Imaginative Education

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Immaginative Education (IE) focusses on developing learners' cognitive toolkit through deep engagement with 'knowledge' (I've put knowledge in quotes cos I think I might mean information). In so doing IE bypasses both a traditionalist argument about the centrality of knowledge in education and a progressive focus on process and 'knowledge age skills'. Whilst IE clearly identifies that deep engagement with knowledge is essential the particular knowledge domain is not central - so it is not about privilidging certain content but about developing cognitive tools. However, nor is it about about a focus on process and skills because it recognises that one needs a depth of knowledge (about something) in order to be able to develop your cogntive toolkit.

IE identifies five sets of cognitive tools, which build upon each other cumulatively (so you need to have developed aspects of an early set of cognitive tools before you can develop later sets of cognitive tools). The IE website describes children being on a journey to adulthood - "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." (IERG 2006

The five zones which Egan (2008 p.43) refers to as "the main 'operating systems', or cognitive tool kist, as kinds of understanding" are: somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic.

Somatic understanding

Somatic understanding relates to the way in which we can know the world through our physical senses. The emphasis here is on how our body frames our engagement with and understanding of the world, starting in our pre-language-using stage of childhood, but extending throughout our lives (though we often forget the importance of our physical embodyment on our perception of the world as we become older).

Emotions form a central part of somatic understanding - they are "the most basic orientors and organisers of our cognition throughout our lives" (Egan 2008 p.46).

Mythic understanding

Mythic understanding focusses on oral language and includes elements such as: stories, fantasy, metaphors, binary structuring (we tend to frame things as binary opposities such as good/bad, active/passive), rhyme/rhythm, forming mental images (from words), patterns, jokes, puzzles and mystery.

In contrast to Piagetian theory which suggests that children are 'concrete thinkers' IE argues that they use thematic abstractions and emotionally charged binary opposites (the evil witch and the fariy godmother).

Romantic understanding

Romantic understanding aligns with the development of literacy (reading and writing) and includes the following cognitive tools: "a new sense of reality, focus on the extremes of reality, association with heroic qualities, a sense of wonder, hobbies and collections, narrative understanding, recognizing knowledge through its human meaning, revolt, and idealism." (Egan 2008 p.62-63).

Literacy here goes way beyond the mechanical process of reading and writing (you can learn to read and write without developing the cognitive tools of Romantic understanding).

Again in contrast to 'common wisdom' IE argues that you should not focus on the here and now (start from the child's local context) but should focus on the most extreme, exotic and wonderful features of the world. One of the big challenges for IE teachers is having sufficient depth of knowledge in order to be able to draw out the 'awe and wonder' that is in everything (the more you know the more you realise you don't know). IE argues that by focusing on the extremes one provides a framework or context within which your local experiences can be made sense of.

One strategy for teaching romantic understanding is to explore things as "a product of some person's 'trancendent human qualities' - that is, someone's extraordinary ingenuity, courage, treachery, compassion, and so on." (Egan 2008 p.68). This might include focussing on identification with heroines and heros.

Philosophic understanding

Philosophic understanding involves a shift in focus from the concrete (eg particular events) to more abstract thinking (which is not to say that abstract thinking was not possible prior to this, just that this represents a change of emphasis to more conceptual and abstract thinking as the predominant mode). It is about making connections between things, seeing rules and relationships; generalisation is a central element of Philosophic thinking.

Ironic understanding

Ironic understanding is about recognising that language not only can sometimes be used to mean the opposite of what is said (what we normally mean by irony) but that "there is always a difference between what we mean and what can be put into language." (Egan 2008 p.81). Ironin understanding allows for multiple perspectives and the reconciliation of the other forms of knowing (somatic, mythic, romantic and philosophic). It recognises the socially constructed nature of our realities.


Egan, K. (2008) The Future of Education: Reimanining Our Schools from the Ground up. New Haven: Yale University Press.

IERG (2006)The Imaginative Education Research Group Website

Useful links

The Imaginative Education Research Group Website