Children learn best when they use their imagination

First published on the Guardian Teacher Network 5 February 2013

As a child I loved games. Playground games, skipping games, card games, board games like Risk and Colditz, obscure data games like Logacta and, most of all, role-play games, where I could imagine being someone else involved in dangerous and exciting adventures.

My love of games continued into adulthood and when I became a teacher I wanted to use them in my lessons to engage and excite my students. In this purpose I was incredibly lucky. As a first year teacher I met Luke Abbott, adviser and former student of drama and education specialist Dorothy Heathcote. Luke and Dorothy taught a demonstration lesson with my year 1 class using imaginative inquiry.

Within a few minutes of the lesson starting the children and Luke were involved in a full on mission to rescue the inhabitants of a village, which had been swallowed up by a giant hole. Children who I knew well (some of them reluctant learners) were working in active collaboration with each other, sharing ideas, talking animatedly, drawing, writing and making plans. My classroom no longer looked like a traditional classroom, heads bowed, teacher at the front, but more like a functioning workplace with people operating together as a team. Learning was happening everywhere, all at once, not in a tidy linear way; objective, success criteria, activity, plenary, but in a complex, multi-levelled, environmental way. It was emerging in all directions, both from the children and the adults, driven by the needs of the context.

For me it was a revelation and I’ve spent the rest of my career learning how to teach like Luke and others who use this approach.

What I recognised that day was Luke and the children were involved in a game. The rules were obscured by the way they worked, subliminal, not discussed or agreed, but there nonetheless. And allowing Luke to create with the children an imaginary place inside my classroom, a place where people where trapped underground, and needed rescuing, and a place where a rescue team made plans, collected equipment and went into the darkness. As part of my observation I made a list of the curriculum learning that was happening during the lesson: making maps, writing notes and signs, planning, questioning, working in collaboration, discussions on rocks, soils and materials, light and darkness, respiration, lengths of rope, angles, distances, counting, adding, subtracting, and multiplying. Early years teachers will recognise huge swaths of the key stage 1 curriculum.

In follow up sessions the children wrote reports of the rescue, newspaper headlines, letters of thanks, poems of remembrance, safety leaflets and instruction manuals. Over the coming weeks, following on from Luke, I was able to teach almost the whole year 1 curriculum through a single context and the kids loved it.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m working with a class of year 6 students. The context we have developed over the previous weeks is a Tudor house, now a museum, but once used by Henry VIII for a secret meeting with Anne Boleyn. Winding back history, the children are waiting for Henry’s arrival by river on a barge (think A Man for all Seasons). Henry has been corresponding with the people of the house and has made it known he wants time alone with Anne away from his wife Catherine and his chancellor, Thomas More. The household are, understandably, nervous; dealing with a king as notoriously short tempered as Henry is a terrible worry.

As the session develops the children organise themselves into factions, each one representing different points of view within Henry’s court. Those within Henry’s household that support his wish to divorce Catherine; those within his household who don’t support the divorce, those that represent Anne’s household, and those that represent Catherine’s. Within each household are those that are loyal and those that are looking to exploit the situation for their own ends.

The session comes to head when Henry (represented by a boy called Ryan) dismisses Thomas More (represented by a boy called Simon) from his household because Thomas refuses to give him what he wants. The moment is electric; Henry/Ryan lifts his hand and points at the door, Thomas/Simon bows and leaves. As he goes the other members of Henry’s household (who have waited for this moment) crowd round his chair and take his place. Simon comes out of the story, he’s furious, close to tears. “Why would he do that?” he asks, “I’ve been his friend for years.” The rest of the class are just as animated. Some argue from Henry’s side, others from Thomas’. What is clear is this matters; they are genuinely bothered. This is not an academic study, dispassionate and objective, but a real argument, respectful and reasoned, but also heated and heartfelt.

A lot has happened in education since I started teaching: the literacy and numeracy strategies, Ofsted, league tables, international comparisons, three changes of government and countless education ministers. But what still holds true (in my mind) is that children learn best when they are engaged in their learning, when it matters to them, when its contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership and agency. The best learning I’ve been involved in has not been ‘delivered’ to a class, but built, over time, in collaboration with students. Explored, examined and argued over.

The curriculum is a dry document, full of the kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding we as a society believe are beneficial for children to learn. By all accounts the next one is going to be even dryer. But, however boring and prescribed the curriculum becomes (and of course the tests) there is no reason for our pedagogy to be the same. In fact, Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw are at pains to make this very point. I believe we should take them at their word.

As a profession we should renew our efforts to research and develop modern, engaging and effective teaching methods. Ones that incorporate recent understanding of how the brain learns, help children develop the skills and aptitudes they need for a rapidly changing world and build on the work of our profession from the past.

Imaginative inquiry is based on a well-researched pedagogy with a long history of practical application in the classroom. Teachers use it in many different ways, some as a single lesson, others as a year-long project incorporating wide ares of the curriculum. It is a flexible approach that most teachers find, once the context is established, is easy to plan and resource. However, getting a project started can involve a substantial amount of detailed planning which can be difficult and time consuming. For this reason we have written up a number of popular contexts into step-by-step by guides to get teachers started. You can find these on our website.

This article is based on a planning unit called the Tudor House which you can access on the Guardian Teacher Network here. There is also amind map that accompanies it. You can also access the picture resources from the unit planning page on the imaginative-inquiry website.

Comments on Guardian:


I agree with some of this but not all. Over the years you meet lots of different kinds of learners. It was once said to me that I was a better comedian than teacher. I think it was a compliment.

The truth is that no matter how funny you are, how engaging your sessions are learning at it’s most basic is a cognitive process.

That process may be locked into a social context, it may require the agency of the individual permanently locked into an ongoing relationship with peers and the objective knowledge (often pointless) proffered by the curriculum but in the end learning is as much about reflection and the construction of knowledge at a cognitive level.

We are prisoners of both social knowledge and neuroscience; the I and the me.

And so in truth I know that I have delivered as many interactive happy clappy sessions, which looked great but where nothing much of anything was learned as I have dry sessions that were a bit boring and where nothing much of anything was learned.

Learning takes time, it takes an immersion of the individual into a learning environment that consists of peers, teachers, knowledge and the social structures that bind it all together.

For me teaching is a profession. Different subjects need different approaches. Learning can be social or it can be very cognitive dependent upon he context.

There are no silver bullets, no magic wands’. Like any other profession you use the appropriate tools in the appropriate circumstances.

Except increasingly I think knowledge is being emptied out of the profession in exchange for government mantras, health and safety initiatives and general happy clappy dross.

Professional development seems to consist of; observations, fire drills and …well that’s about it really.

  • TimTaylor4
    @solocontrotutti – I’m not sure where we would disagree.

    If I’m right you’re saying learning is a ‘cognitive-process’

    “learning is as much about reflection and the construction of knowledge at a cognitive level.”

    and we should prioritise learning above enjoyment.

    This is true. It is an argument I’ve heard elsewhere, but I’m not sure there is a conflict here between enjoyment and learning. Of course not every experience children have at school is going to be enjoyable and there is a good argument for students sometimes doing things that are boring, but ultimately satisfying – helping them develop resilience, overcoming boredom etc. However, this is an argument for including some ‘character-building’ opportunities, not for teaching that way all the time.

    I am definitely not advocating ‘happy-clappy’ lessons. They are hateful, patronising and a waste of children’s time. What I am arguing for is a pedagogy focused on effective learning. Boring kids to death – however cognitively challenging the learning objective – is not an effective teaching approach. In my mind the purpose of school is to develop children as learners, interested in the process of learning, not just in jumping through hoops to meet objectives. To do this we have to plan to engage their imaginations, plan contexts that have meaning and purpose, as well as challenging them cognitively. Too much of what we do at school is switching too many kids off, it is our professional responsibility to work at changing this state of affairs. Not washing our hands by saying its not our responsibility to make learning engaging or worse blaming the kids as some do.

  • solocontrotutti

    @TimTaylor4 – We probably don’t disagree however as you allude to in your response, there is an awful lot of “magic bulletism” in education.

    I think the message of enjoyment has most definitely got through. I think that we now have a situation where aimless entertaining has got as bad as transmission based approaches that are boring.

    We got to a situation whereby OFSTED and many in education thought that an “outstanding session” (presuming such a thing exists) was one whereby numerous activities were packed into a session often at random where learners often seemed like passive objects at a comedy club. One pointless activity after another.

    Paulo Freire describes it pretty well; the teacher as subject and the learner as passive object. To me this is as true if the object is passive, sitting and listening to the expert teacher transmitting knowledge or passively completing mind numbing tasks issued by the jolly comedic teacher.

    Thankfully in the last year or so OFSTED seems to have had (another) change of heart and we may see more balanced approaches.

    I agree very much with the statement below but what I do not see are the words imagination, enjoyment etc. What I perceive this to be saying is that the professional teacher is using a variety of techniques to empower learners.

    It’s just semantics I know but very important to a job that is struggling against ongoing de-professionalisation.

    “But what still holds true (in my mind) is that children learn best when they are engaged in their learning, when it matters to them, when its contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership and agency. The best learning I’ve been involved in has not been ‘delivered’ to a class, but built, over time, in collaboration with students. Explored, examined and argued over.”

    Indeed and it’s very hard work. Very hard to evidence and often requires a great deal of professional expertise.

    And more often it involves a battle against the system.


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