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Key Figures in Education: Kieran Egan

January 28, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series we introduce key figures in education, and take a look at pivotal areas of their thinking. Educational research draws on research from a number of fields, and these in turn influence our approaches to designing our lessons and courses. Our aim is to inspire you to revisit these theories and to suggest ways of applying them in your classes.

We continue our journey with Kieran Egan and explore his ideas on education and educational theory.

Who is Kieran Egan?

Kieran Egan is an educational philosopher. He is a professor at the Faculty of Education at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. He is also co-director of the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) and Canadian Research Chair in Cognitive Development and the Curriculum. He was born in 1942 in Ireland, and raised in England. He received his PhD in the philosophy of education from Cornell University in 1972.

Kieran Egan
Kieran Egan. By SFU Public Affairs and Media Relations -, CC BY 2.0,

What are his main theories?

Egan's main interest is educational theory and curriculum development. We would like to highlight three main principles of his educational theories and programmes.

Imaginative Education emphasises the importance of cognitive tools in engaging students in imaginative tasks in the classroom. Egan considers imagination the most powerful and energetic learning tool, and promotes an imaginative approach to teaching. His book, An Imaginative Approach to Teaching offers several sample lessons in various subjects. Click here to visit the website of the Imaginative Education Research Group.

The idea of the Learning in Depth programme is based on the well-known fact that our curriculum promotes encyclopaedic knowledge, favouring breath over depth regarding school subjects. He focuses on the American K-12 curriculum, but we can easily see how our own national curricula can relate to this idea. Egan offers an inspiring program with great potential. At the beginning of a child's education, he or she is assigned a topic that they study over the twelve years, exploring every aspect of this single topic, which can be 'apples', 'circus' or any other simple yet inspiring and child-relevant theme.

Egan's early work on storytelling is also a great resource for many teachers. He reminds us that stories are a cultural universal, and we make sense of the world through them. He does not offer ideas on using fictional stories and developing storytelling techniques, rather he highlights the importance of the story form in our approach to lesson planning, adding layers of context to what  could have been series of facts.

How can we use his ideas in the classroom?

Imaginative Education is a topic-based and project-based interdisciplinary approach. Through offering engaging topics and linking various subjects, the lessons become more engaging. In your English classes this approach can be useful to promote CLIL. When you use stories and readers, find topics which can relate to other subjects and give students enough time to explore these. A reading programme can work as an excellent base for these explorations. Follow and browse our Blog to find reading lessons plans based on projects and topics.

On the website of the Imaginative Education Research Group you will find lessons plans and teaching resources. Here are three areas to explore in greater depth*.

1 Find out more about Cognitive Tools:

Egan proposes five kinds of understanding, or cognitive tools, which we master (or fail to master) during the course of our psychological, epistemological, and cultural development.

  • Tools of Non-verbal Language: Somatic Understanding for babies and infants
  • Tools of Oral Language: Mythic Understanding for primary and elementary school students
  • Tools of Written Language: Romantic Understanding for middle and secondary school students
  • Tools of Theoretical Languages: Philosophic Understanding for senior secondary school students
  • Tools of  Language Query: Ironic Understanding for senior secondary school students and older

2 Choose a framework for further study: Planning Frameworks.

3 Read a full lesson plan: Lesson Plans.

*Reference: website of the Imaginative Education Research Group

Where can we learn more about Egan's learning theory?

We recommend the following books and website:

  • Egan, K. (1989). Teaching as story telling: An alternative approach to teaching and curriculum in the elementary school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Egan, K. (2010). Learning in Depth: A simple innovation that can transform schooling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kieren Egan's page

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