“All knowledge is human knowledge; it grows out of human hopes,

fears, and passions. Imaginative engagement with knowledge comes from

learning in the context of the hopes, fears, and passions from which it has

grown or in which it finds a living meaning.”

A brief guide to Imaginative Education


What is Imaginative Education?

It is a new approach to education that effectively engages students’ imaginations in learning. The Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) has developed theories, principles, and practices designed to explain, describe, and implement this new approach.

What is new about it?

Imaginative Education offers you a new understanding of how knowledge grows in the mind, and how our imaginations work and change during our lives. The IERG has also developed innovative teaching methods based on these insights that offer you new ways of planning and teaching.

Why should I attend to the imagination when I’m up against the need to increase test scores?

When you engage students’ imaginations in learning you will improve their educational performance by any test or measure. Scoring well on tests and being imaginatively engaged in learning are not mutually exclusive!

Won’t this approach increase my planning and preparation time?

This approach is indeed new and different, but after a bit of practice, you will likely find it a more “natural” way to think about teaching and learning. It should return the time you spend learning it with more rewarding classroom experiences; later you should find it no more time consuming than your present forms of planning.

This guide uses a number of unfamiliar terms. Why is that?

In education we have become familiar with terms derived from scholars whose focus has primarily been knowledge (“curriculum content,” “subject matter,” “structures of knowledge,” etc.) and also from those whose focus has primarily been psychology (“stages of development,” “multiple intelligences,” “cognition,” etc.). The Imaginative Education approach, on the other hand, deals with knowledge, psychology, and emotions together. Consequently we have found it helpful to use some new terms to avoid confusion with current methods that we find inadequate, as well as to express a more holistic sense of education.

So what is the imagination?

It is the ability to think of the possible, not just the actual; it is the source of invention, novelty, and flexibility in human thinking; it is not distinct from rationality but is rather a capacity that greatly enriches rational thinking; it is tied to our ability to form images in the mind, and image-forming commonly involves emotions.


When we talk to teachers about their work, three common objectives become apparent. They are interested in helping students become excited by learning. They want to ensure that students not only learn knowledge, but also understand the meaning of the knowledge. In addition, teachers aspire to help their students attain improved test performance and academic achievement. This last objective is particularly important in today’s climate of increasing reliance on standardized assessments. Imaginative Education (IE) offers a new approach to education that effectively meets these objectives. It accomplishes this principally by engaging students’ emotions and also, connectedly, their imaginations in the material of the curriculum. It is not new to point out that children’s thinking is most deeply and energetically engaged when their imagination and emotions are in play. What is new and unique about IE is that it offers a theory and a set of frameworks and techniques for actually accomplishing this within the mainstream academic curriculum. In this brief guide, we will try to give you a general sense of IE. We begin by outlining the theoretical foundations of IE. Next, we describe the five kinds of understanding that provide the core of IE. We then explore some unusually named aids to thinking called “cognitive tools.” Finally, we discuss how teaching with these cognitive tools can develop the five kinds of understanding while making school subjects more engaging and meaningful to students.


There are two main foundations for IE. The first is a theory of cultural recapitulation, best described in Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.) In IE, the thinking tools that were invented in cultural history are recapitulated. These thinking tools or cognitive tools can be learned by students today to enhance the effectiveness of their minds. The second foundation is associated with the socio-cultural theories of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. IE is the richest elaboration of his ideas about learning and imagination developed for education.


“A new theory of education that is (believe it or not) useful. … ‘The Educated Mind’ is something very new and different.” — C. J. Driver , The New York Times Book Review

“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 , Harvard University

“Almost anyone involved at any level or in any part of the education system will find this a fascinating book to read.” — Richard Fox , British Journal of Educational Psychology

“Egan proposes a radical change of approach for the whole process of education. … There is much in this book to interest and excite those who discuss, research or deliver education.” — Ann Fullick , New Scientist


The theory of Imaginative Education is based on five distinctive kinds of understanding that enable people to make sense of the world in different ways. The purpose of Imaginative Education is to enable each student to develop these five kinds of understanding while they are learning math, science, social studies, and all other subjects. As shown in Table 1, this needs to be accomplished in a certain order because each kind of understanding represents an increasingly complex way that we learn to use language. To explain these kinds of understandings in greater detail, we will look at the life of a girl named Sara.

Kinds of Understanding

Somatic Understanding


Mythic Understanding

(Oral language)

Romantic Understanding

(Written language)

Philosophic Understanding

(Theoretic use of language)

Ironic Understanding

(Reflexive use of language)

KINDS OF UNDERSTANDING and The process of imaginative education

The first kind of understanding, called Somatic understanding , refers to the physical, pre-linguistic way that Sara comes to know the world around her while she is an infant. She makes sense of her experiences through the information provided by her senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, and crucially with the emotions that these are tied up with. She also experiences the world and sensations of balance, movement, tension, pain, pleasure, and so on, through the way her body physically relates to the objects and persons she encounters.

As Sara grows older and learns an oral language, her understanding of the world expands and she begins to develop the second kind of understanding called Mythic understanding. In this phase of her life, she is no longer limited to making sense of the world through direct physical experience. Instead, Sara can now rely on language to discuss, represent, and understand even things she has not experienced in person.

Several years later, Sara begins to learn and understand her experience through written language. At this point, she is developing the third kind of understanding called Romantic understanding. During this time, she begins to realize her independence and separateness from a world that appears increasingly complex. She relates readily to extremes of reality, associates with heroes, and seeks to make sense of the world in human terms.

While she is a teenager, Sara begins to focus more on the connections among things. She begins to see that there are laws and theories that can bring together, and help her make sense of, what she originally thought were disconnected details and experiences. In this stage of her life, Sara is developing the systematic understanding of the world called Philosophic understanding.

After a few more years pass, Sara begins to realize that there are limits to her systematic thinking. She starts to appreciate that theories, and even the language she relies on, are too limited and crude to capture everything that is important about the world. She also recognizes that the way she makes sense of the world depends on her unique historical and cultural perspective. At this point, Sara is in the process of developing the fifth kind of understanding called Ironic understanding.

As an adult, Sara has developed all five of these kinds of understanding. She recognizes that each one makes a distinctive contribution to her understanding, and that they work best if they can be combined.

We do not “naturally” develop each kind of understanding at a particular age in some steady and inevitable process. Rather, the process sketched above occurs when the appropriate forms of IE are used adequately. Sara’s teachers have focused their efforts on engaging her imagination and emotions with knowledge about the world and on developing her use of an array of cognitive tools.

Cognitive Tools: How we can Develop the Five Kinds of Understanding

Sara’s teachers relied on the insight that students can most successfully develop these five kinds of understanding by acquiring sets of “thinking tools.” In IE, these are called cognitive tools. These tools were invented and developed by our ancestors for making sense of the world and acting more effectively within it. Examples include:

• stories that helped people to remember things by making knowledge more engaging

• metaphors that enabled people to understand one thing by seeing it in terms of another

• binary oppositions like good/bad that helped people to organize and categorize knowledge

It might seem strange to refer to these as tools, but the term tries to reflect the fact that these are mental devices that help us think and do things more effectively.

When we look around us, we can see that these cognitive tools, and many others, have become a part of our culture. In fact, it would be very hard to imagine life without basic cognitive tools such as stories or metaphors. Each of us can learn to use these cognitive tools to enlarge our powers to think and understand, or we can fail to learn to use them.

Table 2 shows the key sets of cognitive tools that students have available for learning. (The two sets most active during school years are highlighted.) Most teachers will intuitively recognize the importance of many of these; however, they may not be familiar with how to routinely use them in the classroom. Consequently, many of the most powerful cognitive tools that students have available for imaginatively and emotionally engaging with knowledge tend to be underused in schools. To help resolve this situation, IE provides a set of frameworks and techniques that show how cognitive tools can be effectively used to make everyday teaching more interesting and meaningful while also developing the kinds of understanding.

Layers 2016 Kieran version


Figure 1 below tries to capture some essential features of what is, in fact, a complex process. This figure uses a grade 2 science lesson on the life cycle of the butterfly to demonstrate the process of IE. At this grade level, science and the other subjects are taught using the cognitive tools for Mythic understanding. In later years, these subjects are taught using the cognitive tools for Romantic, Philosophic, and Ironic Understandings. When teachers use the sets of cognitive tools to structure and teach the subjects in the curriculum, the lessons become more meaningful and interesting to students. This engages their imaginations. When we speak of imagination, we are referring to the ability to think about what might be possible. It is the “reaching out” feature of students’ minds that picks up new ideas, tries them out, weighs their qualities and possibilities, and finds a place for them amidst the things they have already learned: “Look! See what I can do with this!” The effort required is fuelled by the pleasure individuals take in discovery and invention. IE is as important for successful learning in science and math as it is for the arts. The main role for teachers in IE is to use the sets of cognitive tools to structure and teach the subjects in the curriculum. Planning frameworks are available online at https://ierg.ca/teacher-resources/planning-frameworks/ that show teachers step-by-step how they can routinely use the cognitive tools in their own classrooms.


From Vancouver, B.C. to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, more and more teachers are learning the benefits of the IE approach. They are discovering that it results in motivated, interested students who learn effectively. These students not only learn the knowledge, but also understand the meaning of the knowledge and can apply it in different contexts. Just as importantly, this approach is realizable even with the constraints on time and resources that teachers currently face. For these reasons Imaginative Education is spreading in South America, Scandinavia, Australia, the U.K. and Ireland, Greece, the U.S., South Africa, China, and Italy, among other countries.

For anyone who might wish to make a presentation about Imaginative Education, using the Brief Guide, we are pleased also to be able to make available a PowerPoint slide show that is keyed to the main points of the Guide and elaborates on them. There is a Notes section attached to many of the slides with points you may wish to make. You can download the PowerPoint slides.