Engaging Emotions and Imagination in Learning


Feelings. Emotion. These are words we don’t talk much about in teacher education when it comes to our pedagogical practices. I find that rather odd. Emotional response lies at the core of what is meaningful for all human beings. The aspects of the world which are most meaningful to us whether in the social group, family or culture, evoke our emotions and, tied up with these, our imaginations. It is crucially important, therefore, that students are emotionally and imaginatively engaged in the learning process if we want the curriculum content we teach to be memorable and meaningful. This article aims to show how we can more centrally engage emotions and imagination in teaching any curriculum content; I will provide a glimpse of Egan’s (1997, 2005) theory of Imaginative Education (IE). This is a comprehensive theory acknowledging the imagination’s role in learning that pairs distinctive features of children’s imaginative lives with a comprehensive practical discussion of how to engage imagination in learning. It offers a way to begin talking about feelings and emotions in schools and, as a result, improve teaching and learning.

One of the unique aspects of Egan’s theory of IE is the insight it provides into how students’ imaginations engage differently in the world as they acquire oral, written and increasingly theoretical uses of language. These different forms of language provide them with “sets” of learning tools or what Egan calls “cognitive tools”—following Vygotsky (1962, 1978)—that shape specific imaginative understandings of the world. Cognitive tools (for example, the story-form/ narrative, jokes, metaphor, extremes of experience and limits of reality, and collections) are “little factories of understanding” (Hughes, 1988, p. 12); they are tools that we use to make sense of the world around us as we acquire language. Importantly, they help us to learn particular knowledge in emotionally engaging ways. By employing the cognitive tools approach, Egan articulates in theory (1997) and practice (2005), teachers can routinely engage students’ emotions and imaginations in learning.

What, then, are some of the features of young children’s imaginations that oral language provides and that teachers will want to employ to shape their lessons? How do features of students’ imaginations change with the development of literacy? What tools will the teachers of older students want to employ in shaping their lessons?


The Tools of Oral Language

All teachers know that children love stories. Egan (1988, 1997) explains why this is the case. He illustrates how the story form (a way of shaping information that brings out its emotional force) is a feature of oral language that, as we become oral language users, mediates the sense we make of the world. Oral language users are particularly interested in stories with features that include dramatic tensions between binary oppositions, vivid mental imagery and a sense of rhyme, rhythm and pattern. These features are tools of the imagination that, tied up with our emotions, shape what Egan calls a distinctly “mythic” understanding of the world.

The notion of children engaging with abstract and affective binary oppositions flies in the face of much thinking about children’s intellectual development. However, it is obvious that young children are capable of much more than concrete thinking (Egan, 1988, 1997, 2005). Consider the worlds of fantasy that they weave in their play. Consider the affectively engaging concepts embedded in the fantasy stories they so love at that age. Abstract notions provide a dramatic tension in stories children love. Consider, for example, Jack and the Beanstalk (safety/security, known/unknown) Hansel and Gretel (good/evil, lost/found), or Cinderella (rich/poor, just/unjust). Abstract binary oppositions, along with other tools, engage students’ imaginations in the stories they hear and love. When we focus on the world of the concrete and familiar with students—merely giving them “hands on” activities without tying these up with powerful abstract binary oppositions—we miss powerful means to engage students’ imaginations, to make learning meaningful and knowledge memorable.


The Tools of Written Language

Of course, we understand the world differently and are imaginatively engaged with it in different ways as we grow. What has changed? Well, for one thing, most of us have become literate. With literacy we encounter and internalize a new set of learning tools—a toolkit for learning—that shape for us a distinctly different sense of the world. Our emotions and imaginations do not lose the appeal they once had with features of oral language, but other features now take stronger hold of our attention. Have you noticed how children from about age 7 or 8 through about 15 are fascinated by the kind of extremes and limits of reality one finds in the Guinness Book of World Records? Or how they tend to idolize sports stars, musicians, actors or activists? All of these characteristics are dimensions of the literate imagination; they are cognitive or learning tools that shape a Romantic understanding of the world. For someone with Romantic understanding, the world is full of wonder, one can “turn on” this fascination with the wonderful aspects of the world. Everything can be seen in terms of a heroic human quality; it is through a personal association with a transcendent human quality that students become imaginatively engaged. Whether the precision of a mathematical formula or the strength of a worm, every topic we teach has something heroic about it that we can employ to engage students. It is important that we remember that our literate students’ imaginations are still engaged with the cognitive tools of oral language—who doesn’t engage with the dramatic tension in a story, enjoy a catchy rhythm or vivid image?—and so one wouldn’t want to forget these in teaching. They are, however, less vividly engaging for students as they gain access to a different set of cognitive tools with which to make sense of the world.


What this brief introduction to Egan’s theory of IE has aimed to indicate is that students come to our classrooms with minds equipped with learning tools; tools that include the story-form, oppositional thinking, vivid mental imagery, interest in extremes and limits, and association with heroes. These tools engage emotion and ignite imagination, making anything students are learning meaningful to them. For a detailed description of IE and access to lesson/unit plan examples and other resources for teaching, please go to the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) website (ierg.net) or the references below.

Teachers interested in engaging their students’ emotions and imaginations in learning will want to be alert to the kinds of cognitive tools students are most actively using. So for example, teachers of students in primary and elementary school will use story, abstract binary oppositions, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm and pattern, and the recognition of mystery, among other tools, in their teaching if they hope to be most effective in engaging their students in coming to understand the content being taught. Teachers in middle and high school will focus on tools that include narrative structuring, the extremes of experience and limits of reality, the heroic, students’ sense of reality and, of course, the sense of wonder, among other tools, in order to ensure the emotional engagement of their students. When we shape teaching in ways that engage emotion and that leave students feeling something about the content, we make knowledge meaningful.

Egan, K. (1997). Educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hughes, T. (1988). Myth and education. In K. Egan & D. Nadaner (Eds.), Imagination and education (pp. 30-44). New York: Teachers College Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Gillian Judson
Gillian Judson is a lecturer at Simon Fraser University, and one of the directors of the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG). She is author of the books Imaginative Ecological Education: A Practical Guide For Teachers (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press; in press) and A New Approach to Ecological Education: Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York: Peter Lang; 2010). Her research is primarily concerned with sustainability and how an ecologically sensitive and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the usual content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. Her research interests also include teacher education, professional development and social studies education.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Apr/May 2014 issue.

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