The capacity to imagine is certainly one of the most powerful of human abilities.  We cannot plan for the future without it, because we have to imagine the future (which never really exists), in order to decide what to do next.  Imagination lies at the heart of all human creativity.  It is what allows us to improve on the world by imagining it as better than it is, and then striving to make it so.

It also gets us into trouble.  When we use the word “should”, for instance, we are trying to impose our imaginary world on the real one, often with results we weren't expecting.

Consider a well-intentioned math teacher, who, when making plans for the start of the school year thinks to herself, “Well, this is Algebra II;  they certainly should know the order of operations by now”.  She then plans the first week’s activities accordingly.

Now consider this scene from the point of view of a student who has been exposed to the order of operations a number of times, but has never learned it.  The odds are that math classes have not been a good experience for him.  Perhaps his grades have been at the bottom of the bell curve and he has, out of self-preservation, come to believe that he is “not good at math”.  He sits at the back of the room and never voluntarily engages - he doesn’t want to expose himself to more failure.

For such a student, the first week’s activities immediately cause him to feel lost.  The fact that some of his peers are able to do the work simply confirms his self-doubt.  The train leaves the station, and he is, once again, left behind and feeling bad about it.

By treating the student as he should be rather than as he is, the teacher has inadvertently made a bad situation worse.  This student may never recover the self-confidence needed to participate and be successful in her class.  The lesson?  When we are dealing with students and hear ourselves using the word “should”, alarm bells need to go off.

But what if the teacher had instead recognized that some students may not actually know the order of operations, and done a checkup to see who did and who didn’t.  Now the first week would include remediation for students lacking this prerequisite skill.  Perhaps our student might have some early successes and be able to build on them.  He may even learn the first traces of optimism about his ability to learn math.  He might, in other words, begin to challenge the fixed mindset that has created self-imposed limits on his life.

Working with reality as it is is simply more effective than working with the imaginary world as we think it ought to be.