Imagine math made easy

Jul 10, 2003, vol. 27, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Tannis Calder, a member of SFU's imaginative education research group, displays artwork for the tale Mita and the Ograk, which she uses to teach math to elementary school children. Calder wrote the tale and created the graphics.

A group of seven to nine-year-old children is feverishly trying to figure out where to place the decimal point in a number.

The fate of a young girl hangs in the balance.

A group of teachers, watching this scene unfold in a video, is transfixed by how a colleague is helping her students grasp complex math concepts by telling a mythical tale.

The video and the teachers' response are examples of how a new approach to education, developed at Simon Fraser University, is boosting student learning and motivating teachers to approach education more imaginatively.

The imaginative education research group (IERG) in SFU's education faculty is hosting the first conference (July 16-19) anywhere to examine the link between imagination and education.

The three-day event in Vancouver will feature 120 presentations by several high profile education researchers.

Among the conference speakers are Elliot Eisner, a Stanford University education and art professor, and Cedric Cullingford, an education professor at the University of Huddersfield in England.

Eisner will talk about the importance of the arts in children's education and how it enhances learning abilities while Cullingford will illustrate how marginalizing imagination can lead to a general lowering of the level of learning.

SFU education professor Kieran Egan acknowledges that the IERG's approach, which he developed, may appear to be old hat.

For years educators have known that piquing the imagination promotes learning, especially in children.

However, Egan's research is the first to demonstrate how imaginative activities enhance people's ability to absorb information, based on the cognitive tools they've developed at various levels of mental and social development.

In several books, Egan, the IERG's founder and director, explains how children's and adults' cognitive tools, such as oral language and literacy, give clues to how their imaginations can be engaged in learning.

For example, children, aged three to eight, learn best when knowledge is built into stories that engage emotion through conflicting forces, vivid image and patterned events.

Tannis Calder, an IERG member and SFU education grad, has written and illustrated just such a story about a girl who needs math to fend off a bloodthirsty monster.

A video that features Calder using the story to teach students math at an independent school in Kitsilano has become a hit with teachers and can be viewed at ierg

“We've developed materials and frameworks at IERG to help teachers link imagination and education,” says Calder, who starts her first fulltime teaching job at a First Nation's school near Prince Rupert in August.

“Most teachers don't have the time to revamp and structure lessons in a way that piques a particular age group's imagination. By helping them understand the cognitive tools they need to pique imagination and providing some ready-made materials we hope to ease that burden.”

Egan says IERG already has a growing database of nearly 1,000 people interested in accessing the group's materials.

(See teaching to download material.)

“I think the emphasis these days on public accountability for how much children are learning makes many teachers wary of trying anything very new. The fact that our work emphasizes imaginative education and links it to better test results is drawing a lot of attention,” says Egan, a Canada Research chair whose funding is enabling this research.

More than 200 graduate students, educators and academics worldwide have registered for the conference (see ierg conference).

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