Imaginative Education: a new pedagogical approach

Science education is by no means the only field of learning that is in need of a reform. Educationists have already pointed out that most methods of teaching concentrate in providing large quantities of information to students, in the hope they will retain at least a small part of it. There are three main problems with such an approach. The most obvious is that various students do not easily learn new knowledge by this method, and if they do they frequently feel unmotivated. A second and more worrisome problem is that, even if students perform well in standardized tests adapted to this type of teaching, their knowledge fades away too fast. The worst problem, however, lies in the fact that, even in the cases in which students remember what they have learnt, it is often difficult for them to apply that knowledge to new situations and challenges, i.e. they often fail to reach what pedagogues call learning with understanding.

In order to tackle these problems, Kieran Egan, an educationist and educational philosopher, has devised a new approach to teaching he termed imaginative education. This approach states that if we want students to acquire knowledge, we have to present it in the context of the passionate work that was involved in creating it. Since all knowledge is the result of someone’s passions, fears, or hopes about something, Egan argues that students can become more motivated to learn if they feel themselves emotionally engaged to what they are learning, and that this will facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge at a deeper level. The emotional engagement of students is brought about by stimulating their imagination. Kieran Egan and his collaborators have been developing both the theoretical foundations of the approach and some teaching resources for years, in the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada).

Imaginative education relies on what Egan and his collaborators call cognitive tools, i.e. pedagogical strategies that favor students’ emotional engagement with the contents being taught. There are different types of cognitive tools, and each is useful to stimulate a certain way of engaging with new knowledge. Imaginative Biology, with its emphasis on the history of science, makes extensive use of three of them.

Storytelling. The satisfaction we derive from hearing stories does not disappear as we grow up. We are constantly shaping our lives into narratives in order to give emotional meaning to the things that happen to us. Stories need not be fictionalized, and they are engaging not only because they teach us important lessons, but also because they shape our emotions to the events and characters they portray. History of science has at its core a narrative structure and can be taught as a collection of (non-fictional) stories that give meaning to the evolution of scientific knowledge.

Humanization of knowledge. This cognitive tool is extremely important because it reminds us that all knowledge ultimately derives from human activity. Presenting new knowledge as the result of the struggles of various individuals who had to face particular historical contexts not only helps the student to remember it, but provides a direct way of exploring its meanings and implications. It stimulates students to imagine the hopes and frustrations that scientists have come across, and confronts them with emotions they have already dealt with or will have to deal with during their lives.

Constructing generalizations. Science students need to understand how to form abstract generalizations from concrete evidence, and why this is a useful means of producing knowledge. They also need to be aware that all generalizations are incomplete and cannot explain all phenomena, and that they can be further articulated to generate more complex generalizations. Following scientists’ work can show students the ways in which they articulated their results with the existing knowledge, and how their researches pushed a scientific field in certain directions. Stimulating students’ critical thinking is of paramount importance to distinguish between conflicting explanations to scientific phenomena.


What are then the main principles of Imaginative Biology? See next page