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John Florez: We need imagination back in our schools

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It's time for a renaissance in education — a renewal of imagination and innovation.

Children are born with the gift of imagination. They don't know that they don't know. They are dreamers and know no boundaries. At age 4, my grandson reminded me of that gift as we walked out of a store one evening to be greeted by a beautiful sunset. As I pointed it out to him, he said, "Grandpa, let's go catch it," to which I said, "But no one has ever caught the sunset." Without hesitation he exclaimed, "I will catch it!"

Our nation was built by those who dared to dream, to imagine, to create and to innovate. And like children, they failed fairly often, but they continued to risk and pursue their dreams. They are not afraid of failure. It's what made our nation a leader in the industrial revolution. And our schools, which once taught the basic skills for that time, continue to be concerned with producing students who can fit in to the industrial era mold of mass production of goods and services, rather than cultivating imagination and creativity.

Imagination and creativity in schools are seen as a distraction from the business of testing and following the day's lesson plan. Some administrators see any deviation from the state's "mandates" as a teacher's violation of school policy. In essence, our educational system now appears more designed to assure the "system" works, rather than helping to bring out the imagination and creativity in children.

Years ago, when Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut, with a long list of degrees, spoke at an NAACP meeting in Salt Lake, she made an important statement about children. She said that everywhere she went people always asked what motivated her. She said that all children are born motivated, the question is: What do we do to take it out of them?

The forward-thinking leaders at the National Governors Association meeting in August emphasized the importance of promoting innovation in our nation's schools. Gov. Janet Napolitano, the incoming chairwoman of NGA, announced the goal of her tenure would be "to educate our students to be innovators, and to carry that spirit of innovation through their university experience and into the work force."

She said innovation was necessary because other nations are becoming more competitive. For example, China has now become the leading exporter of information and technology products. And, last year only four U.S. companies ranked among the 10 top patent recipients granted by the U.S. patent office.

Ken Robinson, a leader in creativity and innovation, was one of the featured speakers at the NGA conference who made the case that creativity and innovation were key factors in educating students so they can meet the challenges of the unpredictable future they will face. He said technology and demographics have changed our way of life, and we have to radically change education so it could mine the imagination of students so they can succeed in the unknown world they face.

He has also said that we need to think of intelligence as being diverse; that we learn by sound, visually, kinesthetically, and by abstract thinking. Many schools, however, fail to cultivate that of intelligence.

Today's schools are driven by production and test scores, at a time when imagination, creativity and innovation are needed for our children to succeed in the global economy. Math and science are critical; however, cultivating imagination will allow individuals to use the full range of their human potential. The renaissance was a period where arts and science where renewed. And by bringing them together again, maybe some day our grandkids will figure out a way to catch the sunset.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net