Some Ideas foundational to our work

The links on this page will take you to different documents that were prepared to give you some understanding of the main ideas undergirding our work and our approach to researching the role of the imagination in learning, teaching, and education in general. We will keep adding to these in the future. But, in the mean time, they will provide a useful primer on what drives the IERG.


  • Cognitive Tools

“Cognitive tools” is another piece of jargon that education has imported from psychology. But we tend to use such pieces of jargon because we can’t come up with better or more everyday terms, or sometimes out of ideleness perhaps, or, even worse, to try to give the illusion of cleverness. Some part of our work on imagination in education draws on ideas of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. In particular we have been interested by his notion of how the “cognitive tools” one picks up play a large part in shaping the sense one can make and consequently in how one can learn. We have been trying to extend his idea by looking at the cognitive tools that come along with language, for example. We have begun to make an inventory of such tools, because they seem to us crucial to understanding both how and what people can learn.

In this section we include some thoughts about what cognitive tools are and why they are important to anyone involved in education, and also our attempts to describe the basic tools that come along with learning an oral language, and then those that come along with literacy. We think these cognitive tools are the dominant influences on what and how students can learn. They are also, hardly coincidentally, important indicators of the forms of imagination that one finds in students at different ages.

  1. Some thoughts about “cognitive tools.” (PDF)
  2. Cognitive tools that come along with oral language. (PDF)
  3. Cognitive tools that come along with literacy. (PDF)
  4. Cognitive tools that come along with theoretic thinking. (PDF)
  • Children’s Minds

You might find this article of some interest in exposing some features of children’s minds. It discusses children’s common interest in and uses of fantasy; titled “Fantasy and reality in children’s stories.”

  • Storytelling

Teaching as Storytelling

One of the most powerful tool for imaginative teaching and learning, particularly in the early years–say, before about age eight–is storytelling. Many teachers who have worked on implementing imaginative education in their classrooms have spoken and written about “the power of story” to engage children and make abstract content meaningful. Examples can be found in the Teaching and Curriculum section of this website.

There are two main uses of the story in education:

  1. Telling fictional stories to students. This approach, using stories that carry powerful moral and spiritual meaning, has been a core of most religious educational programs from the beginning of time. It has also been very successfully adapted and developed, and extended, in the Waldorf school movement.
  2. Using elements of the story form to make lessons in math. or science, or history, or whatever more meaningful and imaginatively engaging. It is this latter use of the story that we have been experimenting with and exploring in a variety of ways. That is, we have been examining the ways in which we can shape regular lessons and units of study into story shapes, drawing on the communicative and engaging power to make the everyday material of the curriculum more lively and stimulating to both teacher and student.

Given our approach, and our focus on story structuring of regular curriculum content, we have done little with telling stories in the traditional sense. Our work is a little more like the sense of story that a newspaper editor has who asks her reporter “What’s the story on that event?” That is, she isn’t asking the reporter to make up a fiction, but rather to shape the event so that it will be engaging to the reader. Similarly, we are interested in what are the great stories about mathematics and science and social studies that we have to tell our students.

We labor this point a little, because, apparently however much we emphasize it, many people still think we are doing work on how to tell fictional stories in science, for example. We are not so much interested in including stories in science lessons–though we recognize such an approach can also have positive features–but rather we want to show how a typical science lesson or unit of study can be shaped into a story form.

Please contact us with your own accounts of story shaping your teaching, or with results of research or further ideas on uses of the story form in teaching and learning. Here we will provide a few examples of the kind of work we have been doing, embodied in articles and other texts. In the Teaching and Curriculum section you will be able to find many examples of use of these ideas.

Our work in this regard has taken off from Kieran Egan’s Teaching as Story Telling, which has been translated into many languages. Because the book was so well received, and because many teachers asked for further examples, he wrote a Supplement to the book, which we’ll also include below.

Supplement to Teaching as Story Telling (PDF)
The cognitive tools of children’s imaginations (PDF)

  • Imagination

Thoughts on Imagination

As you might imagine, we think about imagination quite a bit. While nearly everyone in education claims they want imaginative teaching and learning, you will find very little written about imagination and even less research aimed at the topic. This is largely because it is so complex or so diffuse a topic. It is certainly a concept that has had a long history, and one that provokes passionate reactions whenever it comes up in conversation. The problem, however, is that it remains poorly understood.

Here is a good example. You may have noticed on the homepage of our site a small box in the upper right corner featuring various alternating quotes on imagination. Kind visitors to our site sometimes suggest that we add to these changing quotes about imagination Einstein’s famous observation that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” One knows what he means, of course; that very knowledgeable people without imaginations tend to work fruitlessly. But that quote suggests that somehow knowledge and imagination are competitors, whereas our work is dedicated to the opposite belief. We are committed to encouraging imagination through the growth of knowledge. Ignorance is not a condition that favours imagination.

So, then, what is imagination? Well, there is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer might look like this:

Imagination is the capacity to think of things as possibly being so; it is an intentional act of mind; it is the source of invention, novelty, and generativity; it is not implicated in all perception and in the construction of all meaning; it is not distinct from rationality but is rather a capacity that greatly enriches rational thinking. The imaginative person has this capacity in a high degree. It may not be invariably true that imagination involves our image-forming capacity, but image-forming is certainly common in uses of the imagination and may in subtle ways be inevitably involved in all forms of imagining; and image-forming commonly implicates emotions.

To “imagine something is to think of it as possibly being so.” The “imaginative person is one with the ability to think of lots of possibilities, usually with some richness of detail.” (Alan R. White. 1990. The Language of Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.) We also like Robin Barrow’s notion of imaginativeness being marked by the joint conditions of the unusual and effective.

For a very short history and a very long definition of imagination in PDF format, click here.