Talking Points June 2015
Just imagine! Imagination in second language learning
This month we would like to share with you an interview we had with Garold Murray. Garold is one of the pioneers of self-access learning in Japan, setting up two self-access centers in Akita while he was at Akita International University from 2004 to 2009. He has authored a number of articles on autonomy and self-direction in language learning, co-edited a book on learner autonomy, identity, and motivation and edited another collection examining the social dimensions of autonomy. Recently, he has become interested in imagination and its role in second language learning. We asked him a few questions based on his article, Pedagogy of the possible: Imagination, autonomy, and space (2013).
Naomi: Thanks for talking to us today, Garold. To start, let me ask you, how did you first become interested in imagination and its effect on second language learning or pedagogy?
Garold: My interest was not literature driven. At the time I first became interested, I knew nothing about Dörnyei (2005). I knew that he was “motivation man”, but I knew nothing else about him. I knew Bonny Norton (2001) because she was at UBC (University of British Columbia) when I was doing my PhD. But I knew nothing about the L2 self, imagined communities, that kind of thing. My interest in imagination was totally driven by my classroom experience. I was doing this independent learning course, and I was watching these students and talking to them every day. I would go around and talk to them about what they were doing. They were writing learning logs, and I insisted that they reflect on their learning. When I started my research project, most of them agreed to participate, so I interviewed them. In the analysis, it became obvious to me that imagination was such an important part of the work. In order to plan, to set goals, we really need to be able to imagine ourselves in the future.
When we sort of nonchalantly ask our students to set goals, I don’t think we realize what a complicated cognitive process goal-setting is. Because I believe that in order to set goals we need to project ourselves into the future. We need to see ourselves at that point and determine what we need to get there and the trajectory we need to follow. In that sense, goal-setting is a very complex thing.
Naomi: Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Garold: Some students were telling me “I prefer to read books than watch DVDs to learn English because when I read books, I have to imagine it.” So, I began to see that imagination plays a very important role in our comprehension, especially our reading comprehension. Students say to me “If I can’t imagine it, I can’t understand it.” I wrote all of this up to present as a paper at the ILA2007 conference (Independent Learning Association), which was held in Chiba and to my surprise, the room was full of people. And it was full of people from all over, and people who, since then, have been writing about imagination, about Bonny Norton’s work with imagined communities. Some of these people were doing PhDs with Dörnyei and working with him. I was living in Akita happily working with my students. I knew nothing about this at the time. So, the literature came afterwards.
Jim: Maybe for many of us, Bonny Norton’s L2 imagined selves is about as far as we go with imagination…probably fairly shallow. We have a one-stop activity, imagine your future selves, but you go quite a long way beyond that, in various ways, don’t you?
Garold: What I’ve been doing is I have the students write their language learning history at the beginning of the first class, and then—it was a gradual process—I started having the students do an anticipated life history, in which they imagined their future selves 10 years down the road. They imagine that they’ll be using English, so they have to write about how they learned it, how are they were using it, that kind of thing. More recently, I’ve expanded my interest in imagination, and now see imagination as the essence of hypothetical thought. And as such, it enables us to make plans, to be able to picture ourselves in the future. I’ve started to look at imagination as entering into various aspects of language learning.
Naomi: You base your study on a self-directed study course, but how can you incorporate imagination in other types of classes, such as reading and listening?
Garold: It’s not hard to do, but for some reason it’s hard to get to the point to where we actually do it. For me it was an evolution. I started to think seriously about this when I was teaching a speaking course. You know how in speaking courses, they have all the standard themes. They’re all mostly the same: What did you do in your last vacation? Plan a party or special event. What are you going to do in the future, your career. Instead of telling the students to talk about a party they’ve had, I say imagine a party. You have all kinds of money, you want to throw a party, imagine your party. Or, imagine your dream vacation. So, each unit ended with an activity where they had to imagine themselves in the future, whatever it was, vacation, health plans, lifestyle. Imagine what you’ll have to consider 10 years down the road to stay healthy, that kind of thing. Do you know something? The students found it much more interesting. First of all, if it’s a party they’ve had, they may not want to talk about it with people in the class or they may not be able to.
Jim: So it frees them from being themselves too much.
Garold: Yeah, in a way. I’ve given a few workshops on imagination for various JALT groups, and what I’ve found interesting is that, in the room, there will be people teaching anywhere from junior high school to university. It’s sort of an eclectic crew, and one of the things we have to go away with from this workshop is activities that we can use in our classroom that will support the work of the imagination and engage students’ imagination. These teachers come up with the most incredible activities and it’s for all levels of language learning at different ages. It’s amazing what they do.
Jim: Would you describe what you did through the self-directed study course as fostering imagination, liberating imagination, directing, channeling imagination? How do you see what you’re doing?
Garold: OK, you see, first of all, now I’m reading a lot of stuff in the area of neuroscience. And I think that’s sort of a natural progression. How does the brain work? How does imagination work? This one famous neuroscientist (Gazzaniga, 2011) in the United States that I’ve been reading recently says that we need new language to talk about the mind and self. The language we have now restricts our understanding. It just doesn’t work so well. It’s the same with the imagination. I think we need new language to talk about it. Because, in the sense that we understand fostering, liberating, directing, and channeling, I don’t think you can do that with imagination. I think with the imagination, all you can do is try to put elements in place or create a context and let it go from there. I see imagination as an emergent phenomenon. It’s a lot of stuff coming together in one place, so in the article that I wrote, I talk about pedagogy of the possible, and I talk about certain affordances that support the imagination. Learners need to be able to personalize the learning, they have to be able to relate it to themselves. They need autonomy. At the basis of imagination is autonomy. In any form of emergence, there has to be autonomy. Elements have to be able to move around and interact. There needs to be space for things to happen. And if things are too tightly controlled, things won’t happen. You can try to create this context where you incorporate these elements, but then what happens is out of your control. It’s beyond you.
Naomi: But to teach Japanese students, I guess you’re not teaching them imagination, you’re explaining it to them, it’s so different from what they’re used to in the classroom. How do they usually react?
Garold: Their little ears perk right up. They’re listening. You have their attention. I teach a listening class using the independent learning style, and everyone has their own learning plan. These first-year students are doing amazing work! They’re taking it seriously, and what I found really interesting, each week I present a new material or give them a new strategy for using listening materials. This week it was music and next week is using movies, but as I go around and look at their learning plans, these students are already using these things! They’re using the strategies that I’m going to tell them about. Now, where they got these is a mystery, if it’s true what we hear happens in high school that they basically just study for the entrance examination. Are these kids coming up with these things on their own? Where are they getting it? But they’re getting it.
Jim: One thing I did wonder is that imagination tends to be an individual thing. But a lot of autonomous learning is seen as kind of cooperative or shared or working together. Do you find that creating the contexts or affordances that can release the imagination is something that works in pairs or in groups as well as individually?
Garold: That’s a very good point. Again, as I said, I’ve been reading a fair amount of neuroscience material, and up until recently, neuroscience has studied the individual brain. How does the brain work? That’s been their big thing. But now, they’re starting to understand that the brain doesn’t work as a solitary unit. It works in networks and with the new technology available, they’ve been able to do these amazing experiments. For example, when I’m talking about a particular topic, the same area of my brain that is being activated, is also activated in the listeners. More importantly, they’ve discovered the region in the listener’s brain is often activated in advance. They call it anticipatory response and when the listener has this anticipatory response, like when that region of the brain is activated first, understanding and the chemistry between the people is much stronger.
So, my point is, that imagination is not an individual thing. It’s an emergent phenomenon, I believe, as are metacognition and cognition. With all these things, if there is no “other”, then there really is no world. The philosopher Charles Taylor (2007), talks about the social imaginary, and how all those rules that make our society work, all the shared understandings, have to be imagined. We imagine these structures, we imagine these rules being in place even when they aren’t written down. Moses gave the 10 commandments on stone, but that’s not the way we get socialized, is it? So, to come back to your question, I think on one level it is an individual thing, but on another level it couldn’t exist without the social, without the interaction.
Jim: …without being expressed.
Garold: Yeah, because the thing is, if there was just me or just you, there would be no world. We don’t think about those things, but if you stop and think about it, it can’t be any other way. I remember when I was teaching a class on identity, and again, I was having students focus on various aspects of identity as well as imagine future selves and all that. Of course, they spent a lot of time working in small groups, and one day, I was walking around and I heard this one student say, and I’m sure he said it loud enough so I could hear. He said “Do you know what we need? We need a course on our dreams in university.” He says, “We never get to talk about our dreams.” And do you know something? Words of wisdom. Dreaming, imagining a future self is extremely difficult. Just sit down and try it sometime. Very, very hard to do. I think we need to do this. We need to focus more on imagination and imagining our future selves. We have this buzzword, future self, but our dreams for the future: we need to work on that on a regular basis.
Jim: There’s a kind of level of maturity or something that we tend to underestimate in our students. We tend to think, oh they’re still just like children, but there’s so much happening inside that we can’t see.
Garold: Exactly. And even if we get to know people, we don’t often say to them, well, what are your dreams for the future? Or, who do you want to become? What’s important to you? We don’t tend to ask those kinds of questions. You know, university is about becoming. These kids are caught in this time-space compression. They’re like the caterpillar that’s in the cocoon, and they’re changing, hopefully, into a beautiful butterfly. The point is, it’s a time of intense change for them. So it’s very important for them to be imagining their future and where they want to be.
Jim: When Naomi first said imagination, I was thinking of something closer to creativity. But it’s a particular type of creativity, so I thought what you’ve been talking about is more to do with a kind of faith or vision or perception. I wondered why imagination is the word when each of these other words has a kind of breadth that may better suit what you’re talking about a lot of the time.
Garold: Well, you see, again, that comes back to what the neuroscientists are saying that we need new vocabulary to talk about these things because the present words limit us. They don’t capture exactly what it is they want to talk about and I think you’re right. In the psychology literature, you won’t find the word imagination. They talk about imaging, they talk about other things. They stay away from imagination because of the connotations that it draws up. We think of fantasy. Creativity, which is a more positive term, maybe. But fantasy, let’s face it, has a bad rep. Like daydreaming, bad, bad.
But imagination, you mentioned faith, and I find that very interesting because one of the books that I read not so long ago was by Friedel (2006), an American evangelical pastor and this man has a congregation of like 3,000 people. It’s one of those huge modern cathedrals, or megachurches. His book deals with the role of imagination in Christianity. The central point was the role of imagination in faith and prayer. For example, he quotes St. Mark who’s citing Jesus who said if you pray for something, go ahead, pray for what you want, but if you can believe it’s true, then it will be given unto you. So, in other words, what Jesus is saying is: listen up, kids, if you can imagine this, if your faith is strong enough and you can actually picture this and believe it in your life now, then it will happen. And that’s exactly the thing about the imagination or anything you go to do in life. You need to be able to picture it first. You need to be able to imagine.
The Indian poet Tagore said, the stronger the imagination, the less imaginary the results. Coming back to the question of faith in the Christian tradition, the New Testament is full of references to imagination, but you won’t find the word imagination. But St. Paul in Hebrews said, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Jim: Yeah, that’s the verse that was on my mind. And that somehow brings us back to where we started: considering, developing, and implementing ways for our students to believe in their imagined future selves, the substance of things hoped for. Thank you, we’ve really enjoyed this conversation – and would love the chance to join a workshop on this topic. In fact, I can already imagine being there…!
Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Friedel, D. (2006). Imagine that! Unlocking the power of your imagination. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image.
Gazzaniga, M.S. (2011). Who’s in charge? Free will and the science of the brain. New York: Ecco.
Murray, G. (2014). (Ed.) Social Dimensions of Autonomy in Language Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Murray, G. (2013). Pedagogy of the possible: Imagination, autonomy, and space. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 3(3), 377-396.
Murray, G. (2012). To make a difference, imagine a difference. The Language Teacher. 36(4). 26-28.
Murray, G., Gao, X., & Lamb, T. (2011). (Eds.) Identity, Motivation and Autonomy in Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Norton, B. (2001). Non-participation, imagined communities and the language classroom. In M. Breen (Ed.) Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research (pp. 159-171). Harlow: Pearson Education.
Taylor, C. (2007). Modern social imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.