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Tips for Imaginative Educators #9: Let them Obsess

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Don’t worry, they aren’t hoarders.

You may be relieved to hear that it’s very common for young people to collect things. Starting from about age 7 through to about age 14 or 15, collecting is a popular pastime for many young people. What did you collect?  One thing I collected was stickers. I still have my sticker books and–believe it or not–30+ years later those smelly stickers are still smelly. (Probably not organic.)

In addition to collecting things, many young people also take up hobbies, focusing their attention on learning a new skill or learning all they can about someone or something. What was your obsession?  Did you attempt to master a musical instrucment?  Did you dedicate hours to the basketball court or hockey rink?  Did you read everything from a particular author or spend hours absorbing the music of a particular singer or band? 

Collections and hobbies are features of the imagination and important learning tools.

What is going on?

The last tip in this teaching strategies series (#8: Identify The Heroic) indicated one way in which learning to read and write impacts our lives: we get a sense of how vast reality is and, simultaneously, a sense that we are vastly insignificant. Identifying heroes and idols is one way we deal with that feeling of uncertainty and to begin to identify our sense of place in the world.

Collecting things and engaging in hobbies is another important way that we get a handle on the big wide world of which we are one small part. Our collections and hobbies engage us in amassing a lot of information about something or someone (like knowing all the stats on a hockey player or all the songs of a recording artist). Our students’ “obsessions” to “collect the set” or “know all they can” reflects a search for some kind of security. It is far from inconsequential for learning.


The theory and practice of Imaginative Education, or IE, is all about employing the features of our imaginative lives in all educational contexts in order to make learning more engaging. Dr. Kieran Egan–educational philosopher and developer of the Imaginative Education approach–acknowledges that our students’ passion for collecting things and/or their obsession with knowing “all they can” is something we can employ in the classroom to maximize learning. Like all the Tools of Imagination described so far in this series, students’ interests in collecting is a cognitive tool that evokes emotion with whatever content knowledge it is tied up with.

How can this feature of students’ imaginative lives be employed to increase engagement and the effectiveness of teaching?

Imaginative educators know that everything in the curriculum has some aspect in it that students can learn exhaustively. Within all subject areas there is some aspect in which students can become experts. Studying the French Revolution?  Divide up topics so students “collect” as much information as they can on topics like food or drink, fashion, housing, family structure, transportation etc. Allow each student to feel that sense of intellectual security that comes from knowing more than others and knowing a lot in detail about some aspect of the world.

Enhance Learning & Imagination:  Learning in Depth

A very powerful way to extend student engagement is to allow them to investigate a topic for their entire schooling–this is what the Learning in Depth, or LiD, project is all about. LiD offers students an on-going inquiry that they direct and they pace. Unlike any other aspect of their education, the LiD project allows–but doesn’t rush students–to develop expertise on their topic over time. This long term inquiry project taps into the collections and hobbies cognitive tool, it affords students an arena for intellectual security and has powerful impacts in other subject areas resulting from the experience students gain in research, critical thinking etc. You can read Dr. Kieran Egan’s recent post on the value of Learning in Depth for student imagination here: “The more you know about something the easier it is to be imaginative about it.” Or more about the program here.

The urge to “collect the set” is something savvy marketers often tap into: whether sets of books, charms on bracelets or customized coffee cards, collecting is a feature of our imaginative lives.


Learn more about Imaginative Education through the other posts in this BAM series!

Tips for Imaginative Educators #7: Identify Mysteries

Tips For Imaginative Educators #6: Laugh As You Learn

Tips For Imaginative Educators #5: Engage The Body

Tips for Imaginative Educators: #4 Metaphors Matter

Tips for Imaginative Educators: #3 Evoke Mental Imagery with Words

Tips For Imaginative Educators: #2 Find A Source of Dramatic Tension

Tips for Imaginative Educators: #1 Find the Story


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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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Guest Thursday, 23 May 2019