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Daydreaming as a Lesson Objective
By William Doherty 07-Jun-16
It is strange that an educational world that values the standardized test so regally exhorts me to teach critical thinking, creative problem solving, and entrepreneurship so vigorously. Based in creativity, these are not standardized concepts and fall outside the box of conventionality. In a high-velocity world, it is time to take a look at the educational value of daydreaming. Growing up in the late 1950s, my world was filled with empty spaces in which to play. Neighborhood kids gathered and concocted team games as athletes, soldiers, cowboys, and a host of other creative characters and stories. Rarely did we have adult supervision to monitor or structure our free play. We had time to be kids, create games out of sticks or marbles, and learn to deal with a multi-aged group of neighborhood friends. Unlike then, students’ lives today are so filled with activities, lessons, sports teams, and tutorials there is hardly time for play at all. They have lost much of the time to process and create, and few of our classrooms have adapted to this radical shift in our children’s culture. Many teachers mistake daydreaming for inattentiveness or lack of focus. As an adolescent I was remanded many times to “pay attention.” There were times when this refocus was needed, but usually I had moved into an application scenario by reconstructing the concepts in my mind and playing with the outcomes. I would investigate applications, structures, and syntheses of the information from my teacher through daydreaming. I was focused, just not on my teacher. By interrupting my daydream the teacher inhibited my ability to think creatively. As a young teacher, rather than create the kind of dynamic and investigative learning culture that I knew my students needed, I suffered from the assessment-induced mentality of doing what observation rubrics mandated I exhibit. Wisdom, research, and experience have shifted this focus, however, and my students’ achievement has dramatically increased. In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, author Jonah Lehrer stated, “psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state (daydreaming), revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool.” Furthermore, a new study in the journal Psychological Science shows that allowing your mind to wander might actually be good for your creative prowess. Subjects who were allowed time to be bored and daydream, actually performed better on cognitive tests where creativity was essential. Science appeared to be on my side. Let’s not confuse daydreaming with laziness or aberrant behavior. While following personal educational rubrics, students can be given tasks that utilize processes and tools to complete objectives. Aside, this is how they will learn when they are no longer in our classrooms. My grandmother famously insisted, “Truth be told, children do not need us as much as we think they do.” Providing no time to reflect or process, teachers often arrest their students’ creative development, then wonder why children experience difficulty thinking critically. Giving students time to ponder is an effective means of creating a more effective learning process. Functioning as a guide, a mentor, or best of all, a coach, I am there to assist in the development of a human being. The more responsibility I can give the students for their own learning, the deeper their commitment draws. Recently, I spent time daydreaming with my students. We began with: “What is the longest thought you’ve ever had?” Working in China, students are in structured learning environments from 6:30 am until 9:30 pm, six days a week, with little time for introspection. The class was ill-prepared and even suspicious of such an unconventional approach. Caught off-guard, they waited for me to give them more direction. We sat in awkward silence for about two minutes until one student spoke up. He had been thinking for a long time about how he wanted to be married, have two children (at least one boy), and to live a happy life. We used that as the springboard to share other ideas about long thoughts. Another student commented about writing music; still another about painting, and how long artists had to hold thoughts in mind while working. This led us to reflect about living in the present and its value to happiness and creativity. As the conversation developed, I added relevance by asking these G-11 students if any were considering post-baccalaureate degrees. The invitation allowed them to dream of themselves as graduate students, while understanding that focusing on a subject (a thought) through inquiry and research over several years was the purpose of such degrees. What an incredible class this was! Another strategy I have used is to ask, “What shall we talk about today?” That usually gets us started. As the conversation develops, I interject ideas related to music, art, creativity, university admissions, campus life, and adjusting to an expat lifestyle. It is amazing the focus and drive the students bring to this activity. I do not use this everyday, but it is an immensely beneficial way to gain insight into my students, what they are interested in, and to discover talents and skills I did not know they possessed. Better informed about my students, I am able to connect their prior knowledge and interests to other objectives in my lessons. Lehrer continues, “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem … let the mind incubate the problem all by itself.” I have found that when I create this incubator of creativity within the classroom, my students stay on task with an energy that cannot be manufactured with a lesson plan or a discipline-management program. It becomes an intrinsic expectation from the students. Try a little daydreaming in your lessons, see where these powerful bursts of creative energy take you and your students. Permission to daydream, granted! Will Doherty is at Tianyi AP Center, Wuxi, Jiangsu, China.
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