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Tips For Imaginative Educators #8: Identify The Heroic

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The world is full of heroes.

Some of our heroes are people that exemplify qualities such as ingenuity, flexibility, agility, determination, or reliability. For example, we are impressed by the extraordinary speed and strength of basketball player Lebron James, or the extraordinary agility and accuracy of soccer player Lionel Messi. We are awestruck by the perceptiveness and intelligence of scientist Marie Curie. We admire the bravery of Rosa Parks or Amelia Earhart. We note the selflessness of Mother Theresa. These people all possess transcendent human qualities that we also possess. The difference, often, is that we hold the same qualities to a lesser degree. Sometimes the people we consider “heroes” are those that demonstrate in large measure qualities that we feel we lack.

But humans are not our only heroes. We also emotionally connect with institutions (the United Nations) or concepts (democracy) that exemplify values we believe in: justice, equality, freedom. We may admire the incredible abilities of different animal species as well. So by “hero” I am not refering to a testosterone-driven male figure but, rather, someone or something exemplifying an extraordinary human quality.

The curriculum is also full of heroes; every topic of the curriculum can be seen as heroic in some way.

You’ve probably noticed that many young people associate with heroes or idols. It is not unusual to see pictures of a rock star, artist, or actor plastered into lockers or onto bedroom walls. Our students can become quite fanatical about learning all there is to know about some athlete, actor, author, songwriter, or world leader. If our students are associating with heroes constantly in the world around them, shouldn’t we pay attention to this imaginative activity? Imaginative educators do; they bring out the heroic in the curriculum topics they teach.


How To Evoke Heroic Qualities in Your Curriculum:  Take The Challenge

As part of imaginative planning, be sure to identify what is heroic about your topic. By framing your teaching in a way that leaves students feeling how the topic embodies or displays a transcendent human quality–you evoke your students’ emotions. This is the key to making your teaching unforgettable.

Practice: (To help you, use this resource from the Imaginative Education Research GroupSome-Heroic-qualities.pdf) Take a topic from your curriculum and choose ONE thing from the List of Some Heroic Qualities provided that might convey what is “heroic” about the topic. I call this a “challenge” for good reason–few educators are asked in teacher education programs to describe how topics are “heroic”. I certainly wasn’t!  If it helps, you might “personify” the topic and think—what admirable human quality describes this topic or is exemplified by it?

Some Examples: Let's choose something basic:  punctuation. What is heroic about it? What’s its superpower? Well, one possibility is that it offers us a great COURTESY for the clarity it affords language. Punctuation allows us to communicate (semi-)effectively. Acknowledge that courtesy! 

What is heroic about different verb tenses? One idea is POSSIBILITY. Verb tenses are ingenious turns of language that allow us to experience and represent history, the future, conditions and whatever we imagine.

Have you ever acknowledged the THRIFT of mathematical symbols or equations? Have you ever acknowledged the TENACITY of the single-celled organism or the PERSISTENCE of water? (No matter how hard you try…you can’t get rid of water).

Courtesy, possibility, thrift, tenacity, persistence–these are all transcendent human qualities students understand because they also feel/experience them. Evoking these--tying these up with the knowledge you are teaching--is a powerful means to emotionally engage your students. You might enjoy this post entitled Calling All Imaginative Math Teachers. It contains a great example of how mathematical equations can be taught in a way that evokes the idea of BEAUTY. Mathematicians were asked—which is the most beautiful equation?  (Any guess which one won?)

A More Detailed Example:  Energy & Matter

Teaching about Energy and Matter? (approx. Grade 4 Science) Here is a super engaging lesson by imaginative educator Leone Payson. She frames her teaching around the idea of energy as IMMORTAL. In this imaginative activity students assign each kind of force its own heroic quality: Leone-Payson-ENERGY-Ex.pdf 

By the way, this lesson was a huge hit…it was unforgettable for many students.  Here’s a comment I received from Leone about the lesson's effectiveness:  “Four months after [learning about forces] I had students explaining that lesson in great detail to their parents during student conferences. I had a lot of positive parent feedback about the lesson as it was something children talked about at home when asked ‘what did you do at school today?’, and resulted in one of my favourite teaching moments. I had a student who didn’t participate in the lesson, but walked around and observed the other students. When creating the superhero, I was scribing for her and she noted that her light energy superhero’s nemesis was water because the deeper you go into the ocean the less light there is. It was the first science fact she had ever shared with me!  Woo!”

Here’s a brief YouTube video in which Dr. Kieran Egan and imaginative educator Caitlyn James talk more about the educational power of Heroes & Heroic Qualities.



Imaginative Educators are keenly aware of how their students' imaginative lives work. In this case, they know that their students are actively identifying with heroes outside of school and they employ that tool for learning inside the classroom. Our literate students are constantly seeking associations with heroes in the world around them. Finding these connections is meaningful to students; identify them in your curriculum.

(Learn more about why we need to evoke students’ emotions in learning here (“4 Reasons Why “Relevance” Can Limit Student Engagement”) or through the Tools of Imagination Series.

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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