between various experiences. The possibility for bringing new things into being results from moments when one draws on and combines experiences that have become raw materials, forming connections between them from eliminating some things and adding in others. Possibility exists precisely in the realm of looking again at experience in a constructive way.

However, at the same time, imagination causes errors in perceiving reality; it is also a destructive thing. On the one hand, nuclear power brought richness to our lives by offering us a new form of energy, but it has also brought us the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Chernobyl disaster and the crisis at Tokaimura, and led to many people suffering terrible illness afterwards. In order to overcome such negative aspects, we must scrutinize the imaginative process, and have a "meta-imagination" that allows us to critically evaluate imagination's outcomes. Meta-imagination itself is the creative power that offers the key to help us figure out whether or not development, progress, efficiency and goal-oriented activity are dangers that threaten human life, and whether or not we can use our imagination to deal with the answer.

So, what kind of activities foster imagination and meta-imagination? Natural ones, those made by humans--as long as they have functions that allow children to act creatively. It is not a question of the products of imagination; what is important is the process itself which leads to definite products that activate the imagination. What is important is coming up with a product while thinking for oneself, using one's ingenuity, and making judgments by oneself.

Through spontaneous activities, children interact with things and ideas around them through activating their five senses, and take in the world by "creating the world," that is "building the maps," within themselves. Though we may say that children themselves become the protagonists in their own dramas, they cannot act alone. The younger they are, the more the world is filled with puzzles. They must get help from adults to create their world. Sometimes their parents and teachers must help them to interact with things and ideas. They model themselves after those they see around them. If they have the help of their parents and siblings at home, their teachers at daycare and school, and their friends, children make their first step toward tomorrow, and can begin to advance in a direction in which they can be people rich in the imagination to improve our future culture.

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