How Cultural Education Nurtures Imagination - and Why This Matters

In a recent article in the Times Education Supplement Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chairman of Arts Council England, argues that a rich cultural education is the right of all children, bestowing benefits educationally, economically and socially . That this is undoubtedly true becomes self-evident when we consider how diminished our lives would be without just one facet of human experience that is nurtured through engaging children with the arts: imagination.

Imagination, claimed Einstein, "is more important than knowledge". It is, according to Sir Ken Robinson, "the source of all human achievement". It's pretty crucial, then. Without imagination the majority of man-made things on this planet (and now exploring others) would never have been conjured in the mind as possibilities let alone have made it to the drawing-board stage and blossomed into reality. Imagination is a key component of creative thinking and innovation, attributes that are significantly correlated with professional success and, as any casual perusal of the classifieds will reveal, are highly sought after, highly valued, and attract appropriate remuneration. It is innovation that will arm us to tackle the major challenges of our time including climate change, population growth and resources, scientific discovery and invention, and the global convergence of information technologies.

Lacking a lively imagination we are unable to immerse ourselves in the delights of the arts. In theatre - without the possibility of envisioning a rosy future for a young couple from antipathetic backgrounds but deeply in love, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is hollow. In literature - without the imaginative capabilities that call forth the trajectory for a dissolute young man, what poignant pleasure can there be in Pip's moral regeneration following his Great Expectations. And in art.

Visual art provides both the opportunity to exercise the wonderful human imagination but also an ideal medium through which that capacity may be developed. Presenting art to young minds in a way that allows space for independent thought, there is much fun to be had imagining the noise and commotion just prior to the appearance on the battlefield of Liberty Leading the People; in contemplating the very first human words uttered in an unpeopled world following that vital spark of the Creation of Adam; to consider what it is, out of frame, that holds the patient attention of Whistler's Mother or the hidden thoughts that have, ever so slightly, tickled the Mona Lisa. Without the need for an inconveniently yet-to-be-invented time machine, we can transport ourselves imaginatively into the artist's life and times and context, peek into their influences, their motivations to show us the things they do ... and to conceal the things they hide.

According to an independent review jointly commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education published in 2012

the skills, which children acquire through good Cultural Education, help to develop their ... imaginations. They allow them to learn how to think both creatively and critically and to express themselves fully. All of these skill" s are strong influencers on wider academic attainment ... and help to grow a child's interest in the process of learning

Imagination must be understood not merely as a way of conceiving of the unreal but as a way of engaging with and making sense of the real. Beyond the curriculum, it allows young people to envisage a future for themselves, to harbour ambitions and aspirations. Research shows that children with imaginary friends are more creative, display greater social understanding and are better at taking the perspectives of others. Imaginative powers have a role to play in children's capacities to deal with stress, to succeed at problem-solving, and to cope with challenging situations and events .

Through the rich cultural education that all children deserve we can foster the development of imaginative capabilities that will excite them about the process of learning and help them to achieve their full academic potentials. We can enhance their social skills, imbue them with a mechanism for coping with adversity, and allow them to engage fully in both arts and sciences that will inspire and enrich their lives. We are failing future generations if we deny them this opportunity and failing ourselves and all humanity if we omit to instil in the generations to follow the imagination, creativity and innovative thinking that are the fundamental weapons to wield in the face of the considerable challenges we are handing down to them.