Imagination in Education

“At this time, the world we live in is in great need of a balance between our heads and our hearts, so that we may connect to the ‘tap-root’ in us all by opening us to the realm of imagination, inspiration and integration.”

Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn OBE was an innovator in creative education and the founder of The Pushkin Trust, an organisation that supports creative learning and education across Ireland, works to provide and support a holistic model to spark imagination and deepen awareness of our collective creativity, our humanity and ‘the child’ within each one of us.

Sadly, Sacha died on 10 December 2018 and this interview, first published in the launch issue of Interalia Magazine, is re-published here as a tribute to her creativity, compassion and imagination.

Richard Bright: What do you understand by the word ‘Imagination’?

Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn: Imagination has often been mistrusted in the realm of education as having something more to do with fantasy and the wasting of time, thus, I believe, children in this 21st century are being denied their natural growth path to full potential. The fact is that we live in 2 realities at one and the same time. Our outer reality being linear and time-bound, has more to do with the intellect and the learning of facts and figures and the analytic, whereas our inner reality goes by way of the spiral, is time-less and has the function of making connections and has the ability to synthesise. Imagination is a way of knowing and of being all at the same time. It is the world of And/And rather than Either/Or. It speaks to us by way of images and the symbolic rather than the literal. As a child we are reared on it by way of story-telling and fairy tales and as we grow up we experience it by way of Myth and Legend. It speaks to us also by way of our dreams and day dreams and if we can stay close to the images from within ourselves we can infuse our outer realities with enthusiasm and inspiration bringing the heart back into all that we do. Jung wrote that ‘the imagination is author of all human creation, of all that is greatest in our lives, and that play is its dynamic principle’. It is of vital importance, therefore, that the ‘child’ within us all is given the space to play and find its voice and this can only happen when we ‘still the mind’ and approach the interface between our heads and our hearts. Imagination is ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’ and how helpful it can be at moments to be able ‘to step into someone else’s shoes’ and to imagine how it feels from a different point of view. This is a most vital aspect in social dynamics at this time when the compassion of the heart might solve some otherwise intractable and potentially destructive global problems.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has recently celebrated its 25th birthday, which you are the founder of. What prompted you to do this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, as it was called at its inception, came into being in 1987 during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in N Ireland. My daughter, Sophie, had been having nightmares for some time of our home being ‘invaded’ and I realised that she and thousands of other  children were possibly breathing a form of  noxious toxin that suffused the air at that time – that of fear and hatred, of  grief and loss and of huge distrust between the Catholic and Protestant communities. I was at a loss as to what to do to help her until I attended a very special event in England to commemorate the life of my Russian ancestor, the poet, Alexander Pushkin. It was then that I realised how great Art lifts us all beyond the tribal and all that separates us and moves us on to Universal ground, where we share both the light and the dark of life, the joys and the sorrows. It is the ground where we meet as true human beings and where we begin to find and then express our ‘voice’ by more creative means.

RB: Can you say something about The Pushkin’s Schools Programme and why you feel it’s important to be cross-curricular?

SA: The Western Education and Library Board in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, helped us from the beginning to find 8 primary schools – 4 from the Protestant tradition and 4 from the Catholic tradition who would like to take part in a pilot scheme in the form of a creative writing competition. The schools would also be chosen from both sides of the border – 4 from Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland and 4 from Co Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The schools would then be invited to write short stories or poems on a theme chosen by the Pushkin project. The judges who helped us in the early days were looking for spontaneity, a sense of presence and ‘voice’ in the writing rather than perfect grammar and spelling. The themes we chose  to write about were drawn specifically from one of the 4 elements – Earth,  Air, Fire or  Water –  such as The Tree of Life,  Blowin’ in the Wind,  The Fire Within,  Going with the Flow etc  In this way the theme connected to every subject in the curriculum  and could be  explored and developed in a variety of ways. The Pushkin thematic approach is based on a holistic approach which values the uniqueness of each learner. It also values the contribution made by all subjects in school to the creation of well-rounded, creative and successful students. By placing the environment by way of the 4 elements, at the centre of its thematic approach the Pushkin Trust hopes to instil in children and adults a love and sense of deep connection  firstly to ourselves, and then to the  world in which we live and indeed share with one another. By focussing on a connected and innovative curriculum where learners explore and question, where they create and appreciate, the work of the Trust aims to encourage all learners to develop their fullest potential. The Pushkin logo of the 4 petalled flower is a symbol of the wholeness that we aspire to in our programmes with the 4 functions of Body, Mind, Emotions and Intuition each connecting to one of the 4 elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire centred on the Creative Spirit at its core.

RB: The programme uses creative writing as its central core, together with other creative art forms. Would science ever be considered to be included in the programme?

SA: The Pushkin Trust works primarily with children aged 9 – 11 years. For that reason the writing of short stories and poems, and now of working in many other art forms is the most appropriate way for them to access their creative spirit. However, just as we are convinced that it’s out of such an integrating approach that children can develop a larger sense of themselves as creative human beings, so we also believe that it can be the source of imaginative activity in all fields of endeavour, including the scientific. Our aim with Pushkin is to develop in children a confident degree of trust in that kind of intuitive creativity which is the source of good work in the sciences as well as in the arts.  The closest we get to scientific work is in our way of studying the environment, which stimulates the powers of observation through the senses and encourages a holistic and imaginative rather than simply analytic sense of the natural world. Science as it is conventionally taught relies on the rational analytic intellect, whereas our Pushkin mode of education tries to bring that faculty into creative relation with the other vitally important human functions of feeling, intuition and the senses.

RB: The Programme concentrates on the environment as an important source of inspiration. Why is this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, was conceived, as I have mentioned before, as a creative writing project to enable children in primary school to find their ‘voice’ by way of writing a short story or poem. It became apparent early on in the project that some children found it quite hard to open up to their unique ‘voice’ and connect to the realm of inspiration. It seemed that the most accessible way for a child or indeed a teacher to make contact with the source of their own being would be to take them into the natural world with the help of environmentalists to experience the world around them by way of their senses. After all, so many great artists have drawn upon this universal realm for their most inspired work in order to tap into the creative spirit at its source. We noticed how positively children from both urban and rural back grounds responded to having time in nature – time to regain their senses. It is as if children are in deep need of being re- connected to their ‘birthright’ – to their creative core.

RB: Pushkin’s work has become synonymous with creativity, inspiration and expression of the ‘Voice’. You have talked about encouraging both children and teachers to find their ‘Voice’. What do you mean by this?

SA: The genesis of the Pushkin work began with the ‘voice’ of a child. Realising the fear that was being voiced in my own child in the form of nightmares at that time I searched for a way to enable that fear to be channelled by some means into a more creative expression. I was fully aware that if such negative energy is left to fester it can become self-destructive and equally if it lashes out in self-defence it can destroy the world around it. However, all feelings whether they be positive or negative if they can be contained in some art form then become a kind of gift to life. Inspired by my ancestor, Alexander Pushkin, I realised that the power of the creative spirit, latent within us all, can transform the world we live in by giving a sense of meaning and purpose to ourselves as individuals. We discovered in the early stages of the creative writing programme that if the child in the class-room was to be able to express his or her ‘voice’ fully then the teacher needed to be alongside equally facing the ‘blank page’. We then began an annual November conference for all the teachers who would be taking the Pushkin programme into their class-rooms in the following January. In this way they would experience environmental and arts workshops based on the theme for the year ahead and re-discover the ‘child’ within themselves once more!  The response from teachers to this support enabling them to tap once more into their own creative spirit has been most rewarding. From this has grown our most current programme ‘Inspiring Educators’ which deepens the personal development of a teacher ad helps them to re-discover their own creative voice.

RB: Not only children, but many teachers have described the ‘Pushkin experience’ as life changing, releasing ‘hidden treasures’ that may have otherwise have lain dormant in their normal school lives. Do you think the current systems of education stifle the release of these ‘hidden treasures’?

SA: The ‘Pushkin experience’ has been described by both children and teachers as life changing, releasing  ‘hidden treasures’  that may otherwise have lain dormant in their school lives. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our current education system is its lop-sided nature. There are many positive aspects to learning how to read and write and knowing how to add and subtract and to  getting our sums right but that is only a part of what education is about. The word in Latin educare actually means to draw out and unfortunately our system seems to have failed massively in knowing how to go about this. We cannot have an exam for testing ‘emotional intelligence’ – feelings cannot be marked right or wrong.  Feelings simply ‘are’. So until our education system discovers how to embrace the non-rational side of a child’s nature we will continue to produce youngsters who are not able to cope with the world around them. Our inner landscape is full of hidden treasures – all qualities of the heart and soul. Until we find a way to uncover these treasures our outer landscape will remain severely impoverished.

RB: Educators from all over Ireland have paid tribute to the ability of The Pushkin Trust to inspire. Teachers and pupils alike have described how their contact with this movement has helped them to unlock in them a creative potential which they never knew existed.  When you founded it, did you foresee the Pushkin movement being so influential?

SA: It is most heartening that the Pushkin Trust has been acclaimed by educators from all parts of Ireland to have inspired children and teachers over these past 25 years. I never, for one moment, realised how strong the growth would become of the ‘seed of an idea’ that I had then. But I now realise that the creative spirit, if given the open ground to grow in, will put roots down and  stretch upwards to the light, branching out into new programmes and projects until it flowers and bears fruit. It has been a most rewarding process to have been involved with and we have simply acted as kind of ‘gardeners’ of our inner landscape. To have witnessed the ‘voice’ of so many children and teachers in so many creative ways has been a most humbling experience.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme for the creative and personal growth of the individual. What is your vision for its future?

SA: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme focussed on the creative potential in both the child and the teacher.  I would now like to see this work deeply embedded in and embraced by our education systems.  I would like to see every child in every classroom in primary schools and on through secondary and tertiary level claiming their ‘birthright’ to become whole human beings, fully alive.

The time is now.

…………………..

www.pushkintrust.com

 

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