The Imaginative approach to teaching was developed around 2005 by the Irish educational philosopher Kieran Egan as a continuation of his work in The Educated Mind, and it includes a complete structure of approach, method, procedure and techniques, for which I found it not only perfect, but also gripping. I invite you to become passionate about it just as I did when I read An Imaginative Approach to Teaching.
When I was five, my parents decided to move to another province. They were unemployed and my grandparents had some room in their house for us. I can recall the exact moment when we arrived and they were waiting for us outside, waving their hands. They were so happy that we were there. Dad pulled the car and my sister, who was seven at that time, and I jumped out of the car and run to hug my grandparents. I will forever remember the smell of that arrival. My grandpa had just mowed the lawn, and there was a pile of cut grass next to the entrance door. Mum started crying because she knew we were there for shelter, not for holidays.
I can imagine you pictured every detail of that scene as if it was true, although it is not. Surely, you built a mental image of the scene and started adding characteristics and feelings to it. You may have also made connections with similar scenes in your life. Those of you who really experienced something like this, might have reminisce upon certain old feelings. The power of imagination is amazing, and the best thing about it is that it never dies, we all have it more or less developed.
Egan gives us the elements for a complete approach, as he builds his theory on two main pillars. The first of those is the importance of imagination in education. The second one is the history of learning and how that educational background affects us all. From these building blocks he settles the methods and techniques of the imaginative approach.
According to the author, engaging students’ imaginations is crucial to successful learning. For this, we have to understand what tools we have available for the task: what are their current skills? How can we help develop these skills further? Most teachers will agree that emotions are the key in making something memorable. We don’t remember what is not memorable. And emotions are strictly tied to imagination. Education involves emotional involvement of the student with the subject matter. At this point, we could also relate rapport, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to those emotions. Egan states that emotions are the result of fear, hope and passion. If we do not give students the opportunities to experience those feelings, we do not bring knowledge to life in students’ minds.
Egan retells the history of learning taking into account three variables: language, literacy, and theoretic thinking. He presents these as ‘tricks’ that we have learned throughout our evolution. The first two are linked to communication. We first learn to communicate with oral language. The second is related to the symbols of our language; learning to read and write. The third variable is the result of the first two; abstracting ideas and theories from particulars and the other way around.
The principles of imaginative education include an array of cognitive tools available for engaging students’ imaginations in learning. These are organised in three sets: one set of tools come along with oral language, another with literacy, and the last one with theoretic thinking. These tool kits, as Egan calls them, are tightly related to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Namely, the tools of language come around Piaget’s pre-operational stage – ages two to seven. The tools of literacy come around the concrete-operational stage – ages seven to eleven. And the tools of theoretic thinking are those which we develop from the age of eleven onwards, in Piaget’s formal-operational stage.
The difference in Egan’s theory is that the skills for an imaginative education do not appear magically when you turn two, or seven, or eleven. We do have the basis given by our evolution, but we have to develop them, by getting into our zone of proximal development. We need to further train the imaginative tools that have to learn in a more memorable way, but no one learns to speak, read, write or think abstractly on their own.
The tools of language are the foundation for further development of learners’ imaginations. While students develop their tools of language, they are paving the way for the embryonic tools of literacy. In the same fashion, while students are developing their literacy skills, we pave the way for the embryonic tools of theoretic thinking. It is not a coincidence that many of us have said or read at some point in our lives that people who have a poor theoretic thinking do so because they do not read enough. The same happens with children who find it difficult to read. Should not it be because their orality is still not well developed?
Because of practical reasons, but also because I consider the pre-operational stage as the ‘critical period’ to build the basis of a strong imagination, I will expand on the tools of language. “These are the ones that children can most readily use for learning in a way that helps them unlock the doors of cultural riches that lie beyond the great front door of simple literacy”, Egan says. What are some of the resources that we teachers can use to exploit these skills?
While our students use these cognitive tools of oral language, we should provide the opportunities for them to start becoming familiar with the tool kit of literacy, as Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Some of the activities that we may use during this ‘window’ period include diagrams, making lists, and classifications.
As I stated at the very beginning, Kieran Egan builds a complete approach because he even includes an outline of the steps to be followed in the use of the analysed tools.
Some years ago, my 8-year-old students and I were working on a unit related to food, and I remembered there was a picture book in the library which came useful. As I planned the lesson, I had in mind a different class, a special class to work with this book. But as I took down notes, I started thinking about adding mystery, and so I divided the lesson into two. In this way, students would listen to half the story and would come back the following class eager to listen to the second half. It worked fantastically.
The story was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Yes, I worked with it before I read Egan, that is why I probably did not exploit it as much as I would have if I used it after learning about the imaginative approach. However, I did use some of the tools, like mystery and binary opposites. What steps would Kieran Egan have followed?
First, he states, think about the importance of the topic (ok, we all do when we plan, right?). But you should do this with an imaginative perspective: how can this topic further develop my students’ imagination? Second, select the binary opposites you want to emphasize. Sometimes this step is simple because your chosen topic has only a pair, but in the case of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, there were many to choose among (fat/thin, ugly/beautiful, free/locked). Third, according to the author, we should organise content in story form. I saved some of the effort in this step as I used a picture book. Finally, the last two stages have to do with what you do with the chosen tool. These are the conclusion and evaluation stages. The type of conclusion will depend strictly on the tool used. In The Very Hungry Caterpillar I wanted to focus on the message behind the binary opposites fat/thin because it came useful for the unit on food my students were working with. So, their conclusion took the path of healthy and unhealthy items of food, and we worked on a classification of those items (paving the way for some of the embryonic tools of literacy). The last stage is evaluation, which can be done right after your students use the tool, as in reading comprehension questions, drawing of their favourite scene, imagining a different ending for the story, or a mirror activity, among others.
Dreaming, I believe, is the key to success. Imagine a beautiful world, imagine you are the person that you want to be, imagine you do what you wish, imagine you do not suffer…and your chances of really achieving your goals may not seem that impossible. Thinking positively is a way of training our imagination. I invite you to plan positively, engaging your learners’ imaginations so that one day they can be the generation that takes those dreams and make them true, for once.