Imagination, Learning & Life

Teachers often speak of the importance of imagination as the foundation of creative activities, but how often do we consider the vital part it plays in wider learning, life and faith? I want to suggest that imagination is central to life, and is used by God as he draws us to himself. It is within communities of interest and practice, that our view of the world, and our place within these multiple communities, are shaped. James Smith has argued, that as we live with other people, our views, aspirations, goals, hopes and identities are influenced and changed. Our imaginations are implicated in much of the activities of life.[1]

The Apostle Paul understood that because of this, our imaginations need to be ‘captured’. As the early church emerged and people from varied backgrounds came together, they brought varied stories from the past and hopes for their futures. In Ephesians 2 we read how Paul challenged this new community of believers to grasp that they were no longer bound by their past, and hence he gave them a vision for their future. He reminded them that because of Christ we are “… no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s and also members of his household” (Eph 2.19). They were to seek transformed lives within a community where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Jew and Gentile alike, needed to be able to imagine a new future, a new identity and a new world. 

In his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 6:11-13), Paul also reminded his readers that they could experience a new unity and standing before God, not shaped by their past, but by their hoped for future. This required them to seek and know God and embrace membership of God’s kingdom. This was not simply a cerebral assent of the mind, it involved them reimagining their futures.

Above: The Pantheon in Rome
In their helpful book, Veith and Ristuccia[2] suggest that imagination expressed within community is an important way that God transforms us. As we express, test and consider our imaginings with others, we are transformed and so are they. As our students share their lives, and as they imagine their futures, they are influenced and changed. Our imagined, as well as our reasoned discussions of God and his word, rarely do as well in isolation. Journeys towards faith are generally community projects.[3] God redeems our imaginations as well as our minds and wills. Like us, our students flourish in relationship to other people who they not only know, but who they trust.

The teacher must grapple with the reality that in the mainstream activities of classroom life, there may well be little that binds members together; little shared concern, or even common hopes for the future. If our classroom activities fail to engage the imaginations of our students, they will exercise these in pursuing other activities, goals, hopes and dreams.[4]

Maurice Friedman suggests that “ … the true teacher is not one who pours information into student’s head as through a funnel – the old-fashioned ‘disciplined’ approach – or the one who regards all potentialities as already existing within the student and needing to be pumped up – the newer ‘progressive’ approach. It is the one who fosters genuine mutual contact and mutual trust. “[5]

The key to reducing the generational distance between teacher and child, and to establishing classrooms and schools as communities that are transformative and allow ‘space’ for the ‘imagination’, would seem to be a better means to developing understanding of one another.

How is this discussion of dialogue, and relational communities connected to imagination? Imagination is a foundational part of how such communities are formed. Veith and Ristuccia, in their book 'Imagination Redeemed' suggest that "... human imagination is where a vision for life is set, where mind and heart and will converge." 

Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived and supported. As students engage in the life of the school, and the communities of practice that they inhabit, imagination plays a key role in connecting who they are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging. The role of the imagination in education, pedagogy and 'life' is a key component within my latest book - 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' - that will be released in March/April by Wipf & Stock

NEXT Post - 'The Power of Story'



[1] James K.A. Smith, ‘Educating the Imagination’. Case Quarterly No. 31, 2012, pp9-14.
[2] Gene E. Veith & Matthew P. Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed, Crossway: Wheaton Illinois, 2015, 135-136.
[3] Ibid., 136.
[4] Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for Life, Wipf & Stock: Eugene OR, In Press.
[5] Friedman, ‘Introduction’, in Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul: New York, 1947, xvii-xviii.

The Power of Story

Above: My father told constant stories about life
As an adult, I can never remember being read to as a child. Books were not a big part of our family life. But as I grew older, and particularly when I trained to become a teacher, I began to appreciate the importance of literature in the lives of the young. Later, as an academic, I began to research story and I became a passionate advocate for children's literature. I would often say in talks about children's literature that I hadn't lived in a home rich in literature. But over time, I began to realize that while books were not read to me as a child, and literature had not been prominent in my early life, that story DID play a large part in my childhood. How could this be so?

First, because my home was filled with music, song and my father's personal anecdotes of life in Scotland. My father's stories often focused on family hardship, and later in Australia, the struggles of an immigrant family and a lifetime of battles as a trade union leader against the power of big business. Both my parents were also musicians and entertainers, and my mother and sister were both gifted singers. Music, in a sense, was another form of storytelling that also filled our home. Second, my grandfather, with whom I spent all my school holidays, loved literature, particularly poetry, and was constantly quoting and reciting it. He would also constantly quote the Bible as part of daily life.

Above: A brother is introducing his sister to the power of story
What I was to realize many years later, was that story had indeed been central to my life. Not from books, but as oral stories in varied forms. Story in all of its forms has the power to challenge, to move us emotionally, and to cause us to reflect on life in all its dimensions. It also has the potential to move us to seek hope as we deal with all of life as we experience life's emotions, including love, hate, fear, confidence, chaos, uncertainty, weakness, strength, success, and failure. Story is an important influence on what we come to love and desire, it follows that it is potentially formative for our attitude toward the ultimate object of love—the God of the universe—who the Bible teaches has made us for a future kingdom and an everlasting hope and glory centred on him.

In my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', I devote a chapter to storytelling and in it write:

The significance of story for teaching should be obvious. It operates at multiple levels in the life of the school. At one level, students learn about the world through story. But at a deeper level they begin to imagine their own futures, their deepest desires, and the good life which they seek. As well, story is experienced in many forms: written, spoken, sung, viewed, heard, and experienced. In our world, we can be confronted and moved by books, advertising, movies, and music. This of course occurs in the 'everydayness' of life, whether at school, work, home, or in the world at large.

James K. A. Smith in his book 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation', argues that we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life, and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. The stories that are part of our experience shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives.

But we don't just enjoy and absorb stories, we create them and share them as a central part of life. As Alasdair MacIntyre, suggests in his book 'After Virtue' we are storytelling creatures:

Man [sic] is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.

Humans frequently think in narrative, pass on personal histories, envision the future and speak of the present often through story. But there's more! Our stories have a relationship to the stories of other people, and also the central salvation narrative of the Bible. MacIntyre suggests in 'Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry' that 'The story of oneself is embedded in the history of the world, an overall narrative within which all other narratives find their place'. J.R. Tolkien suggested something similar when he challenged C.S. Lewis to consider the Christian faith.

It has become obvious to me over time, that my personal life story has a relationship to all other stories that I have experienced in life. This too is the experience of our children. Teachers need to understand this, for it has significant consequences for the view of the world they are forming each day, and even more important than this, their view of their potential future. For much of the life of school, teachers have little connection to the stories that are shaping the lives of our young people. One of the great challenges that we face is how to address this disconnection between adults and the private narrative worlds of our students.

Being participants in the storied lives that our children live each day, is a major challenge for parents and teachers. In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I argue that we need to strive to help our children connect their lives to the Bible's central narrative. That is:

In the beginning, God created . . . and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against Him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgment. But God always had a plan to respond to such rebellion, a plan of redemption motivated by love, an amazing gift and act of grace: sending his own Son to die, and then three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day to return to judge the living and the dead. This is how the Bible outlines God's plan to provide a way for his creation to be restored to a rightful relationship with him.

Stories can be used by God as part of his general revelation and common grace to us, both to enrich our imagined and hoped-for view of the good life, and in the process draw attention to aspects of the human condition.


To be human is to understand our God-given desire to know our purpose in life and to seek fulfillment in the “hoped for,” the ultimate quest of each life. In life, we are immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing. (Cairney, In press, 'Pedagogy and Education for Life').

Finally, stories can bring into focus truth, beauty, and goodness, as well as human virtues that reflect the grace and providence of God. Teachers need to constantly ask themselves, how do I share and position classroom life in such a way, that ultimately, the stories that our students hear, share and are influenced by, have a connection to the central narrative of the Gospel of Christ?

NEXT Post - Worldview, Virtues and Values