Contrary to the widespread belief that children’s understanding begins with the simple, concrete, and familiar, evidence suggests that even young children learn through imaginative engagement with the complex, abstract, and unfamiliar (Egan, 1986; 1988; 1990; 1992). Evidence also supports the idea that the nature of this engagement develops and changes as children pick up ways of thinking, speaking and acting that are prevalent in their cultural environment. This notion of learning as culturally mediated activity was first elaborated by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (e.g. Vygotsky, 1962; 1978); more recently, Kieran Egan has developed a detailed account of the changes in children’s imaginative engagement as they acquire first oral, then written language, and eventually come to acquire the sophisticated tools of theoretical analysis that are central to academic practice (Egan, 1997). Most crucially for our proposed research, Egan has also suggested ways in which this way of thinking about learning can be applied to classroom teaching in virtually any context.
Space precludes a detailed presentation of Egan’s theory here, but a brief example can be given of the kind of insights it yields and its consequences for educational practice. In the case of young children, before they become literate, some of the basic “tools” normally present in their oral culture include a strong sense of story-shaping, remarkable metaphorical abilities, perception and mediation of binary opposites, a sense of rhyme, rhythm, and patterning, appreciation of jokes and humor, prompt generation of mental images from words, and some others (Egan, 1986; 1988; 1997). All of these tools are routinely used in the stories and games that engage children at this stage, but they are rarely used to teach the curriculum (with some exceptions, such as Waldorf schools). Egan has designed planning frameworks for teachers that make the use of these tools central to their everyday practice. To make use of the cognitive tools just mentioned, for instance, teachers begin by “locating wonder”: “What is emotionally engaging about the topic? How can it evoke wonder? Why should it matter to us?” This sense of wonder can then be used to build a story that dramatizes the topic and links it to memorable images, emotions, and children’s abstract understanding of the world. The unit can be planned so that children participate actively in the creation and resolution of the story. As children’s understanding develops and changes, Egan’s frameworks likewise change to match their passions and abilities; but the central theme is always one of imaginative engagement with what is marvellous and meaningful, often in connection with the history of human thought and culture. In recent work by Egan and his colleagues, this approach to teaching and learning has been dubbed “imaginative education”. Educators in a number of countries have used these ideas with success in a variety of teaching contexts (e.g. Amstrong, Connelly and Saville, 1994; McKenzie and Fettes, 2002), but no large-scale implementation project has been tried.
Across Canada , First Nations children are among those most poorly served by the existing school system. From the research literature on similar situations throughout the industrialized world, it is clear that the causes of this mismatch are multiple and complex (Deyhle and Swisher,1997). Many initiatives may help to address the problem, including the inclusion of Aboriginal languages and cultures in the curriculum, greater representation of Aboriginal people in the teaching profession, and Aboriginal political control of educational institutions (Assembly of First Nations, 1988; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996; Castellano, Davis and Lahache, 2000). Some researchers argue, however, that such measures must eventually be followed by a deeper rethinking of the nature and purposes of education, if schools are ever to become truly educative places for First Nations and non-First Nations children alike (e.g.Bowers, 1987; Cajete, 2000; Chrisjohn, 1999; Hampton, 1995). Specialists in multicultural and bilingual education emphasize the need for pedagogies that encourage active language use, experiential-interactive approaches that enable learners to generate their own knowledge, and assessment practices that help teachers and learners alike to focus upon building strengths (Cummins, 1992; Nieto, 2000). We propose that imaginative education offers a means of doing this that could transcend the divide between “mainstream” and “multicultural” education, allowing for the flexible and meaningful incorporation of First Nations cultural knowledge and practices in ways that enrich rather than conflict with the provincial curriculum (cf. Goodefellow, 1994). If this hypothesis were confirmed, it would make a remarkable contribution to research on inclusive models of education.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, the failure or very partial success of many school reform initiatives has prompted the re-examination of assumptions about educational change (Fullan and Stiegelbauer, 1991; Bascia and Hargreaves, 2000). It is now widely accepted that sustainable change requires the participation of teachers, administrators and parents (or, more broadly, communities) “with heart and mind” (Hargreaves, 1997). Similar conclusions can be found in research on indigenous community-based education (May, 1999), including significant emphasis on the role of the imagination in bringing schools and communities together (Fettes, 1999). In the context of this literature, we view imaginative education as a potentially powerful catalyst for educational change. By deeply engaging teachers and learners in a shared reworking of curriculum and community in schools, it addresses the issues of emotional and intellectual commitment that are now seen as the foundation of effective pedagogical relationships (Palmer, 1998). Again, should this idea be confirmed in practice, it would significantly enrich international research on educational reform.
This Project, then, will constitute a large-scale trial of imaginative education in a setting where teachers and school districts are strongly motivated to try something new, and where additional support is available from community organizations (i.e. First Nations) that are centrally concerned with educational outcomes and can contribute their own expertise to the Project.