On April 14th, I drove down the windy corridor of the M5 to Exeter to attend a lecture by Dr. Kieran Egan, a professor at Simon Fraser University and Canadian Research Chair in Cognitive Development and the Curriculum. As an aspiring doctoral student, I was hoping not only to hear some familiar Canadian vocabulary but also some exciting new insight in to the relevance of imagination in the curriculum. Introduced by Prof. Anna Craft, Dr. Egan immediately launched in to the different kinds of understandings associated with his IE (imaginative education). He exudes the ideas and references by talking through stories that encapsulate both his own passion for education but also the excitement of learning through oral traditions. As he moved through the different ‘kinds of understanding’ (somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic) that were intrinsic to his imaginative strategies we were also entertained by his subtle sounds sporadically inserted in to the lecture.
The first ‘kind of understanding’ – somatic – includes tapping in to our physical attributes with sensory experiences, emotion, humour, rhythm, gesture and intentionality (referred to as the body’s toolkit). His particular interest in this lecture was in portraying the importance of these tools as a means of developing and exciting a child’s imagination.
Secondly, mythic understanding builds on the body’s toolkit by providing an oral language through which children begin to gain an understanding of metaphor, fantasy, opposites and images generated from words. By using oral traditions and telling stories these attributes are brought to life creating an effective way to connect with students. Egan believes that humour is an important element of education, a few minutes of joke telling goes a long way to helping engage learners. What do you call a bear with no ear?
A ‘b’, started our reference to the alphabet, (answered our joke!) and the romantic understanding. As Phaedrus noted “the discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness …”. It was evident throughout the lecture that Dr. Egan had an interest in classics with his numerous references to Plato, Socrates and Roman soldiers. Not only was he embedding the ideas associated with romantic knowledge but also displaying his own factual collection. As students grow and gain greater awareness of their written abilities they begin to encounter literary culture and are caused to reconfigure reality. As a result, teachers are guided towards connecting with the heroic as it humanized the portrayal of knowledge, ultimately making it more accessible. By assigning a hero to any topic you can engage your learners in an adventure that helps them retain knowledge on any subject.
The final two kinds of understanding, philosophic and ironic, were passed through quickly. However, by spending time on the initial three it was evident how each built on one another culminating in students (of an older age) being able to begin to analyse and identify anomalies in their fantasies and bring them closer to reality, cultural awareness and further growth as individual learners.
During the final minutes of his talk, Dr. Egan also introduced the research project titled ‘Learning in Depth’ (LiD). Through curiosity and individual development of young learners engage in long-term research based on randomly assigned topics such as apples, dust, cats, etc. Starting at entry in to school (approx. ages 5- 6) the idea is that students develop an individual interest and become an expert on their own topic across a number of years. The concept is heavily reliant on the students’ personal motivation. More information and resources are available on the IERG (Imaginative Education Research Group) website www.ierg.net/LiD/
As I drove home, northbound on the M5, I couldn’t help but think a new adventure was starting and that soon I would have more stories to tell inspired by a series of magical thinkers. Thank you for the brief escape back to Canada Dr. Egan, even if it did have a bit of those dulcet Irish tones.
Additional information on Dr. Kieran Egan’s ideas can be found in his books The Educated Mind (1997) and The Future of Education: Reimagining our Schools from the Ground Up (2008). Further information on the LiD programme can be found on the www.ierg.net website or in their upcoming book published by the University of Chicago Press.