A tool to create alternative understandings of a topic, invite imaginative interpretation, and develop creativity and playfulness.
"And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination."
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Sc. 1, 15-19
People express themselves and interpret the world around them through a variety of mediums - drawings, music, words, dance, fashion, architecture, and so on. Yet when it comes to classrooms and offices we often limit ourselves to spoken or written prose. Being playful with how we present an idea, concept, topic, or other stimulus, not only offers an audience an alternative route to comprehension but potentially creates entirely new ways of understanding it. Similarly, inviting others to play with how they then re-present the stimulus creates opportunities for personal and novel expressions of experience, heightens creative and playful engagement, and legitimises the role and importance of those ideas and encounters which resist linguistic articulation.
Participants need to be open to releasing their inhibitions and not thinking too carefully about what they are doing during this activity. In our experience, participants who stop to consider what they are doing for too long often resort to very literal translations of what they are interpreting or falter when they cannot find one. It is the automatic and intuitive responses of participants that very often lead to the most interesting pieces for discussion. As such, if running the session live, we recommend beginning it playfully and including some free-writing or drawing exercises to warm the group up (see Mini-Bites for a free-writing exercise).
You may also decide that you want to give the students a sense of what they’re trying to achieve first and so you might set a homework task for before the session. Be aware, however, that whilst this can help with a skeptical class - as they will have researched and considered the usefulness of such alternative modes of expression - it can backfire when it comes to the live task as they then try to emulate the more finished pieces they have observed rather than simply engage with creating a representative piece of their own. To overcome this you may want to make the stimulus you use for the homework and the live task different.
A suitable homework may be something like the following:
Find a drawing, a piece of music, a dance - pretty much anything except a textbook or lecture - that you feel captures ‘x’. Think about why you feel it does so. Can you find anything that tells us whether that was what the creator was trying to convey? Does this matter? Does it being represented in this particular form add anything to your understanding or experience of it?
Try it now: Think of a session you have run or are going to run. What is the main stimulus for the session? What is that session’s ‘x’ in the above? It might be an idea, concept, quote, etc. Put it in place of ‘x’ and give the homework a go.
Participants can then discuss their own and each other’s choices during the session.
Remember to support participants unfamiliar with this kind of discussion and interpretative task. You might open by having them discuss their ideas in smaller groups and you should acknowledge all participants’ contributions as valuable - this does not mean saying they are all correct or that you should keep them from scrutiny.
You may then decide to go from this to having participants re-present the same or another idea themselves. Doing this in class, as below, can add a sense of urgent fun and group playfulness and you can facilitate the free-thinking and -doing process, but you could also set it as a further homework task.
Select a concept, idea, topic, theory, text, artistic work, or any other stimulus you are planning on exploring. Ask participants to re-present this in another medium.
This could be a drawing, a dance, a soundscape, a dialogue, a poem, a tableau, a Play-Doh sculpture, a LEGO creation, or any number of other things. For example, in The Dark Would and the IATL module Applied Imagination we have invited participants to draw their imagination, represent the theme of a module as a Play-Doh sculpture, create a soundscape of wonder, and much more.
Build fun with LEGO.
Represent this department as a still tableau.
Listen to this piece of music and represent it as a dialogue.
Try it now: Working with the same idea as above, re-present it in a new medium. Draw it. Put it in a poem. Grab some LEGO and build it. If you now had to begin the session with your re-presentation, how would you do it? Would you explain it or ask participants to interpret it? Could you use all of your re-presentations in one go? Do they all amount to the same thing or do they highlight different aspects of the thing you want to discuss or present?
Don’t necessarily feel limited to only one re-expression. For example, in Applied Imagination we played a piece of music whilst students sat at stations labelled ‘only write’, ‘only draw’, ‘feel free to write and draw’. We had students stay at one station each and then discuss the different results but you could also have them all move between the stations and discuss how each one was experientially different.
Reminder: If running this task live, be aware that you may need to be on hand to encourage participants to keep going and not over think it - particularly if they’re writing or drawing. Keep an eye out for students who have stopped and use that as a chance to say to the group as a whole: “Just keep going - don’t stop!”
Tip: Depending on what medium you're using, this can get quite messy! If you are using crayons, clays, paints, craft materials, etc., remember to think about whether there is a danger to the room's furniture.
Be aware of: When planning, factor in known or the potential for disabilities and conditions that may affect a participant's ability to take part. Are there any auditory issues if you are doing music? Any visual issues if doing images? Any language barriers or reading difficulties if doing text? How might you cope with a student who has a particularly literal mindset and becomes frustrated if unable to 'translate' a stimulus in the way asked? For this last, consider doing group work first before individual. For example, a tableau task could be a particularly valuable way in here or having a group work on the same, big bit of paper so the task feels collaborative and supportive.
Synesthesia and metaphor
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a sensation from one of the senses, such as seeing, causes an involuntary reaction from another, such as hearing. For example, for some synesthesiasts they may hear a particular sound when they see the colour red, or may taste something when someone says the number five.
You may wish to bring up synesthesia as a way of discussing the legitimacy of or how we understand the re-presentation of particular sensations. Monica Murgia’s article ‘Teaching Synaesthesia as a Gateway to Creativity’ also documents how she was inspired by synesthesia to create a class which developed the creativity of her fashion students.
You may also wish to explore the idea of metaphor - the using of one thing to represent or explain another - with the group to stimulate similar discussions about the role of re-presenting ideas within our everyday lives and society. Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (and their article of the same name) is a core text that we use for Applied Imagination and offers a way in that really makes metaphors relevant.
After running such a task and discussing the legitimacy of alternative modes of expression and understanding, can you think of way to allow this within the student’s assessment? Could a student submit a drawing or a dance as an expression of their theory concerning the core topics of a course? If they asked you after the class what answer would you give and how would you explain it?