Student Engagement

Can You Teach Students To Be Visionary?

April 18, 2014

"The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious." -- John Scully

"Looking up gives light, although at first it makes you dizzy." -- Rumi

Can you teach students to be visionary? Can visionary thinking even be taught? Most of us might believe that being able to imagine possibility in the way that moves and inspires people is a mystical or unknowable human quality. Yet, by helping our students see themselves as agents of imagination and members of communities larger than themselves, teachers can create a foundation for a visionary curriculum.

I became interested in visionary thinking while working on a yearlong curriculum that requires students to develop community service projects. This curriculum scaffolds the students' development into three projects: Affinity Projects, Ally Projects, and Visionary Projects. By the end of the year, students should be able to create a project that brings people together in a way that is positive and shows how they like to see the world transformed. To get them there, I had to start with where they are and help them grow to be visionary by year's end, a daunting process to be sure.

For their first projects, students work with communities to which they feel they belong. I call these Affinity Projects.

Affinity Projects: Learning to Look Again

With Affinity Projects, I work within the zone of proximal development (or zpd) of the student, specifically by addressing conventional ideas of identity. I ask the students to look at the usual societal signifiers of identity such as where they live, their cultural heritage, and the reality of their physical selves.

Affinity projects are also based on the idea that if we want students to truly respect themselves, one another and the world around them, then we must re-discover the origin of the word respect itself. The word comes from the Latin "to look again." I first ask students to look carefully at themselves and surroundings, which serves as a crucial beginning to exploring identity and affinity.

Then I ask them to look again.

Our ability to look carefully is connected to the words and images of which ideas are made. I ask students to depict these words and images in an artwork. This can also be done a written assignment in the form of a memoir or as a video project. Then, after the review and critique that usually takes place, we examine the work and I ask them, "Is this what it means to be part of this group?" They can answer in a written reflection, but because no words or images can fully describe what is it means to be a member of a group, the answer is usually "no," or "yes, but...". Then, by asking them, "If this is not what entirely represents the group, then what is missing?"

The answers at this point are reflective, subjective and exploratory, leading them to "look again" at what they understand as their identity. What is missing from the picture is the unquantifiable, and often the very soul of what makes that group and identity resonate in a meaningful way for that student. By identifying those things beyond the concrete of their reality, students open themselves to the poetic and lay the groundwork for the visionary thinking that is the goal of the curriculum.

Final Steps for Affinity Project

As a final component of the Affinity Project, I ask them to create an artwork in groups that share one aspect of their identity. Because the classes are usually diverse, students have to look beyond the usual characteristics. I also encourage them to look beyond the usual categories and open it up to playful and fun interpretations. If everyone in the group wants to create interpretive portraits of Finn and Jake, the delightful characters from the animated series Adventure Time, I let them go for it. While it may seem superficial at first, this is where imaginative possibility comes into play, which helps them step outside the rigid boxes and categories to which they have been often been assigned since birth. It also lightens up the heaviness with which we often treat issues of diversity and identity.

Affinity Projects are designed to be trans-identity because the social constructs we call "identity" might actually get in the way of being able to transform the world in a meaningful way. Why? Identities based solely on concrete facts such as ethnicity, biological gender, heritage and geography limit how our students see themselves and how we might learn to see them. Conventional frameworks of identity can put walls around our understanding of being human, and limit our ability to embrace a true sense of empathy for others and the environment.

When teachers overly-emphasize the perceived reality of identity, such an approach can put them at odds with a student's imagination and how the student wishes to relate to the world.

Ally Projects: Getting Involved

The second series of projects are called Ally Projects. With these projects, I ask students to explore, research or develop a project for a group or idea that they support but which they are not a part. One student of Cambodian nationality decided to create a poster for a fundraiser to help the victims of the Darfur genocide that has been taking place in South Sudan. This student because his nation's legacy has had to deal with the horrors of the genocide in his own country, he felt that this fundraiser was one he could meaningfully support.

Another student, who has no real interest in games, saw that playing Clash of Clans and other diversions was an activity that consumed much of her fellow students' attention and focus. She decided that she wanted turn what was perceived to be a waste of time to something productive, and work with the Gaming Club at our school to create a paid-to-enter gaming fundraising event during lunchtime. She received permission to allow network gaming in the computer lab during lunchtime and invited students to share pizza and competitive virtual car racing and other entertainments. The profit received was sent to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Southeast Asia -- an issue for which she did care deeply about.

Visionary Projects: Creating Community

The third and final part of the curriculum is where teachers help students to become visionary. By creating a structure in which they can bring communities together based on an idea, the students expand a sense of self that is not merely based on the construct of identity, affinity or alliance, but one in which barriers that might separate us are abolished.

Guiding questions such as, "What gets in the way of making our community better?" "How can we be a better community?" or "What if..." questions begin the process of students imagining the possible. Again, it is important to allow students to be playful with the initial process, and if there is time, bring those ideas into fruition in short-term preparatory projects. However, I do believe it is necessary to push them towards what matters most to them, and what they believe to be most meaningful.

One of the best examples of a Visionary Project started when students felt that the school community was fragmented and divided. Students seemed to be in cliques and isolated in their social bubbles and were thus separated and alienated from one another. Making this image of the community into a literal representation, the group took portraits of students, printed them and cut them out into circles. They then placed the encircled portraits into plastic bubbles and hung them in trees surrounding the center of campus.

And this where the group's visionary ideas came into play. Using the idea of the wish tree popularized by Yoko Ono in her artwork and which derives from an ancient Japanese tradition, they asked fellow students to use small pieces of paper attached to strings to write wishes for a better community and hang these wishes from the tree. Apart from poetically visualizing what was and what might be possible, the acts of looking at the bubbled portraits and then writing and hanging wishes onto the tree served as the physical embodiment of bringing the community together.

A visionary curriculum might seem like a scary or starry-eyed goal for a teacher to develop, but with strategic planning and scaffolding of skills and projects, it might be possible to help students see their world anew and bring to life a vision that is full of possibility.

What are your thoughts on the topic of visionary curriculum? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Creativity
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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