Is education killing imagination?

By Judith A. Yates

As a criminal justice instructor in a career college, I gave my students an assignment that relied on 75% imagination and 25% research. They were so lost that I was shocked. “What are we supposed to do!” They were frantic. “How are we supposed to work this?” I wondered why they had no idea how to use imagination, or what creativity encompassed.

Later, I taught criminal justice in high school, and again was dismayed at my student’s lack of imagination. I began to study the system requirements and noted the curriculum we utilized did not require the students to use inventiveness or creativity, unless it was a music or arts class. Even then, the music and art projects were determined beforehand; students were taught to follow the lesson. If I made a suggestion for change, my supervisor would look at me in horror. “I am going to take them outside one day,” I told her, “and we’re going to sit on the bleachers and use the environment for the lesson.” She thought I was crazy; the idea was extinguished.

Instructors obviously cannot have students run amok in the class in a fit of anarchy, but with guidelines set in place, they could give the students free rein to complete the task, as the student sees fit. This would work well in a group project, where each individual could both show and discover their strengths and learn from their weaknesses. The instructor would give “helpful hints” along the way, but allow the students to think and solve on their own. This is how the real world works. According to a 2010 Newsweek article, “a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The education system is not preparing students for the real world by stifling imagination. Every workplace, every profession, relies on creativity, problem solving, and exploration of ideas. Professional athletes, architects, journalists, and accountants will go no further than the initial job interview if they say, “I need someone to tell me how to do everything all the time.”

Stifling creativity leads to problems in the classroom. Bored students stop learning: they act out, drift off, or shut down. But “getting up and doing” creates positive change. In a study conducted by Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “physical activity breaks of about 5 to 20 minutes in the classroom can improve attention span, classroom behavior and achievement tests scores.” Less that 20% of high school students are meeting this goal of such activity breaks.

A creative assignment does not have to be elaborate. For example, rather than lecture on the affects of alcohol on the body, the brain, and physical activity, I split the class into three groups.  Each group had a large sheet of butcher paper, their textbooks, and free pamphlets I ordered from Alcoholics Anonymous. They traced a fellow student onto the paper, drew in the corresponding “part” (i.e. the brain) they were assigned, and then presented on the affects of alcohol on each. For example, with arrows drawn to hands and feet, the words “motor skills” were written. With arrows drawn to certain internal organs, that group listed affects alcohol had on each organ. The students kept the pamphlets, and some gave them to family members and friends they felt needed the information. We did a follow-up and they could answer all questions, and the students did well on the test.

Within “teach for the test,” learning by memorization, and standardized curriculum, we have lost imagination and creativity. Students have learned to follow by rote and perform rather than ask and explore. Getting creative does not have to cost money or much time. Creativity is not going to take away from what we are paid to do. In the end, it will pay off, with happier students who are actually learning in a healthy environment.


Judith A. Yates is currently completing a PhD in Criminal Justice. She has taught at several schools, within the field of law enforcement; has worked as trainer, attended classes across the country, and has been a mentor in several programs. Her website can be found at

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