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Teaching resilience: Imagination

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Samantha exhales and brings her hands to the sides of her forehead. Her thoughts begin a downward spiral. “I can only get so far before I don’t know what to do next. I’m not good at writing. I never have been, and don’t think I ever will be.” Her teacher, Mr. Williams, watches her pencil drop to the desk and recognizes the look of surrender on her face. Undaunted, he approaches her desk…

Mindset and resilience share leading roles on the educational research stage. It is nearly impossible to attend a conference, walk through its exhibits or even listen to public radio without hearing about one or both of these topics. Second to educational technology, cognitive psychology is education’s current box office blockbuster.

And rightfully so. The finding that an individual’s perspective on intelligence and response to failure significantly influence effort, and therefore achievement, holds great potential if we can identify ways to apply the findings in teaching.

Before we can identify classroom strategies, we need to understand the underpinnings of resilience. A tripod, with its three-fold support, offers an effective metaphor for resilience. One leg is imagination. The other two are reflection and attention (and the subject of future posts). Together they provide the stability that empowers resilience.


Imagination enables visualization, the ability to generate mental images of situations that do not currently exist or situations that have occurred in the past, and to mentally see oneself within them. Whether its calculating 2 + 2 or crossing the finish line at 26.2, when accomplishing becomes challenging, imagining the future fires up the hope that sustains effort.

Daniel Goleman explains that contemplating positive goals propels us forward; in contrast, thinking and talking about weaknesses and struggles prompts a defensive response that is likely to diminish additional effort. “A conversation that starts with a person’s dreams and hopes can lead to a learning path yielding that vision.”1 Imagining the future influences the present.

Training the imagination

Since it plays a role in resilience, how do we foster students’ imagination abilities?

Strategy 1: Don’t show the pictures

In our increasingly visual world, young people are less practiced in imagining things that are described in words. “Why try to imagine the prairie described in “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” the thinking goes, “when video clips are available?” Even on road trips, those hours when observation and imagination enriched young minds until it was okay to again ask, “Are we there yet?” children stare at on-board or hand-held screens where someone else’s imagination feeds their car-confined senses.

One effective way to train imagination is to read children stories without showing them the illustrations. During initial readings, encourage students to imagine the scenes being described. Then, at a later reading, share the illustrations and discuss how the artist’s rendered scenes differ from the students’ imagined ones. (Note: certain illustrated books are dependent on the illustrations to form a cohesive story. Obviously such books are not good choices for this activity. However, many illustrated books and most chapter books work well for imagining first, seeing second.)

Strategy 2: Ignore the key words

Word problems are short stories that require a mathematical response. When introducing a new set of word problems, read them aloud and have students close their eyes and visualize what is described. As an extension, have the students do quick sketches of the various elements — e.g., frame one shows Fred with 3 balloons; frame two shows Frances with 4 balloons. Once the scenario is visualized, choosing the correct mathematical operation(s) becomes a decision based on conceptual understanding rather than gimmick. If we emphasize “key words” to guide children’s thinking, we have not engaged their imaginations nor equipped them for real-life, where scenarios do not come with key words. Visualizing reveals the patterns that direct action.

Imagination feeds conceptual understanding, and using it increases a student’s visualization capacity, which can be used to nurture resilience.

Strategy 3: Put yourself in the picture

“Imagine you are Thomas Edison,” the teacher prompts. “It seems like you have tried 10,000 different ways and combinations of materials to create an incandescent light bulb that will burn for more than a few minutes or hours. What are you thinking? What scenes might be playing out in your mind? What do you tell yourself to get yourself to keep trying?” Imagined scenarios like this, whether taken from history or works of fiction, encourage learners to see themselves and explore their mental “conversations” within a safe and engaging environment — i.e., since I am not Thomas Edison, I have nothing to lose by imaging myself playing the role.

Mental conversation matters. A recent study found that individuals who either told themselves motivational (e.g., I can run faster) or instructional messages (e.g., Run tall and breathe every third step), outperformed individuals who did not engage in either form of self-talk.2 Researchers also suggest that mental dialogue fills about 25% of our conscious experience. The messages we feed ourselves for a quarter of our waking hours influence our efforts and results. Practicing positive self-talk within a non-threatening scenario, such as imagining one’s self as a historical figure, 1) provides reference points of resilience, and 2) encourages an affirmative and effective response to challenge. By imagining themselves in challenging situations, students mentally role-play the processes they will need to use when confronted with setback and difficulty.

Strategy 4: Guide their thinking

Finally, we can help students develop their imaginations and fortify their resilience by guiding their thinking, especially when challenges arise. Research suggests two images in the mind’s eye spark effort: first, the motivational image of overcoming the challenge and second, the series of images (the “mental movie”) that present the steps, sequence and flow necessary for accomplishment.

Elite marathon runners reportedly use this combination of thoughts throughout entire races. Rather than noticing the scenery on the sides or the TV trucks ahead, these runners move through a mental checklist, repeatedly reminding themselves of their race goals and the adjustments in their running forms and paces required to put the goal within reach. They rehearse what can be and what needs to be to make the first vision a possibility. They think, “goal, strategy, current actions,” and adjust accordingly.

This approach also works in the classroom. For example, Samantha (“Sam”), the fifth-grade student introduced in the opening, struggles to revise her writing by minimizing adverb use. She knows she needs to make changes, but she is frustrated in her attempts. As Mr. Williams (“Mr. W.”), her teacher, kneels next to her desk, the following conversation takes place:

Mr. W.: It seems like you are frustrated. Tell me why.

Sam: I know that I need to revise my writing, but I don’t know how to find and get rid of my unnecessary adverbs.

Mr. W.: Okay, that’s helpful for you to recognize and for me to know. Let’s step back a moment. Close your eyes and imagine yourself making these revisions so well that your finished writing is outstanding. When you imagine that, what do you see?

Sam: I see myself feeling good about how I’ve told my story. I think I would be happy, knowing that my writing was the best it could be, at least with how I use adverbs.

Mr. W.: Okay, let’s work toward making that scene really happen. Imagine that you are looking at a sentence of your own writing. Watch yourself working through the process and tell me what you do.

Sam: Well, I read the sentence. And then I look at each word in it and underline any adverbs.

Mr. W.: Okay, once the adverbs are identified, what do you do? What do you see yourself doing next?

Sam: I’m not sure. I can find the adverbs, but I don’t know what to do next. My mental movie ends right there.

Mr. W.: Okay, that’s helpful! The problem is that we’ve only done the first steps in the strategy. We still have some actions we need to take. Let’s discuss the remaining steps so you will be able to complete them to make this good story even better!

From there, Mr. Williams can provide Samantha with the necessary instruction and practice. By engaging a student in imagining the accomplishment and the process, a teacher can identify instructional needs and engage the student in continued effort to achieve the imagined outcome. This does not need to be lengthy to be effective. The teacher need not create an elaborate context for the student to envision. Simply getting the student to see him/herself overcoming the challenge and strategizing how to make that imagined scene reality kindles a resilient mindset, which empowers the effort needed to advance, to learn, to master.

However, the motivational and instructional power of the mental images remains unavailable if students are not accustomed to or practiced in using their imaginations. Resilient action arises from envisioning what can be and from identifying the steps to get there. Imagination is the launch pad of resilience.

Kevin D. Washburn (@kdwashburn) is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.


Goleman, D., Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (New York: HarperCollins, 2013) 173.

Jabr, F., “Speak for Yourself,” Scientific American Mind (Jan/Feb 2014), 45-51.