Not only is there a place for fantasy in our schools, I believe it can serve a powerful instructional purpose.
I might as well start with a confession. I am one of those people who played Dungeons and Dragons back in the Eighties. I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and my understanding of the imagined worlds that parallel our own was developed with help from giants like J. R. R. Tolkien, Margaret Weiss, and Tracey Hickman whose books still hold a place of honor on my shelves.
But what has this got to do with schools?
We know that students learn at the highest levels when they are challenged to apply their knowledge and skills to an authentic and unpredictable situation. Education experts recommend achieving this by (and define what they mean by “authentic” as) engaging students in real-world problems in their schools and communities, and having them actually work to solve the problem and implement the solutions.
This is wonderful in theory, but as a person who supports visual arts programs in over 200 schools with 185,000 students, I take issue with it as an approach that can be applied with a frequency that is practical. If authentic problem solving leads to higher level learning, that at-best-once-a-year project isn’t good enough!
This is where fantasy comes in! Through imagination, students can apply their knowledge and understandings to unique and unpredictable situations all the time.
This spring semester, I experimented with this approach with a class of teachers and pre-service teachers at George Mason University. The class is designed to provide opportunities to practice three-dimensional artmaking while engaging with the big idea of culture.
Each student in the class invented an imagined culture, and through this approach was able to explore the nature of human culture, and apply what was learned to a different situation. Because we live and think within human culture — the very thing we were striving to understand — it would have otherwise been very challenging to apply our understandings to an “other” situation.
The images included here represent a few of the artworks created through this process. The photos were taken during our final class when all 14 students displayed all of their finished work in a relatively small classroom, so I apologize for the cluttered nature of some of the images.
In case you are not yet convinced, let me offer three other reasons to consider using fantasy in your classroom.
1. Science Fiction as Inventor of Technology
It has become common knowledge in our culture that ideas originally conceived through science fiction become the technology and inventions of tomorrow. Allowing students to engage in acts of fantasy and imagination teaches them to embrace the types of creative thinking that may lead to the inventions of the coming decades.
2. Fiction Develops Empathy
“According to both 2006 and 2009 studies published by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, those who read fiction are capable of the most empathy and “theory of mind,” which is the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from their own.” This from an Elite Daily article you can read here. The article includes a couple of good resource articles that you can check out here and here.
3. Fantasy is a reflection of the school experience.
But I think this one deserves it’s own post, so you will have to wait to hear what I mean by that…
Thanks to the wonderful MAT students who were in the class. It was my pleasure to work with you this semester, and I am excited for the future of art education knowing that you will be part of the profession.