At Walden, learning happens when students are asked to wonder. It happens when students are presented with a problem to solve. It happens through a community of inquiry, and deep student ownership. It happens through Socratic discussion and listening. It happens when students aren’t just asked to be receptacles of knowledge, but actively construct their own understanding through exploring, building, and creating. Imaginative Inquiry, an approach we are using in social studies, is a forum for all of these ways of learning, knowing, and doing.
Developed in the United Kingdom, Imaginative Inquiry is an approach based on the idea that children’s imagination is our greatest resource in the classroom, placing it center stage as a powerful tool for learning. Within a community of inquiry, teachers and students create exciting and meaningful contexts for learning, using conventions of theatre—such as point of view, tension, and narrative—to explore curricular objectives.
Imaginative Inquiry strengthens student’s social imagination, allowing them to create, reflect, and practice becoming agents of change in our world.
Imaginative Inquiry activates student engagement by presenting contexts that allow students to experience critical issues of a time and/or place, consider multiple points of view, and step in as expert problem-solvers. Within the imaginative framework, students can be anyone, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. Students are asked to inhabit certain situations and characters as themselves, bringing their own ideas, perspectives, and voices to imaginary contexts that allow them to empathize, problem-solve, and create collaboratively. Mantle of the Expert is one kind of Imaginative Inquiry in which students become a group of experts with a particular commission, mission, or problem to solve. They may become city planners commissioned by the Mayor, organic farmers planning a farmer’s market, time-travelers solving a mystery, explorers on a newly discovered planet, deep-sea divers investigating a shipwreck, JPL employees designing the first human Mars settlement. As they live through the imagined, but real-world context, critical thinking skills are honed through rich, authentic problems that need solving in collaboration. In this way, students are not merely passive observers of the stories of our world, but are collectively invited to take action in the realm of possibility that Imaginative Inquiry provides.
Creators of an Innovative and Inclusive Toy Store
In Joe and Nathalie’s family study last year, their students, the Sea Otters, explored diversity in family structures, gender stereotypes, and social activism. They began by looking at the different family structures in the larger world after asking the question, “What is a family?” They discovered the answer comes in many different forms and shades of color. Through self-portraits, an exploration of Walden’s Family Photo Project, and the construction of their family trees, they learned about blended families, single-parent families, families with same-sex parents, and everything in between! They met families of different shades, sizes, and configurations, and learned that they all had the same love for each other in common.
After this deep dive into family diversity, the students zoomed in on some stories of activists who have worked to make the world more fair for all families. They studied Jazz Jennings, a transgender youth activist, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ruby Bridges. They talked about what being an activist means and what it looks like to fight against unfairness with wise minds and powerful words.
After exploring the story of Jazz and other social justice leaders, the Sea Otters went deeper into a study of gender stereotypes. They talked about the “boy box” and the “girl box” to symbolize the gender specific expectations often put on children and adults. The Sea Otters then discussed how these expectations made them feel, and how unrealistic they often are. They explored toys specifically, and looked for examples in their own lives of children defying gender stereotypes.
After learning about diversity in families, gender stereotypes, and activists, the Sea Otters embarked on an Imaginative Inquiry project to synthesize all they had learned.
As part of the Imaginative Inquiry context, students were invited to look at the inventory of an imaginary toy store called the “Everyone Toy Store,” and then asked to critique it to make it more gender-inclusive and to live up to its name. They critiqued the gender stereotypes of the toy section and noticed that the doll section did not have a diversity of families. After this, the students did some incredible brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. They decided to redesign the store by creating gender-neutral toys and by making a create-your-own-family doll section. The dolls they created had a diversity of skin colors and many different family members (grandparents, stepparents, daughters, sons, infants, aunts, uncles, cousins), so that customers could pick families that look like theirs. The class generated many innovative ideas including a “make-your-own-doll” table, a free cafeteria, a playroom, and a pay-what-you-can model to make the store inclusive and accessible to everyone. As the designers, owners, and workers in the "Everyone Toy Store", they had a chance to synthesize all they had learned about how families are the same and different, how gender stereotypes affect us, and the activists they had read about in their family study.
The K/1 students invited their Buddy Class to come to the grand opening of their re-designed Everyone Toy Store, proudly sharing all they had learned!
In the Mantle of the Expert frame for 2nd and 3rd grade, students were invited to apply for a special, investigative team of time travelers who had an important mission to solve. The mystery focused on the LA River and its relationship to humans over time. How did the river go from being a free-flowing river that provided the original peoples of Los Angeles, the Tongva, with everything they needed to the cement storm drain that it is today, and finally, what will it look like in the future? Sparked by curiosity and excitement about being time agents, the students created their headquarters equipped with everything they would need: books, research tools, and even a time machine!
Using Imaginative Inquiry techniques, the students "time traveled" and began a study of the system of the river from the past; its flora and fauna, and the Tongva way of life. Through field trips, they explored both the river today and the river of the past through structures the Tongva would have built and lived in. Their time travels took them through a study of the river's changes over time; when colonizers disrupted and destroyed the Tongva ways of living, through the huge population boom of the city of Los Angeles during which humans began building on the flood plain that the Tongva had avoided. After destructive floods unsued, the city decided to channelize the river. The time agents questioned whether that choice was the only one.
This inquiry had a chance to come to life when, in the story, the Mayor of Los Angeles asked the city for a new design for the future river. The time agents enthusiastically answered the call, diving into developing their vision and ideas for the waterway's future based on everything they had learned from the Tongva's relationship to the river. They dreamed, envisioned, brainstormed, collaborated, and synthesized all they had learned to build models of the future river, translating the best ideas from the past into innovative designs for the future that would bring humans, animals, and plants back to the river! The motto of the time agents became, "To create the future, you must learn from the past."
Their study culminated into classroom press conferences for parents during which they laid out their plans for the future river and finally an exciting presentation for a special guest: Mike Affeldt from the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and the Director of LARiverWorks, the office that is directing LA River revitalization efforts. The ideas that students presented to the fascinated visitors included transforming the river back to its natural state with clean water, oak forests, and thriving wildlife, edible plant gardens, nature paths, museums, zip lines to trade and recycle food and goods, intergenerational schools along the river bank, and community spaces for collaboration, invention, and learning about each other's cultures. Mike Affeldt gave the students' vision for the future river a raving review and mentioned that he would love for them to come speak with his team of designers!
Small Business Owners and Community Leaders from the 50 States
Upper Core used Imaginative Inquiry and Mantle of the Expert to frame their 50-state study. The essential questions that guided the inquiry were, “What makes states and communities unique?,” and “How can we preserve, support, and increase this uniqueness as well as make our communities stronger?”
In Mantle of the Expert, students take on a role and are given a commission, usually in the form of a high-stakes problem that needs solving. These problems are crafted to require that students don’t just regurgitate or present facts they have learned, but engage the highest-order thinking skill of creating; putting information together in an innovative way. Within the Mantle of the Expert frame, students became small business owners and community leaders from the state they were studying. Their first problem was to create their own character as well as a small business or community organization. To do this, they were going beyond the presentation of facts, and synthesizing and creating from all they had researched about the resources and needs of their state.
The second problem presented in the Imaginative Inquiry was that news had just been announced that the largest government subsidies were going to now go exclusively to big businesses and chain stores. In response, the students, in role as small business owners and community leaders, decided on their own to come together and form an organization of small businesses that would support each other and educate people about the benefits of shopping local. The final synthesis project was a Small Business Fair representing the 50 states. They wrote speeches about shopping local and created slogans and posters to advertise the fair. Students built a store front to present at the fair to share their business or community organization. There were environmental organizations, job training programs, bakeries, animal shelters, groceries, homeless shelters, and many more! Each one showed the depth of knowledge students had about the needs, resources, and uniqueness of the state they had studied. The Walden 4th and 5th graders brought all of themselves and stepped into the role of becoming innovative, creative, compassionate community leaders whose work can change the world!