Curriculum, Sustainability, Teaching

Imaginative Ecological Education

A simple guide to get you started

One of the many things COVID-19 has brought into focus is the classroom – the confined indoor space in which the majority of K–12 learning happens. Faced with the risk of spreading germs in indoor locations, many Canadian educators moved learning outside into schoolyards and local community spaces. In my view, these are steps in the right direction – but not only, or even primarily, because of viral spread. Rather, literally getting outside classroom walls and metaphorically getting outside the entrenched ways in which we tend to think about teaching and learning can offer learners important skills, knowledge, and dispositions.

Learners in Canada today are living the legacy of Western, industrial views of schooling, curriculum design, and humankind’s relationship with nature (Judson, 2010, 2017).

Overwhelmingly, schooling separates learners from the local natural and cultural contexts in which they are situated and divides a richly interconnected living world into disciplinary containers. “Real learning” happens inside, at desks or tables, not in local parks, communities, or schoolyards. Schooling also marginalizes imagination in the learning process. Outcomes or objectives drive curricular decisions rather than the emotional or imaginative significance of topics.

There is no better time than now – amidst the turmoil this pandemic has already caused – to take a critical look at education in Canada, how it may be missing the mark, and what can be improved. In this article I describe two changes that could better equip learners to face the uncertain years ahead: widespread cultivation of imagination and learning outdoors.

Imagination matters

A world of complex issues and problems requires a population that has a richly developed ability to envision the possible, the not-yet. It is this imagination that is needed to navigate an unpredictable, wild, “white water world” that is “broadly connected, rapidly changing, and radically contingent” (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018, p. 7). Pendleton-Jullian and Brown’s (2018) work on the pragmatic imagination challenges misconceptions that imagination is somehow antithetical to real academic learning or reasoning. They show the myriad ways in which imagination contributes to a range of cognitive processes, including perception and reasoning. They insist that the muscle of imagination is the force behind vital processes of speculation, experimentation, and free play that humans must employ when facing wildly complex and interrelated wicked problems.

In addition to needing imagination to deal with the complex world of today, it is imagination-focused pedagogy – teaching that brings into focus the emotional and imaginative core of all topics – that is most aligned with the emotional nature of human beings. We are, as psychologist David Kresh suggests, perfinkers. We perceive and feel and think at the same time. We perfink. And yet, far too often, students don’t feel much of anything about the topics they are learning about. Many educators think of the imagination as something that comes into play when foundational learning has already taken place; it is a kind of frill or supplement that may be valuable and enjoyable, but is not crucial to learning itself. While objectives are undoubtedly important for teaching, when they drive curricular decisions, teaching misses the emotional core of all learning (Egan, 1997).

At the same time, there are calls worldwide to improve schools so that students graduate with strong creative thinking skills. Education is needed, therefore, that feeds this emotional core. Imaginative Education is such a pedagogy that can fill that gap between valuing the imagination on one hand and cultivating it routinely in schooling on the other. It uses practical tools – cognitive tools – to shape lessons into engaging stories and cultivates imagination in the process. If imagination is understood to be the fertile soil out of which all learning, creativity, and innovation grow (Judson, 2021), then schooling should embrace the tools to cultivate it in all contexts and for learners of all ages.

Imaginative Education

In this Imaginative Education classroom, students are learning about the wonderful world of punctuation. Lisa is a comma, Hendrich, a period, and Paola, a semicolon. Each student has their own super power: Lisa the comma grants breaths and brings things together in a series; Hendrich the period has the power to end ideas, thoughts, and actions; one of Paola the semicolon’s mighty strengths is to connect full ideas. Their teacher is evoking the ingenuity of seemingly insignificant punctuation marks – those tidy little packages of meaning that help convey body language that we physically experience in face-to-face interactions but that is lost in written communication. Yesterday the students played with facial expressions and bodily gestures that may be conveyed with an “!” They giggled when they thought how a “;” can replace a wink (e.g. I got a new car; it is a midnight blue Maserati.) Tomorrow students are exploring the most unusual punctuation marks – have you heard of the interrobang?! – and the stories of those who invented them.

Human beings continually engage with the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations. For example, words cause images to arise in our minds. We universally enjoy stories of all kinds. We identify patterns in the world around us. We enjoy jokes and humour. Extremes of experience and limits of reality – the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records – intrigue us. We notice and often idolize people, ideas, or institutions. We collect things and obsess over hobbies. Mysteries entice us and we can experience awe in the face of unanswered questions or strange events. Our emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways. These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are ways of thinking that help human beings learn.

In Imaginative Education, a theory and pedagogy developed by Dr. Kieran Egan, these acts of imagination are “cognitive tools.” They are emotional ways or strategies through which human beings make meaning in the world and, when used to shape lessons, can engage and grow imagination (Egan, 1997, 2005). Imaginative Education offers all educators a glimpse into the imaginative and emotional lives of their students and, importantly, describes sets of tools students are using to make emotional sense of the world that any teacher can use to shape curriculum. So rather than being objectives-driven, Imaginative Education is imagination-driven. Because cognitive tools are used to shape curricular decisions (Egan, 1997, 2005) teaching aligns with the emotional core of human beings.

In an Imaginative Education classroom, educators are storytellers. This does not mean they constantly create or integrate fictional stories in their teaching, but, rather, that they use cognitive tools such as revealing the heroic qualities of a topic, evoking powerful images, noticing the unique or novel, and engaging the body, to shape topics in ways that reveal their emotional importance. (See Learn More for resources.)

Focusing on imagination as we teach all curriculum topics is one way we can improve education in Canada post-pandemic. The next step? Literally stepping outside classroom walls.

Outdoor Place-Based Education

Research shows that meaningful experiences in nature as children can impact the development of a conservation ethic (e.g. deBrito et al., 2017; Selby, 2017). Emotional connection can move us to action. Unfortunately, many students don’t have an emotional connection to the local natural and cultural contexts. My research has shown an alarming level of emotional disaffection among students. Students may know more about global warming but do not feel connected to any Place; they are not moved to live harmoniously with the natural world. Many students lack a sense of ecological understanding – knowledge of humankind’s interconnection in a living world and an affective relationship with nature that inspires changed action that is required in a world facing massive ecological crises (Judson 2010, 2015, 2018).

Understanding the natural world as a powerful teacher is uncommon in a Western view of schooling. Indeed, Place-based learning is a rich, but small, part of a Western educational tradition that has largely separated human beings and learning from nature. In contrast, the connection of learning with Place forms the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. One of the devastating effects of colonization in Canada has been the virtual dismissal of Indigenous knowledges. Our education system can be improved if we learn from and with Indigenous peoples in Canada about a world view that acknowledges the inseparability of people and Place. I am dedicated to this work.

Imaginative Ecological Education

Unfortunately, not all outdoor learning experiences are created equal. Practices that neglect emotional and imaginative engagement in the learning process do little to cultivate the heart of a conservation ethic (Judson, 2010, 2015). Reconnecting with nature for its intrinsic value – re/membering (with) nature as an extension of our own selves – is a central goal of a cross-curricular approach to learning called Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).

Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) aims to nurture students’ personal relationships with the natural and cultural contexts in which they live through frequent engagement of the body, emotion, and imagination in learning. By designing pedagogy around the distinctive features of students’ imaginative lives – applying the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education discussed earlier in outdoor learning – IEE more routinely engages the body, emotion, and imagination where students live and learn. Because IEE is a cross-curricular approach to teaching suitable for students in elementary through secondary school in urban, sub-urban, or rural contexts, IEE makes it possible for the development of ecological understanding to take place alongside the fulfillment of curricular requirements.

The Walking Curriculum (Judson, 2018) is an accessible and highly practical set of activities educators can use to move learning outside with inquiry and imagination. Based on principles of IEE, the 60 easy-to-use walking-focused activities in the Walking Curriculum are designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particularities of Place, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. In the Walking Curriculum, a walking theme is paired with a cognitive tool to develop understanding and engage imagination. The resource is designed for teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “outdoor educators” – as a result, it has been of wide interest and is being widely implemented (Judson, 2021).

While I acknowledge that a radical revisioning of schooling and broad social changes will be required to learn to live within the Earth’s carrying capacities (Blenkinsop & Fettes, 2021), moving learning outside is one step in the right direction.

So, what do I recommend for changing the 130-year legacy that lives in schools today? Literally, we can change the story one step at a time. One tool at a time. We can cultivate learners’ imaginations through teaching as storytelling. We can shape learning opportunities for students of all ages in ways that move them outdoors, into communities and that employ tools that engage their emotions and imaginations in engaging with the natural world. When imagination and outdoor learning become core principles of education in Canada, we will be better equipped to navigate a “white water world” and may begin to form relationships with nature that can support a different ecological future.


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, September 2022


Learn More

Learn more about:

• Imaginative Education, the Walking Curriculum, Imaginative Ecological Education, and how to use cognitive tools on the imagineED website: www.educationthatinspires.ca/imaginative-education

• The Walking Curriculum: www.edcan.ca/articles/a-walking-curriculum



Blenkinsop, S. & Fettes, M. (2021). Living within the earth’s carrying capacity: Towards an education for eco-social-cultural change. Report for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. www.circesfu.ca/practice/ecological-place-based-education/educating-for-living-within-the-earths-carrying-capacity

de Brito Miranda, A.C., Jófili, Z., & dos Anjos Carneiro-Leão, A.M., (2017). Ecological literacy: Preparing children for the twenty-first century. Early Child Development and Care187(2), 192–205.

Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Judson, G. (2010). A New approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world. Peter Lang.

Judson, G. (2015). Engaging imagination in ecological education: Practical strategies for teaching. UBC Press.

Judson, G. (2017). Re-imagining relevance in education. In J. Cummings & M. Blatherwick (Eds.) Creative dimensions of teaching and learning in the 21st century (pp. 47–58). Sense Publishers.

Judson, G. (2018). A walking curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing sense of place (K-12). Kindle Direct Publishing.

Judson, G. (2021). Cultivating leadership imagination with cognitive tools: An imagination focused approach to leadership education. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. doi.org/10.1177/19427751211022028

Judson, G. (2021, June 21). Working with Place: Recommendations for developing imaginative ecological teaching practices. Green Teacher Magazine128. https://greenteacher.com/working-with-place/

Pendleton-Jullian, A. & Brown, J. S. (2018). Pragmatic imagination: A new terrain. CreateSpace.

Selby, D. (2017). Education for sustainable development, nature, and vernacular learning. CEPS Journal, 7(1), 9–27.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Gillian Judson

Lecturer/Executive Director, Simon Fraser University/Centre for Imagination in Research, Culture and Education

Gillian Judson, PhD, is Executive Director of the Centre For Imagination in Research, Culture and Education (www.circesfu.ca) at Simon Fraser University. Her research and teaching are primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning, with a particular focus on imaginative, Place-based teaching practices.

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