What is Imaginative Education

We will begin with a piece written by Claudia Ruitenber, and edited by Mark Fettes, which gives an abbreviated look at one of the sets of ideas we have been working with. Claudia gives examples of the main ideas by reference to quotations from Winne the Pooh—you should be warned!

Imaginative Education: an Introductory Exposition

Imaginative Education is a way of teaching and learning that is based on engaging learners’ imaginations. Imagination is the ability to think of what might be possible, in a manner that is not tightly constrained by the actual or taken-for-granted. It is the “reaching out” feature of the mind, enabling us to go beyond what we have mastered so far. Without human imagination, no culture would look the way it does today, and no learner would be able to participate in and contribute to that culture.

Since there are already so many models for education, many of which are quite disappointing when put into practice, you may wonder what Imaginative Education offers that others do not. One of its strengths is that it corresponds more close to how people acquire lasting understandings of the world. Many ideas about education rely on notions of storage and retrieval (or “banking”), where the main challenge for the learner is lies in mentally storing as much correct information as possible, and then being able to retrieve that information when needed. Education is also sometimes thought of as an assembly-line process, in which the main challenge for the learner lies in the progressive accumulation of pieces of knowledge and skills.

Probably most of us are familiar with schools and teachers that function according to the banking or assembly-line models. Some children even succeed in performing well on tests of this kind of learning. However, many do not succeed, and even the successful test-takers find that much of that stored or assembled knowledge has a short shelf-life: it quickly fades from memory. It has also been widely recognized that knowledge of this kind is often difficult to apply to new situations and challenges. Imaginative education tries to address both of these problems, by generating understandings that are both flexible and lasting.

To accomplish this, the imaginative educator seeks to value and build upon the way the child understands her or his experiences, rather than always focusing on the “adult” way of understanding as the measure of learning. To do this, educators themselves must be imaginative and sensitive to dimensions of learning that they may have never thought of as relevant to education.

How can I picture this Imaginative Education?

Think of a child’s journey to adulthood (and, for most children, through school) as a slow climb through five different ecological zones. In each zone, children come to understand the world in different ways, each building on the kinds of understanding they have previously achieved. There are many possible names for these zones, and there could be less than or more than five, depending on what you believe is centrally important in education. The five we use here were described by Kieran Egan, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University, based on the different ways we learn to use language. He called the five zones Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic.

The process of climbing through these five zones is not a steady and inevitable one. Children do not “naturally” develop one kind of understanding at a particular age, and another kind at another age. All kinds of understanding are closely bound up with the cultural context, the place and time, in which the child develops them. One of the problems posed by “banking” or “assembly-line” education is that it does not cultivate any of these kinds of understanding particularly well. It is as if the children, instead of hiking upwards at their own speed with helpful and unhurried guides, are crammed into a bus and whisked up the road with checklists clenched in their hands and noses pressed to the window, trying to make sense of the landscape as it whips by.

It is also important to realize that these kinds of understanding are not completely distinct from one another, just as one ecological zone blends into the next with no clear dividing line. Nor are later kinds of understanding necessarily “better” than earlier kinds. Each kind of understanding brings new capacities with it, but these work best if they can be combined with earlier capacities rather than replacing them. In Imaginative Education, the challenge is not only mastery of new tools for understanding the world, but also not losing mastery of old tools! Even if, at different ages and for different tasks, certain kinds of understanding are used more than others, we rarely use only one tool to construct meaning (like we rarely construct an object with only one tool).

In the story of a child’s journey that we develop here, it is the acquisition of different kinds of linguistic tool that propels the child from one zone to another. All children begin in the Somatic zone, and progress to the Mythic zone with entry into oral language. After that, however, the story differs greatly for different children. In modern, western cultures, many children are tugged rather abruptly into the Romantic zone with exposure to the products of mass literacy, including other media such as television which are heavily influenced by the written word. In school these same children are exposed early on to the products of Philosophic thinking, which permeates the textbooks and curriculum. At this point in their lives, children have not had the time or experience necessary for a deep imaginative understanding of these forms of language; some, including children from very different cultural backgrounds, may find them so meaningless that they develop a profound detachment (typically by the age of nine or ten) from the whole process of formal education.

Imaginative education presents an alternative vision of what education could and should be. It suggests that almost any topic can be made meaningful for children at almost any age and stage of development, but that this requires a deep rethinking of teaching and learning. In order for teachers to be able to use the model, they have to develop the ability to construct and reconstruct meaning along with their students. Teachers who have taught in this way have observed that the model changes the whole learning environment. It changes what they teach, and how they teach it, but it also changes how they think about the very process of education.

Instead of conceiving of Imaginative Education as a simple linear journey, or as a jigsaw puzzle, where we can focus on one piece at a time, it is perhaps better to try to picture Imaginative Education as hologram. If a hologram is broken into pieces, each piece contains an image of the whole.

In the following explanation of the five zones of understanding, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh story “An Expotition to the North Pole” will be used as a focal text. This whimsical tale of a rather baffling journey to an uncertain destination parallels, in some ways, the child’s journey through life and school. At the same time it has many layers that can be accessed in different ways to develop different kinds of understanding.

  • Somatic Understanding
  • Mythic Understanding
  • Romantic Understanding
  • Philosophic Understanding
  • Ironic Understanding

Somatic Understanding

The Piglet was sitting on the ground at the door of his house blowing happily at a dandelion…

Somatic understanding is corporeal, physical, bodily understanding. The child’s own body, the way that body moves around in space, and the way it relates to the objects and persons it encounters in the space, are the primary tool, the first way of making sense of experience. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell provide the child with information about her or his own body, and about her or his immediate environment. But also beyond these direct sensory perceptions, the pre-language-using child, through her or his body, experiences balance, movement, tension, pain, pleasure, speed, distance, and so on.

Imaginative education recognizes the importance of this kind of understanding to children’s development; it also highlights the effort required to retain and enrich it as the child gets older. As other kinds of understanding are developed, it can be quite challenging to maintain mastery of the body and its senses. When we observe that someone doesn’t know “how to listen to his body,” or that someone “has become disconnected from her body,” we are referring to the loss of a Somatic understanding of the world. The result can be to cut off the individual from realms of experience that are necessary for the imagination to function well, as poets and other artists know.

An Example

Many parents and teachers have observed with surprise that young children listen attentively to stories that are much too difficult for them to understand, and even to stories in languages foreign to them. Even if the child is unable to “make sense” of the story, because the language used is abstract and complex, and/or because the story structure is very complicated, and/or because the themes are entirely unfamiliar, that child may seem to enjoy the story. So what is the child enjoying about the story, and how is the child processing the experience?

The child is relating to the changes in volume and pitch of the voice, to the sounds of the words, to the rhythm of the sounds. The child is relating to the facial expressions and gestures of the storyteller. When the child is curled up against the storyteller, s/he also related to the rhythm of breathing, the heartbeat, warmth and smell of the storyteller. From these examples, it is clear that the child’s body is the main tool that allows the child to enjoy the experience.
When reading (and perhaps singing) aloud “An Exposition to the North Pole,” the body is the tool used to relate to the rhythm and energy (and perhaps melody) of the song Winnie-the-Pooh sings to himself when he is on his way to Christopher Robin.

Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
I don’t much mind if it rains or snows,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice new nose!
I don’t much care if it snows or thaws,
‘Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
Sing Ho! for a Bear!
Sing Ho! for a Pooh!
And I’ll have a little something in a hour or two!

Through a bodily way of relating to the song, the child can develop a Somatic understanding of the song, of its cheerfulness and carefree tone, without having a language understanding of “cheerful” and “carefree.” This embodied understanding of those emotions, of the nature of song, will stay with the child and undergird the later interpretation and use of language.

Mythic Understanding

They’ve no imagination. A tail isn’t a tail to them, it’s just a Little Bit Extra at the back.

It is in the transition to oral language that human understanding becomes quite distinct from that of other species. Learning to make sense of the world not through direct experience, but through conventionalized sounds that evoke and blend certain aspects of experience in novel ways, is an extraordinary leap – one propelled by imagination. The term “mythic”, from the Greek mythos, story, is chosen to highlight one crucial feature of oral language: the story constitutes its central structure for communication. The story form not only organizes content, but also directs our feelings about that content: that is why it is memorable. At a still more detailed level, one can identify a number of basic features that help stories accomplish this, even though all are not necessarily present in a single story. As children climb upward through the Mythic zone, they can be aided to achieve a deeper mastery of these tools that will stand them in good stead later on.

Binary Structuring

Binary structuring helps us organize our experience through the tension between two opposites. In many fairy tales, for instance, the battle between good and bad characters is the central organizing principle that gives meaning to the story. As Mythic understanding progresses, simple binary opposites come to be mediated by many intermediate qualities: between hot and cold can be located warm, and then lukewarm, tepid, cool, and so on. It is the sharp, effectively engaging contrast between extremes, however, that makes this feature of storytelling so effective. Of course binary opposites, such as good/bad, active/passive, and male/female are rather primitive organizing principles, and it is important that we learn to see the many shades of grey that lie between black and white. Binary opposites are a way into sense-making, but in the process of constructing meaning, the opposites need to be mediated.


Story not only organizes and energizes the world of experience; it also provides a means for exploring beyond the latter’s limits. To reflect on the contrast between life and death, we invent ghosts. To reflect on the contrast between nature and culture, we invent talking plants and animals. To reflect on the contrast between humans and animals, we invent mermaids and Sasquatches. These imaginative constructs enable us to probe and extend our understanding of the world, finding unlooked-for connections and discrepancies, personifying abstractions.


Closely allied to fantasy is the imaginative capacity of metaphor, which arguably is central to language. In the process of learning to talk, children are unconsciously acquiring an enormous store of everyday metaphoric projections. This could be considered an “as if” tool: when we say, for instance, that the weather “smiled” at us, we speak of the weather as if it were a person. Children of five and six often have a capacity for inventing metaphors that exceeds anything adults have to offer.

Rhyme and Rhythm

The nature of oral language gives it qualities over and above its use as an imaginative tool. Rhyme and rhythm are features that build upon our Somatic understanding, using it to create ways of helping us remember stories. The poems and chants that form an important part of children’s literature owe much of their power to the physical and aesthetic pleasure gained from reciting them.

An Example

In the story “An Exposition to the North Pole,” Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh and their friends go on an adventure in search of the North Pole. In a Mythic Understanding of the story, it is primarily an exciting fantasy story, built upon the binary opposites of safety and danger. Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh and their friends leave the safety and familiarity of home to go somewhere uncertain and unknown. During their journey, Pooh and Owl have a talk about Ambushes and Roo encounters Danger when he falls in a stream. It is important that the central binary opposites of safety and danger are mediated. Excitement and adventure are experienced when danger and safety are mediated: too much safety leads to dullness, too much danger to paralyzing fear – but a bit of danger, handled wisely, can be quite exciting.

Romantic Understanding

‘Pooh’s found the North Pole,’ said Christopher Robin. ‘Isn’t that lovely?’

Romantic Understanding help us organize our experience through an exploration of the extremes of experience and the limits of reality. The word “romantic” is derived from the French romance, which originally referred to a species of fictitious writing, first in meter in the Romance dialects, and afterward in prose, such as the tales of the court of Arthur. The word “romance” came to denote any fictitious and wonderful tale, especially about the adventures of a hero or heroine. This way of making sense of the world derives from the way that written language has been used in Western culture. It is this personifying or humanizing tendency, in which the reality principle is becoming more important, that most clearly marks the Romantic from the Mythic zone. Allied to it is children’s growing realization of the complexity and strangeness of the world, and their own marginality within it. This sensibility has become so pervasive in modern society that not only works of fiction but newspapers, magazines, films and television shows are largely oriented toward Romantic understanding.
Central to mastery of the tools of Romantic Understanding is a sense of the self as an autonomous unit, that interacts with, but is separate from the world. Once we understand that we are not integral participants in all stories and processes, the way we previously thought in our somatic and mythic understandings, we may end up feeling disconnected. Making sure that we don’t lose our ability to make sense of the world in somatic and mythic ways, is what can keep this alienation in check.

Exploration of Limits and Extremes

Limits and extremes provide a basic organizing principle for Romantic understanding. An exploration of limits and extremes gives a sense of the boundaries within which we need to make sense of experience: not only the limits of reality “out there,” but also the limits of the human endeavors possible in that reality. A child in the Romantic zone will pore over the Guinness Book of Records, compose stories of dinosaurs and space travel, spend hours on their trading card or postage stamp collection – all in aid of measuring the familiar against the possible.

Identification with Heroes and Heroines

Heroes and heroines show that human beings not only live within constraints, but also that, at times, they manage to overcome these constraints. Identification with human beings who have been exemplary, in courage or compassion, strength or love, ingenuity or humility, is an important component of Romantic understanding.

An Example

In “An Exposition to the North Pole,” the “exposition” of course isn’t a real expedition, and the North Pole isn’t the real North Pole; but we understand and empathize with Christopher Robin as he sets out to reenact Peary’s trek in his imagination. Who would not want to be an explorer, a Discoverer of Things? As in others of the Pooh stories, we are presented with personality types, from Eeyore the Extremely Gloomy to Piglet the Very Timid, that help to map out the complicated terrain of human temperament. Pooh, as the unassuming hero who saves Roo from drowning, offers a role model that suggests one need not be the Best at anything in order to succeed.

Philosophic Understanding

Owl was explaining that in a case of Sudden and Temporary Immersion the Important Thing was to keep the Head Above Water.

Written language, of course, can be used for many purposes; and it is its use for developing a systematic understanding of the world that propels the child into the zone of Philosophic understanding. The word “philosophic” is derived from the Greek philosophia, love of wisdom (philos = dear, loved; sophia = wisdom, learning). The Philosophic mind focuses on the connections among things, seeing laws, theories, and larger purpose as tying together the previously disconnected phenomena and experiences. One of the most important connections is that between the individual and the world. The Romantic understanding of the self as separate from but involved in the world now receives a Philosophic explanation.

Generalization is central to Philosophic understanding: the search for new organizing principles to make sense of the multitude of experiences in the adolescent’s expanding horizons. What needs nurturing at this stage is a willingness to compare generalization with concrete particulars. If Romantic understanding risks trivialization, Philosophic understanding risks falling into dogmatic assertion of Truth. This risk may be especially high if the prior forms of understanding, Somatic, Mythic, and Romantic, are set aside in the pursuit of abstract knowledge.

An Example

In “An Exposition to the North Pole,” the contributions of the various members of the party raise interesting questions about motivation, effectiveness, and ethics. Consider, for example, the following exchange between Christopher Robin and Rabbit:
As soon as he had finished his lunch Christopher Robin whispered to Rabbit, and Rabbit said, ‘Yes, yes, of course,’ and they walked a little way up the stream together.

‘I don’t want the others to hear,’ said Christopher Robin.
‘Quite so,’ said Rabbit, looking important.
‘It’s – I wondered – It’s only – Rabbit, I supposed you don’t know. What does the North Pole look like?’
‘Well,’ said Rabbit, stroking his whiskers. ‘Now you’re asking me.’
‘I did know once, only I’ve sort of forgotten,’ said Christopher Robin carelessly.
‘It’s a funny thing,’ said Rabbit, ‘but I’ve sort of forgotten too, although I did know once.’

Rabbit, of course, is the overbearing know-it-all who can’t bring himself to admit any weakness at all; but what should we make of Christopher Robin, leading his friends off on a wild-goose-chase? Is it not incumbent upon a leader to know exactly where they are going? Has he taken Rabbit aside to save face or to save the Expotition?

Ironic Understanding

‘Oh!’ said Pooh. ‘I know.’ But he didn’t really.

The great appeal of Philosophic understanding is that it will finally and completely explain the world through which the students have made their way for fifteen or twenty years. If this kind of understanding is well developed (as it presently is for relatively few people), one will eventually run up against the limits of systematic, theoretic thinking, and the illusion that language can ever capture everything that is important about the world. From this realization grows Ironic understanding. The word “ironic” is derived from the Greek eironeia, which means feigned ignorance (from eiron, dissembler). Socrates, the most famous classical ironist, professed ignorance, but was accused of feigning this ignorance and using it as a rhetorical device in his method of questioning. Today, irony more generally refers to the use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.

Ironic understanding has a certain transparency or reflective quality to it. When we use it together with other kinds of understanding, we not only make sense of our experience, but we are also aware that that meaning has been constructed by us, and does not exist “out there” in some objective world. An Ironic understanding of the world tells us that the way we have made sense of our world is dependent upon our historical and cultural perspective. Although this can lead to disappointment or cynicism, a more positive alternative is a kind of lightheartedness, a sense of humour about it all. People with a developed Ironic understanding are able not only to take sides on a particular question, but to understand their motives for taking sides, to understand the reasons why others might disagree with them, and perhaps to share their ironic sense of the situation. The generalizing tendency of the Philosophic mind is turned back on itself, to locate every generalization and every abstraction in the human context from which it sprang.

An Example

The story “An Exposition to the North Pole” is full of irony and clever word plays. Consider the following brief encounter between Winnie-the-Pooh and Rabbit.
The first person he met was Rabbit.
‘Hallo, Rabbit,’ he said, ‘is that you?’
‘Let’s pretend it isn’t,’ said Rabbit, ‘and see what happens.’
‘I’ve got a message for you.’
‘I’ll give it to him.’

Rabbit’s answer is paradoxical, and humorous because of it. While he answers when Pooh addresses him as “Rabbit,” he also puts forward the possibility that he is not Rabbit. Of course in a scientific, literal understanding of the world, it is not possible to be and not be someone at the same time. In an Ironic Understanding of experience, however, the mind is able to read, write and speak, while at the same time calling the underlying assumptions of that reading, writing and speech into question. This kind of self-reference recurs throughout the Pooh stories and helps to give them their quirky, memorable charm.