I Can’t Imagine

I am a biology professor, teaching upper-division courses in genomics to students at the University of New Mexico. Our student body is diverse, both in terms of race, ethnicity, and childhood experiences. Two years ago, I was teaching my class of seniors and graduate students, in which I ask for significant student interaction. As the class progressed, I began to sense that something had changed in these students from students I had taught over the past 20 years.

I realized this when I gave them a table from an older genetics paper. I wanted to see how they processed this information, so I asked them what they saw. Several of the students made guesses about the conclusions of the table – but they were way off base. I kept asking them what they saw, hoping someone would say that one column of numbers was longer than the other and that there were significantly different numbers in some of the columns – but I got no response. When I asked one student again, he started to shake and replied, “Well, just tell me what you want me to see.”

In talking about amino acids and protein structure, which is covered several times in their earlier classes, the students could not imagine how charge affected protein structure. For a biology student, this is like knowing that oil and water don’t mix, that opposite poles of magnets attract, and that like charges repel each other. They are intuitive, physical concepts. At one point, trying to get them to think about this, I turned the room lights off and had them imagine traveling through a cell. “What do you see once we have crossed the outer membrane?” I asked. One student replied, “walls.” That was all they could see in their imaginations – walls.

Once I realized that they had not incorporated what they had been learning into their imaginations, I could have them close their eyes and begin to populate their imaginations with more details about whatever we were going to discuss. When we arrived at some imaginative space in the cell and listed everything we knew about the processes there, the students could ask great questions and even made important discoveries. It was clear that these were smart students who had no practice in applying imagination to learning. I talked to them about the importance of visualization and learning things in their bones. I came to understand that most of these students felt the highest thing a human could do was to memorize. Students who had always been rewarded for memorization and rapid recall became angry with me. Others were relieved and excited when I explained to them that humans were for connecting dots, dreaming, making discoveries, and thinking outside the box.

I was worried the problem was just our department until I found out that some law school classes in case law were also taught using dramatizations because the students couldn’t read the cases and analyze them in their minds. In fact, across the US, faculty were experiencing this to one degree or another – probably depending on the types of classes they teach. I gave a talk that fall to AP high school teachers from around the US and, when I mentioned what I was seeing, all of them jumped to their feet and agreed it was a serious problem everywhere. I later talked to three teachers from a largely Hispanic community in California, who, when I told them what I was seeing, started crying. They were greatly relieved that it wasn’t just their students and that someone was looking into this. But, I told them, it is just me.

Everyone had an opinion on what caused this, but I found some papers about children who were not allowed pretend play that described what I saw perfectly. I hypothesized that this generation of students, because they weren’t allowed to roam; were always in organized sports; and went to schools where memorization was the measurement of learning, had not had much pretend play. They didn’t have to use their imaginations in their daily activities – especially not in school.

Currently, critical thinking in science classes is being promoted to increase innovation. However, the students I have seen aren’t ready for critical thinking. They would only be able to dig so deep or ask relatively superficial, predictable questions. Once I realized the challenge was for students to learn to access and use their imaginations, I addressed this with specific exercises and in-class activities. In the past 2 years, I have taught 4 classes using the visualization, questioning, and “getting into someone’s scientific imagination” exercises and I am certain there is much more that could be done at the college, high school, middle school, and elementary levels, especially for boys. This isn’t just one groups’ issue and we can deal with this only if we work together, parents and teachers.

Now, in each class, I see students come out of their shells and realize for the first time, what brilliance they can bring to the table when they use their imaginations. It is hard for students in their 20’s to train themselves in this, so I also, when given the chance, encourage parents and grandparents to give kids old clothes, hats, and blocks for holidays and free time to roam so the innovation and creativity that our country needs is developed before students get to my class.