little factories of understanding

Unknown-3A highlight at the ICPIC Conference in Vancouver was to hear and meet Kieran Egan, philosopher and educator at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the founder of Imaginative Education Research Group.

Egan is regarded as one of the most original ‘big thinkers’ in education and his address was titled Engaging Children’s Imaginations by Teaching Them Lots and Lots of Useless Knowledge.

His primary message was that we need to crucially evaluate the curriculum, the practice of teaching and the very nature of school.


Egan calls for imaginative approaches to learning and challenges the current performance model of teaching and testing which sees education as a process of accumulating knowledge and skills that are uninvolved with emotions, intentions and human meanings.

Egan further challenges the accepted norm that curriculum should start with what the child is familiar with and gradually move to the unknown. As Sue Lyle[1] so succinctly puts it – it’s like asking a fish what’s it like to live in the water – it can only begin to reflect once it’s lifted out of the water’.

He presented his idea on the nature of knowledge and claims that the only knowledge is the human mind. There are codes of transmitting knowledge – books, the internet etc., but that the only true knowledge comes from our own minds. He argues that schools confuse the codes of transmitting and true knowledge by testing the codes rather than seeking meaning from these codes.

This led him to talk about the important and power of imagination and thinking as he called for a focus on cognitive tools rather than knowledge or psychological development. Imagination says Egan is the great primary workhorse for learning and children’s minds are porous to the power of imagination. ‘The more you know the easier it is to be imaginative’.

Egan has written numerous books and the reader would be well advised to read what is written rather than my limited notes from a thrilling presentation. But these were my takeaways as they relate to the young child.

  • Children are abstract as well as concrete thinkers
  • Children’s thinking is powerfully affective
  • Children readily understand content when organised into story forms
  • Children are readily engaged by forming images from words
  • Children are prodigal producers and consumers of metaphors
  • Children’s learning can proceed by forming binary oppositions and mediating them

UnknownConcerned that presenting content to children without context leads to a road to nowhere, Egan is working on the LIDS (Learning in Depth)[2]. In this project, children from the very early years become true experts in a field of their choice and the project brings learning to life and empowers children from their very first year at school. By the end of the project, children graduate as true experts in a chosen field. The detailed notes on the SFU website below outline how to implement LIDS.

So why was Egan speaking at a Philosophy for Children conference? Because the cornerstone of his work is the focus on the tools we can use to build children’s understanding and make their curriculum more meaningful and engaging. These tools he refers to are the foundation stones for Philosophy in Schools.
[1] Lyle, Sue; Imagination in Education – the neglected dimension: the world of Kieran Egan.


One thought on “little factories of understanding

  1. Thank you for referencing my article onEgan Kate. Kieran Egan first inspired me in 1996 when I was writing my PhD on ‘Children as Meaning-Makers’. All my teaching and training of teachers since the has been informed by his thinking. He theorised what as a teacher I knew to be true – the curriculum should be envisaged as a story to be told and a story to be heard – that the world is story-shaped and we all live our lives through narratising experience. He also helped me to understand that the missing ingredient is the child’s imagination and that this is the most powerful tool in the classroom. When I met Sara Stanley I realised that as a practitioner she knew this instinctively and released the power of children’s imagination through the story worlds she created in her classroom. It is wonderful to see your journey into children’s storied and imaginative minds where the affective is as important as the cognitive.


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