The Crucial Role of Imagination in Education

The Crucial Role of Imagination in Education

In Tamizh[1] language, the word for education is ‘kalvi’ and an educator is ‘kalviyāḷar’. The act of educating is ‘karpittal’ and the act of learning is ‘karpadu’. The word ‘karpanai’ (the same as kalpanā in several Bhāratīya languages)[2] means imagination. The author just conveyed to the reader that in the Tamizh language, even etymologically, education and imagination are very closely linked to each other!

The English word ‘imagination’ means to create an image in the mind. What one cannot directly experience at that moment has to be imagined. This may or may not be something that the person has actually experienced before. Some animals may learn and behave according to previous experiences; but they are incapable of imagining a new experience. This is uniquely a human ability.

Thus, when we say ‘karpittal’, it means that the educator must facilitate experiential learning through ‘karpanai’ or imagination for the learner.  Thus, the ‘kalviyāḷar’ does not spoon-feed, does not expect textbook style answers from students, does not take the chalk-and-talk route, does not stick to a syllabus and timetable; in fact, it is none of what we see usually in the classroom today. At most, the kalviyāḷar might instruct – which tends to be generic and framework like in nature – and leaves the interpretation and application to the student. The student is allowed to explore, study, observe, discuss, question, debate, experiment, work, practice and, thereby, learn.

Thus, the kalviyāḷar is one who knows that whatever information one gathers will become wholesome and purposeful only when it can be imaginatively used and facilitates this for the student.

In the book titled ‘Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man that Invented the 20th Century’[3], the author Sean Patrick states that the singular quality that is required to make a genius is IMAGINATION. Taking as his case, he shows how the imagination of one man, the enigmatic Nikola Tesla, steered the entire world’s scientific progress in the last century. Despite a life filled with major set-backs due to envy, deceit, plagiarism and the others’ lack of faith in his ideas due to their strangeness at that time, he did not waver from his imagination that kept him scientifically creative  until his death at the age of 86 with a vast number of inventions[4] to his credit, many of them being products of magnificent imagination and which had an equally magnificent impact in the lives of people.

While all of us have the ability to imagine, some are bestowed with the gift of using this ability much more effectively even at birth; for the others, there is a need to cultivate this ability by various means. Cultivating this ability was the job of the ‘kalviyāḷar’.  ‘Karpittal’, therefore, indicates pedagogy.

One important pedagogical tool that was widely applied in our traditional societies is story telling. In fact, there is no other society that has as many stories as we do. We have always been great masters at story telling. Stories give context, they define characters, intensify emotions and provide the clarity required to discriminate. Therefore, stories get internalized very easily in comparison to other kinds of learning and can reach everybody. The best way to synchronise the imagination of the listener with that of the speaker is through stories. Since stories are a series of images, it becomes obvious that there cannot be a better engaging tool for imagination than stories.

The stories that were – and still often are, though decreasingly – told in Bhārata are not always chronologically linear in nature nor are they about human beings alone. For example, most of the characters in the Pañcatantra stories are animals who possess human-like nature. The stories in our purāṇas are centered around our Gods and superior powers. The itihāsas are a blend of several kinds of stories and values – including puranas, stories of animals, stories of incredible human accomplishment, instructions on dharma as well as history. Through these stories, the imagination of the students was kindled from a very young age. Such imagination, among other things, gave the students a wider perspective of, and feeling of belonging to, the world they lived in; belief in their own abilities, much comfort while facing adversities, helped them to appreciate the value of self-discipline, provided them better discrimination in the day-to-day living with others in the community and to place faith in the higher powers.

As an outcome of enhanced imagination, the mind tends to expand. Thereby, its abilities are also enhanced. The heightened quality of the individuals can be inferred from the profound quality of their work which are still available for us to observe, be it art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy, biological sciences and every other domain of knowledge.


In today’s batch-processing mode of education, there is no environment created to promote imagination. Story telling is non-existent. The mind is numbed by being forced to save and recall information in order to write examinations and earn paper degrees. This causes an immense limitation to the infinite potential and scope of the mind.

With a few generations having undergone this form of education, entire societies have become impoverished on imagination. It is now time to bring about a change in this situation.


The objective is that story telling must be part of every primary school and must take place on a daily basis. However, we have a huge shortage of story tellers to do this work. Some ways to bridge the gap which can be made use of in the coming years are:

-         Story telling techniques must be taught to those who are keen to become story tellers. The facilitators can be story tellers of various genres including kathākālakṣepam artists, traditional drama artists, theatre actors, modern story tellers and so on.

-         The ones who learn the techniques may start to engage with the nearby schools.

-         Story telling must be part of the teacher training programmes.

At this juncture, it is natural for some to suggest online or recorded stories. However, these are not to be encouraged as a substitute to a storyteller in person as they fail to have the personal feel and presence of the real story teller. This, in turn, is limiting when we consider the objective of enhancing imagination. In particular, video/pictorially augmented story telling will be a dampener for imagination as the images are readily provided.


Apart from enhancing imagination, our Bhāratīya stories play an invaluable role in moulding the character of the children. This must be brought back to our schools at the earliest. With this, we would be able to embark upon a progressive journey to re-establish Bhārata as the Viśwa Guru.

Jai Hind!

[1] The pronunciation of ‘zh’ is similar to how the letter ‘r’ is pronounced by Americans.

[2] In Tamizh, letters ‘l’ and ‘r’ are interchangeable (conditionally).

[3] Sean Patrick (2013). Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century. Free e-book

[4] Some of Tesla’s inventions include Alternating Current to transfer power over long distances, induction motor, turbine, tesla coil that can create very high voltage even with low current, neon lamps, hydroelectricity and many more.