March 26, 2018 / 1 comment
Kieran Egan on education, imagination and “the ability to think about the possible”
If you spend any time reading about the connection between education and the imagination, one name comes up repeatedly. Kieran Egan has been writing about how to make education more imaginative since the 1980s, and has written many books on the subject. Born in Ireland, he studied in London before moving to the US and then Canada where, as he puts it, “I got a job at Simon Fraser University in Canada, which has been the only job I’ve ever had”. In recent years he has worked closely with Gillian Judson who we also spoke to in a previous post through the Imaginative Education Research Group. He is now retired, referring to himself as “a recovering academic”, and in case you’re wondering, the sound of running water in the background of this recording is not an indicator that Kieran was speaking to us from his bathtub, rather that he keeps a fishtank next to his desk. I started out by asking Kieran what, for him, is imagination, and why does it matter? [Apologies for the slightly skronky sound quality – the vagaries of Skype I’m afraid…]
“I was interested in education, and when I came to North America in particular and started studying education, I found that lots of people were interested – and they called themselves philosophers I guess, philosophers of education – typically interested in the curriculum and its contents, and justifications and all that kind of thing.
Then there are a whole other bunch of people called psychologists of education, who are interested in instruction and methods of learning and teaching, and all this kind of stuff. This is a simplification, needless to say. I was introduced to courses when at Stanford in curriculum and instruction, as those these were separate things, that we’ve divided the world up in this way. What they all seemed to be a little short on was the dynamic of the process. What drove this educational process forward? That led to me an interest in imagination.
What is imagination? I suppose the neatest short definition I read was Alan R. White, who wrote ‘The Language of Imagination’. He just talks about it as “the ability to think about the possible”. If we can’t think about things that are other than they are, then we’re rather stymied. So imagination is clearly one of the features of our minds that enabled us to do things that are different from the way things have necessarily been done in the past, or make us feel that we’re not constrained by the past, or constrained by current conditions.
People who are particularly good and flexible in thinking about what is possible are the people who always drive developments, processes, improvements in the world, so it seemed to me. Also, I thought that looking at it educationally, the content of the curriculum doesn’t actually by itself satisfy one. As Whitehead put it, “the well-informed person is one of the greatest bores on God’s earth”. And similarly somebody who is psychologically – a Piaget, whatever – developed, doesn’t guarantee you anything in an educational sense.
I was interested in that missing something, which seems to me the dynamic which is a development of the imagination that brings those two to life. Without an imagination, the content of the curriculum is inert, very largely, and without the imagination – which doesn’t seem to develop in the same way that people claim there is some kind of psychological development, mental process going on within us – again, we’re missing a crucial feature. That’s why I guess I was interested in it. That’s roughly the space it takes in our semantic universe.
I read things I think you wrote in the 1980s or 90s where you warned about what you called neo-conservative education. Warning that we were moving towards an approach to learning that would strangle the imagination. I wonder to what extent you feel now in 2017 those warnings were vindicated?
I didn’t know I’d talked about neo-conservative education, but maybe! I mean, I think there’s nothing particularly novel about pointing out that learning lots and lots of stuff, by itself, is not going to give you any particular goodies that means you’re well informed about something. It may mean you can do something, some job well, you’re well trained, but I think the distinction between training and education is a long established one.
What people have not been particularly good at is identifying what that other thing is; what distinguishes the two. I think that’s at least one of the things that we’ve been trying to do with our Imaginative Education Research Group – to show not just that this thing has to do with the imagination, and try to elaborate what we mean by that, but also to show how you can do it in everyday classrooms. I guess that’s mainly been the kind of work that I’ve been engaged with. And I now realise I’ve forgotten what the question was.
The question was whether you feel that over the time that you’ve been working on this, whether things have moved forward or whether things have moved backwards?
I think they’ve just moved sideways. There are always grounds for hope, the assumption that either if you ensure that children learn the basics and learn lots of content, or on the other hand, that they become explorers and all the rest of it and ‘learn how to learn’ – all this jargon. As long as that jargon holds and people believe it, it seems to me we’re going nowhere because it’s all just such rubbish. And everybody knows it. It’s just that they don’t know what to do as an alternative, is the trouble.
This is why we have been trying to promote the idea of the imagination as a crucial and largely neglected feature of education that will make the content of the curriculum exciting and meaningful. The world is full of wonder, and a curriculum is a great encyclopedia of the world, and what we need to do is bring out that sense of wonder for children. And we have been singularly inept at doing that because people get involved in either the content itself, and beating it into children so they can pass tests and then forget it, or alternatively they become ‘skilled learners’ as though they’re just instruments waiting to learn appropriate things. As though somehow that’s going to happen magically. As though learning is somehow separate from the thing you learn.
There is a sense in which, when you get to know the education world and the way it functions, you have to realise that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum. Or at least, there’s something crazy about a system that seems unable to recognise its fundamental problem, in the fact that there are elephants in the room and everybody tiptoes around them. That means that we will continue to have a veering from one form of – not lunacy – but daftness, theoretically at least in education, to the other. Not a lot of recognition that the elephants need to be attended to, that we need to recognise that just either promoting what are generally called progressivist ideas, or traditionalist ideas, is just not going anywhere.
People get terribly excited in education every few years because, in North America particularly, the progressivist ideas generally won. So anybody who comes along and seems to offer a new help to that ideology is treated as a great genius. Like Piaget was for a while, until the tests that suggest… Anyway, we don’t need to go into crude things like empirical results, but there’s no evidence at all to suggest that any of this is helping education at all.
I wouldn’t say things have got worse, in particular, they just slide sideways, and slide between, I guess, those two kinds of poles as though there is no way of getting and transcending them. I guess that’s we’ve been trying to promote.
I wonder if you have any thoughts on how you might assess the state of health of imagination in our culture in 2018 more generally? Collectively, how strong is that imagination muscle, would you say in us these days?
About the same as it ever was I would suspect. Some people are imaginative. There are some, one does see, well, spasms of interest by the powers that be. The people that who wield money and can affect cultural change for arts projects of various kinds. Not that imagination is tied up in the arts but in the sciences they give money to fundamental research rather than just applied. So there are constant moments of hope of those kinds of things.
But at the same time it goes hand in hand with exactly the opposite being done. That universities are being increasingly constrained from teaching anything that doesn’t have a vocational implication, and even people’s research is measured by impact. God knows what Socrates would have done about all that! Anyway.
I recently interviewed Manish Jain, who has a whole movement in India of what they call ‘unschooling’. He says that basically the role of education is to destroy, certainly in an Indian context, the imagination. That’s his kind of take on it. And there are obviously people who do home schooling, or different education models entirely. Is the current mainstream educational paradigm redeemable from an imagination perspective do you think, or are people right just to opt out and go and do something else?
No, I think it’s redeemable. It’s not all that catastrophic. The trouble with generalisations is that we tend to ride them far too hard. I’ve been to some wonderful schools and seen fantastic teachers and kids who are charged up in all kinds of ways that one can’t help but admire. So I don’t think it’s not redeemable.
I did write a book called The Future of Education which was an attempt to try to suggest ways in which we could make some significant changes to our current forms of schooling. But the idea of de-schooling, or unschooling, is – well, I shouldn’t say it so crudely – is often a response to simply misidentifying the problem. Misidentifying the villain that you want to blame. A lot of people blame schools for killing kids’ imagination because they talk about them starting school at five full of energy and wanting to know this and that, and asking questions, and then by the time they’re nine or ten, they don’t… You know, you think, “Yeah, give it a break”.
I mean, there’s a sense in which evolutionarily, we’re designed like that. Once you’ve learned a bunch of stuff, then your focus changes. We talk about it as a shift from a Mythic to a Romantic way of thinking. What you need to do is not simply despair and tear your hair out, if you have any, as I don’t. But to think, you know, one way of engaging kids’ imaginations has worked very well for younger kids, we need to make a transition. Recognise the ways in which slightly older kids’ imaginations are engaged.
We talk about a shift in the toolkit from a Mythic toolkit with story structures to a Romantic one with the heroic, the associations with the heroic and a whole bunch of other tools. There’s a change which seems to me to be culturally driven very largely – historically culturally driven – that we just need to be sensitive to. Rather than just simply despair and throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use another phrase.
There’s a lot of talk and writing at the moment about the impact that things like smart phones and social media are having, particularly on attention and concentration, and young people’s ability – well, people of every age – but in this context, young people’s ability to focus and concentrate. That presumably wasn’t something that was a concern when you started writing. To what extent do you think those technologies have altered some of the challenges that education faces?
Not at all actually. If you read from the beginning of public schooling in the nineteenth century, you’ll find exactly the same complaint about children. They don’t concentrate. They don’t work. They’re distracted by comics, it used to be. Then television. It’s just loony.
What they’re basically saying is that children seem to have no attention span when they’re bored out of their minds. I mean it’s ludicrous. We bore children, of course they’re bored, and they will turn to anything that is not so boring. So what we need to do is make school less boring. That’s the simple answer.
And make life in general less boring, presumably?
Yes, indeed. But the idea that somehow it’s technology to blame, or something else to blame. It used to be comics. You probably have no idea how comics were seen to be the destruction of children’s minds, and teachers and teacher groups fighting endlessly and politicians…
It’s just the same: people who have no simple ability to think clearly about what the actual causes are of their problems that they’re identifying and just pick on the first, simplest thing that comes to mind. I just think it’s… Well, stupid is perhaps too strong a word but there’s an awful lot of it around.
A question that I’ve asked every single person that I’ve interviewed, that you might have seen in the one I did with Gillian, which is, if you had been elected as the Prime Minister of Canada, and you had run on a ‘Make Canada Imaginative Again’ platform, where you thought actually fundamentally what we need to be doing is putting imagination in the centre of political life and education and policy making, and across the board, I wonder what might you do in your first 100 days? What policies, what things might you introduce in your first 100 days?
This question is based on the ludicrous assumption that I would have got elected on such a platform.
Yeah, yeah. This is a leap of the imagination we’re asking for here, yeah.
That’s a leap out of logic I’d have thought, but that’s another issue entirely.
As you see south of the border of you, the bar is set pretty low.
You never know what can happen. That’s true. I have no idea. Actually I met Justin Trudeau. Trudeau was a teacher at a local school in which our children were pupils. Now I shouldn’t say anything about what kind of teacher he was. So there’s a connection with a Prime Minister who would you think might be more imaginative or promote imagination, which I think he tries to do but I don’t think obviously the mechanisms are in place in the political culture of almost any country at the moment to allow significant action to take place.
I should also say I have no idea of what I would do as a politician. I would have some ideas of what I would do if I was the Minister of Education, and indeed, that’s what I’ve been writing about. If any Ministers of Education would like to read the books, there’s a good blueprint for what they might sensibly go about doing. And we’ve had some successes in that kind of regard.