Imagination and Knowledge Development

22-05-2019 09:05

The theme of imagination has a strange place in education. The highest qualification in UK education is the PhD. Many supervisors advise students to focus their PhD work is on delivering a small incremental step in a domain of knowledge. Arguably, such an approach can stifle imagination because the focused in-depth approach can lead to narrow thinking. Papers that discuss the development of knowledge in the context of tacit knowledge sometimes lead to conservative conclusions which are similarly limited. For example, Eraut (2000) concludes his paper as follows:

“…researchers need to be both inventive and modest with their aspirations. The prime purpose of this paper has been to draw attention to both the importance of tacit knowledge and the difficulty of investigating it.” (Eraut, 2000, p. 135)

However, others argue that imaginative expansive approaches are essential for memorization, learning and development of knowledge (Charlton et al., 2018; Dudley, 2013 and Egan, 2004).

In my view, imaginative expansive approaches to knowledge development should be encouraged wherever the approach helps address particular challenges (e.g. Charlton et al. 2018). Various examples illustrate how expansive imaginative approaches help develop knowledge in pioneering ways and often imaginative approaches extrapolate from observed, deduced and/or previously experienced knowledge. For example, Leonardo da Vinci, almost certainly invented the bicycle by reflecting on the previous invention of wheels and his own idea of ball bearings. He took these thoughts (among other perhaps) and imagined the bicycle that he drew in a sketch (Bramly 1994) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Imagination and Knowledge Development







Many writers experience things and then write stories that extrapolate from those experiences. Artists take inspiration from other artists and then use their imagination to further a new line of creative knowledge (e.g. Vincent Van Gogh (Tate Britain, 2019)). I am sure the same is true with musicians and other creative thinkers too.

Imagination can be used to address challenges, develop knowledge and aid memory (Egan, 2004). Usually imaginative approaches are interwoven with experiences from the past and can be developed through drawing, and today, this may entail the use of software technology too (Charlton et al.,2018). The value of imagination to the process of knowledge development in individuals and communities is as important today as it ever was, and to stifle it, runs counter to what education should help students do. I am inclined agree with Egan (2004) who cites Egan and Nadaner (1988) when he says:

“Stimulating the imagination is not an alternative educational activity to be argued for in competition with other claims; it is a prerequisite to making an activity educational.” (Egan, 2004 p. 5 citing Egan and Nadaner, 1988, p. ix).

 Dr Peter Sharp 22nd May 2019


Bramly, S. (1994) Leonardo – The Artist and the Man, Penguin Books, 27 Wright Lane, London.

Dudley, P. (2013) Teacher Learning in Lesson Study: what Interaction-level Discourse Analysis revealed about How Teachers Utilised Imagination, Tacit Knowledge of Teaching and Freshly Gathered Evidence of Pupils’ Learning to Develop their Practice Knowledge and So Enhance the Pupils’ Learning, Teacher and Teaching Education, Vol. 34 pp 107-121 (August 2013).

Charlton, P., Koumpis, A., Kouroupetroglou, C., Grenon, M. (2018) Wunderkammers: Powerful Metaphors for ‘Tangible’ Experiential Knowledge Building, Multimodal Technologies and Interact, 2, 34, pp 1-20, doi:10.3390/mti2030034.

Egan, K. and Nadaner, D. (1988) (eds) Imagination and Education, Teachers College Press, New York, USA.

Egan, K. (2004) Memory, Imagination and Learning: Connected by the Story, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby B.C., Canada [available from file://%20%20,WordDocuments/Articles/memory%20%20 Story (2 of 9)9/6/2004 8:52:50 AM accessed on 14th May 2019]

Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal Learning and Tacit Knowledge in Professional Work, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 70 pp 113-136 copyright 2000 The British Psychological Society.

Pendretti, C. and Clark, K. (1981) Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Johnson Reprint Corporation, ISBN: 0-384-32298-0 (Italy).

Tate Britain (2019) The EY Exhibition – Van Gogh and Britain, 27th March to 11th August 2019.