Finish the Story

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Adapted from an image by laurenatclemson*

Image adapted from a work by Lauren Manning*

As parents, as teachers, we often feel the impulse to explain things to our kids. After all, they’re young and inexperienced, their minds are forming, and we want to help them make their way in the world. When we explain too much, though, we’re doing our children a disservice. The best educational experiences invite young people to leap from passivity to activity. They are always open-ended, in the same way that learning itself is a process that is never finished. But let me get a bit less abstract …

My childhood in Ohio was for the most part normal, even happy, but it was also missing something: in my daily life at home among my immediate family, there just wasn’t sufficient room for rich perceptual development. In other words, things were shown to me and told to me, but I wasn’t regularly invited to imagine, create, or even discover on my own. This may have been a generational phenomenon—the late 1950s and early 1960s was a more conservative time, of course, when it came to child rearing—but the effect was that I grew up with a narrower field of mental vision than I feel I could have or should have had. I did not see a live performance until the age of 16. I started off as a science major, and only later became involved in education and the arts. The arts opened my mind; better late than never!

When I became a father (three boys), I was, not surprisingly, extra sensitive about cultivating my kids’ imaginations. I’ve tried to do so in countless ways, but here’s one particularly fun, easy one: I let them finish my thoughts. Often I’m telling a story or relating information or simply talking casually, and I stop mid-sentence, mid-narrative, and prompt them to fill in the blank. And it’s all right if their response is silly; it’s okay if it’s not “correct” in some cut-and-dried, surface sense. What matters is that the child is not merely absorbing the authoritative pronouncements of an elder, only to recite them by rote at a later time, but rather he or she is thinking playfully and engaging in open-ended exploration. This is joyful, light-hearted, painless imaginative exercise.

In Imagination First, Eric Liu and I include “Finish the Story” as one of our practices designed to help individuals increase their own imaginative capacities. Although I’ve focused here on my personal experiences with children, “Finish the Story” extends to adults as well: in our schools, businesses, and communities, we can inspire colleagues and friends to dream up solutions and conclusions instead of presenting things as clear-cut, closed cases. Forget plain old periods; fill your life with ellipses …

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*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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