(Written July 2015)
In considering what the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be, I have taken a great deal of what I present here from, The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, by J. Bronowski, (MIT Press, 1978). In particular, the inspiration is drawn from the description of a mathematician in the company of scientists, “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives”.
For it is the imaginative mind that sets us apart from the animals. Certainly animals use ‘words’ and gestures to communicate, but they do so in a restricted, contextual way; a particular bark or signal is always understood by others in the troop, herd or pack in the same way. Humans are different in that, in our minds eye we can recreate and reinterpret the past, we can imagine and plan the future, and we can convey ideas through a range of complex symbols – any one of which may allow for more than one sensible interpretation. Most importantly for this discussion, we can express our manifold imaginings by way of extremely abstract representations. But we are not born with these skills, we have to learn them. To communicate and to succeed in a civilised, ordered society, we need to be educated; and from this point of view, all teaching is directed at making it possible for humans to ‘visualise’ their experience in mental models and mental images, and then to turn what was imagined into fact. Incidentally, an appropriate and extremely useful theory of human cognition – in terms of mental models, mental images, and propositional reasoning – was developed by Philip Johnson-Laird in the 1980s (see Mental Models, Cambridge, 1983).
The key idea here is that the ability to create and manipulate images in the mind is the basis of reasoning; and irrespective of whether we are experimenting with logical concepts or with artistic materials, we are engaging in imaginative processes that use the same mental faculties in all cases. Further, if the above is true (which I believe it is), then there is no intrinsic difference in the way in which we use the concepts of ‘energy’ and ‘mass’, as Einstein did in the equation E = mc2, and the way in which we use the words ‘sad height’ and ‘fierce tears’, as Dylan Thomas did in:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Both of these expressions convey a very deep understanding of the world as it may be experienced, but neither is obvious from the outset. A considerable amount of effort may be required to rediscover what these two authors meant, an effort that is well worthwhile; but in the process of doing so it would be a mistake to believe that in order to grasp the meaning of one compared to the other you need to have ‘a different kind of brain’. As Bronowski puts it (p. 21):
We do a great harm to children in their education when we accustom them to separate reason from imagination, simply for the convenience of the school timetable. For imagination is not confined to wild outbursts of fantasy. Imagination is the manipulation inside the mind of absent things, by using in their place images or words or other symbols.
Both science and art are imaginative processes in which we are constantly rediscovering for ourselves what the experimenters, theorists, authors, sculptors, painters and poets have discovered before us; and the point has to be emphasised that it is not possible to appreciate the deep conceptions created by science and art “unless we do something to recreate them for ourselves”. Each of us has to engage in this journey of discovery with whatever idiosyncratic set of imaginative tools we have at our disposal – irrespective of the field of human endeavour. And in every case we do so for the same reasons, viz.: 1) to experience the pleasure of exploring imaginary situations, and 2) to give expression to something that is entirely personal. In short, we do so because we delight in our own creations.
This motivation, that ‘we delight in our own creations’, lies at the heart of whatever we truly learn; and this is as true for a babe in arms, an opsimath, and everyone in-between. It follows that if we are ever to have effective educational institutions then they have to speak directly to this motivation.
Does the phrase ‘our own creations’ imply that there should be a free-for-all approach to the way in which we approach the acquisition of knowledge, an, “I did it my way” approach? Certainly not! In considering the idea of having the freedom to act, we note that “you cannot be certain how to design something well, but you can be certain how to design it badly”. This is true of every human endeavour and so the foundation of every creative ability requires an investigation into the existing body of knowledge in that field. It is only when one understands the underlying structure of whatever it is that is being explored, before setting out on the journey, that one may be found in a position to extend that knowledge. Here also it is necessary to deal with a misconception that has found a place in some quarters; it is the idea that in some way science is constricting, while art is liberating. Quite how this view gained traction is not clear to me, but a little thought will show it to be a bogus notion for we need to recognise that freedoms and limitations have a deep connection and are never separated. With every creative act we are met with liberation on one hand, and simultaneously, limitation on the other. Bronowski again (p. 51)
Each of the great intellectual revolutions has broken through (the boundaries of our contagious anxieties, the rigours of convention and social institutions) at its time, and swum into a new sea of freedom in art, science, and society together. But beyond each isthmus there is another; each sea in turn is landlocked; there are natural limits to action in the new age too. The pride of the best men is to probe for these limits by the adventure of their work. These are the pioneering minds, who press forward in the new freedom and create those works which, in exploring it, discover (because they reach) the new frontiers. Lincoln Cathedral is such a creation, and Albertini’s Rimini, the craft of Dürer and Grinling Gibbons and Wedgewood, the Circus in Bath and the Chrystal Palace. And equally the plays of Christopher Marlow and Newton’s Principia, Coleridge and Cézanne and Rutherford, all stretch out and fill the freedom they themselves created, to its limits. The new age ends only when these limits in their turn become fixed and conventional, and wait to be cracked by another discovery toward the next freedom.
This brings me closer to the question of what I think the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be. I think a simple model that shows the interaction of four components in a creative process should be a recurring theme that would be a reminder to both teachers and learners that it is the act of “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives” that lies at the heart of the understanding of anything.
With the imaginative mind at its centre, this simple model illustrates how we combine our experience with what we know of the existing body of knowledge to give expression to our thoughts and conclusions. And in doing so we go through an iterative process whereby we enhance our experience and our understanding to be able to express more clearly what is known, until we reach that limit where new knowledge is created, where freedom comes into its own.
It is my view that it is the task of teachers and the like to bring about educational institutions that forefront the idea that ‘we delight in our creations’; and then to bring about an environment that allows for the imaginings of the creative minds of the youth to be turned into fact.