Foundations of Imaginative History teaching

Three foundations of this approach

num1A part of the novelty of this approach is that it draws on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and extends his “cognitive tools” for use in daily history teaching. What are “cognitive tools”? The short answer is that they are features of our minds that shape the ways we make sense of the world around us; the richer the cognitive toolkit we accumulate, the better the sense we make. The particular tools we pick up influence our interpretations of the world around us, just as lenses influence what our eyes see. The lenses or cognitive tools “mediate” how we can see and make sense of things. If we want to understand how and what we can learn, then, we should focus our attention on those cognitive tools. Our educational challenge is how to stimulate, use, and develop these tools to enhance students’ understanding of history—and that’s what this website aims to show you how to do. Vygotsky’s work suggests a new approach to teaching history because of his fundamentally different way of describing how human beings develop intellectually and how our imaginations grasp the knowledge.

num2Another foundation for this approach involves studies of thinking in traditional oral cultures and particularly how mythic forms of thinking and reference to the past merged into historical understanding with its generation of a new kind of knowledge of the past and understanding of its role in forming our present world. This might seem a second rather unusual place to look to for help with everyday history teaching today, but we will explore what this seemingly indirect route to historical understanding has to offer. But teachers can get a better grasp on how to help people learn history by understanding the tools that underlie it and from which it emerged historically and how it can emerge in children today. Clearly children in the West who come to our history classes cannot be considered in any simple sense like people who live in oral cultures.  For one thing, the environment of the modern young child in the West is full of influences that have been shaped by historical thinking.  But despite this, many of the “cognitive tools” we find in oral cultures, such as images, stories, binary oppositions and pattern formation, help us to understand how history teaching might be made more imaginatively engaging to students.  Even very briefly exploring some of the cognitive tools used in oral cultures for understanding their social world and how it gradually came to be like this will yield a number of practical techniques.

num3The third foundation is the work of the Imaginative Education Research Group. This group came into formation with the beginning of the 21st century, and has quickly developed an international reputation for its innovative, practical, and successful programs. Their focus has been to show how the emotions and imagination of learners have to be engaged for learning to be effective and efficient, and they have shown great versatility in designing techniques and methods for enabling teachers to routinely engage students in these richly evocative ways. This program in imaginative history teaching is the newest of their initiatives. You can find further material, and many more examples of lesson and units plans, on their website, at This third foundation is described in detail in Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding (University of Chicago Press).

“Kieran Egan has one of the most original, penetrating, and capacious minds in education today. This book provides the best introduction to his important body of work.” 
Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, etc. Book cover, hardback.