The Power Tools of the Imagination

My son John, a certified auto technician, owns a tool box as big as our car, and many tools. Some of his tools are very specialized and he uses them only in certain situations. Some he uses in almost every situation and some have universal applications that allow John to use them for more than one task. If you were to watch John at work you would immediately see how, like all good mechanics, his tools become extensions of his hands and body. As he works on an engine, even when he can’t see the part he is working on, John develops a “feel” for what he is doing. While he is not actually touching that bolt with his hands, John feels the bolt and how it is getting loose or tight depending on how he moves the tool.

One of the remarkable things about the human brain is the way we develop a relationship with tools. Other animals use tools but this human relationship with tools is measurably different. Not only do we invent tools for specific purposes, we also explore other uses for them. John says a good mechanic often modifies his tools to see what else can be done with them.

We humans invent and modify our mental tools as well. The tool of language, for example, is no longer used just for the purpose for which it was invented. As we became more proficient with this tool called language, we modified it into a set of new and powerful tools.

The first and most universal of these power tools of imagination is story. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of the imagination. With story we can pull up the other tools of imagination, or what Dr. Kieran Egan calls the “Tool Kit for Learning.” These include metaphor, binary opposites (the conflict in every good story), rhyme, rhythm and pattern, humor, mental imagery, play and mystery. We will write more on these in the following months.

As children, we learn to walk, we learn to speak and we learn to tell stories. Too often, however, we think stories are just for children. But we all use story in our daily lives to give emotional meaning to events that happen. The recent boom of storytelling in organizations is recognition that the human brain thinks in story. As my friend Dr. David Walsh says, “Whoever tells the stories defines the culture.” There is no human culture that does not use story. As powerful as artificial intelligence has become, no one can program a computer to recognize one story as distinct from another; the instrument for detecting stories is the human emotion.

Stories communicate information in a memorable form and they orient the listener’s emotions to that information. Failure to use story in the classroom relegates the curriculum to facts without meaning. Is it any wonder then that kids who are used to seeing stories from the media storyteller come home from school and announce, “School is boring.”

Tannis Calder is a classroom teacher who takes the engagement of students’ imaginations as a central concern. You could say she is a master mechanic. For instance, one of her many uses of story is in teaching some of the strange spelling rules of the English language. She tells her students the story of Violet Vee who hates to be at the end of the line, so when her teacher asks her to stand at the end of the line to spell a word, Violet is on the verge of tears. In the end the children learn and remember that ‘e’ always follows ‘v’ at the end of a word.

Everything worth learning has a story attached to it. Even John’s tool box doesn’t contain a tool that universal.  Imagine that.

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