Imagination in Practice

When I tell people what I am writing, a common reaction is to ask ‘how are you defining imagination?’ For a long time I would acknowledge, sighing, that, yes, this is a problem. Why a problem? Because imagination is a word that so evidently means many things at the same time.

My questioners captured this truth. Children also expressed it. Here is a nine-year-old, writing on the topic ‘a time you used your imagination’. For the sake of clarity, I have corrected his spelling and punctuation.

I use my imagination when I play sport. I imagine that there’s a big crowd cheering for me. I use my imagination when I write stories. I use my imagination when I play the PlayStation. I use my imagination when I read chapter books. I use my imagination when I’m playing games like shooting. I use my imagination when I am having a break (Catholic School, writing piece: 0, 4).

So, defining imagination seems to be a problem because it is many things, or many processes, or has many functions. Many books about imagination start by pointing out the multiplicity or complexity of the term. Commonly the authors then use one of two strategies to deal with the problem. Sometimes they argue that there is one thing that we really (should) mean by imagination (Sartre 1948; Sartre 1962; Williams 1991; Currie and Ravenscroft 2002). This might take the form of a typology classifying the several things that imagination really means (see, for example, McGinn 2004). Alternatively, they posit some essential set of properties that diverse forms of imagination share. To Greene, for example, the assorted forms of imagination are all ‘visions of what should be’ (Greene 1995: 5). For Vygotsky, all imagination is the second and more important of the two types of human thought, reproductive and combinatorial, or creative activity (Vygotsky 2004: 9). In either strategy, the ‘problem’ of multiplicity is dissolved in favour of singularity.

My strategy here will be quite different: I will suggest that a word having multiple meanings is only a problem if you take a particular view of what meaning is. My argument is essentially an updated version of the later Wittgenstein, and owes much to Paul Lieberman’s ‘Imagination: Looking in the Right Place (and in the Right Way)’ (Lieberman 2003; see also Diamond 1991). Again, this is an attempt to move away from representation and towards practice. After describing this view of meaning, I will work to provide in more detail the assorted modes in which teachers define imagination – as intrinsic way of being, as skill that is enjoyed by some, as intentional or unintentional practice, and as useful strategy. Finally, I will propose a tactic necessary to deal with this particular range of definitions. What we need to do, I will suggest, is engage with the practices that our teachers use in their classrooms and which they have conglomerated for us in their words.

What is Meaning?

External Reference?

As Lieberman, a clinical psychotherapist, observes, ‘we tend to have the following idea about the meanings of words: there are objects, call them meanings, that are what the word refers to’ (Lieberman 2003: 21). This is a view that sees meaning as referring to some object or process ‘out there’. It is sometimes referred to as the correspondence theory of truth. This type of meaning is commonly associated (ontologically) with realism, (epistemologically) with a Cartesian divide of subject and world, (methodologically) with empiricism and analytic philosophy.

In this tradition we would say that there is some specific meaning, some object or process, which we refer to when we say ‘imagination’. Multiplicity would be difficult to deal with. It would suggest that there are several things out there that are covered by the word ‘imagination’ and that for clarity we should decide which one is imagination and which we should use other words for (like empathy, creativity, and so on). We would be pushed towards asking ‘but what do we really mean?’


Since Wittgenstein’s (1953) Philosophical Investigations, and as an outflow of more sophisticated and sympathetic accounts of the linguistic and social lives of the earth’s people, we are less likely to state that meaning is a matter of external reference. Instead, we are likely to conceive of meaning as being like a web, as in Sassure’s Langue, or, in Wittgenstein’s famous term, as part of a ‘language game’. In this view meaning happens as we use language as a matter of social convention and negotiation. This understanding of meaning has been useful to theories of social constructivism and of relativism, and is used in textual analysis (it is used, for example, by Walkerdine (1988) in her analysis of children’s understanding of mathematical reasoning).

In this tradition we would analyse what people say about imagination, asking questions like ‘what do they compare it to? What metaphors do they use?’ and ‘What is not imagination?’ We would ask of our speakers’ words, what do they really mean? What does this tell us about the net of meanings in which imagination is caught? This again implies that there is some underlying object or process that speakers refer to, albeit a potentially different object for each speaker. So while this strategy deals better with multiplicity, it does so by positing speakers as referring to their own views of a distant object. In this picture, language works on the assumption that others mean something close to what we ourselves mean.

Conglomerated Practice?

Lieberman suggests that the version of the language game that I have described above, and that has exerted so much influence, is a misreading of Wittgenstein. It is to miss the philosophy. We should look also, Lieberman says, at how we use language as part of our embodied lives. He gives the example of stating the time: ‘it is three o’clock’. This should not be read as an assertion of the essential three-ness of the hour or as a representation of a fact about the sun’s location in the sky. Nor, however, should it be read as just a socially conventional statement we could make at the moment its meaning has been agreed on (and is kept in clocks and watches). It is the case that when we say ‘it is three o’clock’ we refer to a social agreement about the sun’s location in the sky as well as an agreement about how to index that as 3pm. But this is not all we mean. Instead, we should look at the whole web of practices, with and without objects, which are pulled together when we say that it is three o’clock. These include, and are not limited to, practices with clocks, watches and mobile phones, working days, school days and weekends, practices of starting and ending activities, the arrangement of mealtimes, the measurement of ages, and so on. Lieberman defends this move by suggesting that, apart from being what Wittgenstein intended, it is also obvious. ‘What we gain by giving up [external referentiality] is a new attention to what is already before our eyes but which, it seems, we tend to ignore: our verbal and nonverbal practices, forms of life, language games’ (Lieberman 2003: 22).

This may or may not be an accurate reading of Wittgenstein’s work (what he really meant), but it is useful here for it illuminates in terms of meaning what scholars like Verran suggest: namely that we study the relatedness of subjects and objects in practice. It encourages us to think both about how people use words and how they do what they are talking about. It is about words as part of, not just descriptions of, what our world is. Words, this is to say, are tools that help us conglomerate our practices and are part of our practices.

We can use people’s words to help us develop sensitivity to their practices, their modes of doing imagination. Asking teachers what imagination means is a way of asking them to conglomerate for us the ‘imagination’ they practise. Their answers will make us better placed to notice what they do in their classrooms with words (especially ‘imagine’ and ‘imagination’), with books and pens and paper, with counting blocks and numerals, with arguing children. Only by spending time with them in classrooms, as we do in part two of this book, will we learn how they actually do practise imagination.

What do you Think of when I Say ‘Imagination’?

Listen with me to what teachers say imagination means. I have asked, as the very first question in an interview, ‘what do you think of when I say imagination?’ This question is purposefully open. And it elicits answers that show imagination as perhaps a state, perhaps a thing or perhaps a process. It will help us understand what they believe makes a good teacher, and what they take to be the educational task. It will also tell us what they think children are naturally like and what they want for the children in their classrooms to be able to do and be when they grow up. It will tell us about how each teacher connects good imagining and good living.

What teachers’ answers reveal are options for thinking about what imagination is as we shift our notions of what human agents are. Put another way, each teacher tells us something different about what type of thing imagination can be. These senses of what is possible and what is important are a guide and a constraint on their practice. These different imaginations assume and reproduce different types of human-ness, or more specifically, child-ness. We hear from two teachers about imagination as an attribute of persons. They disagree however about whether it is a state of being or a talent. Is it something we are or that we have?

This is a possible division used by Edwin Hersh. He suggests that we understand imagination either as ‘describing a particular domain or zone of our experience characterised primarily as one of unreality, fiction, and falsehood, or, alternatively, as an essential dimension of our being, namely an essential aspect inherent to all of human reality’ (Hersch 2003: 57, emphasis in original). Aligning these two positions with analytic and continental philosophy respectively, Hersh is formalising the divide between imagination as something we have (a domain of unreality, fiction, or falsehood clearly bounded from reality) or something we are (an aspect or dimension of ourselves and our human reality).

Other teachers divide the possibilities differently. They say imagination is both something that we are and that we have, just as we both are and have bodies (Merleau-Ponty 2004; Mol and Law 2007). It is not appropriate to isolate imagination as either a domain or a dimension. These two teachers talk of imagination as something that we do, and their answers are divided by the degree of agency involved. These teachers disagree on whether we do imagination or have it done in us. Do we purposefully imagine or is it elicited by the sensual world around us?

There is a final possibility: that imagination is something we do for particular strategic purposes. This retains the sense of imagination as practice and sidesteps the problem of agency. Whether we consciously choose to imagine something is less relevant than the purpose it serves in our conscious and unconscious lives. Our imaginations can do fantasy and thinking, solve psychic and cognitive problems, give us pleasure and understanding.

From our five teachers’ versions of what imagination is we can also infer important things about their sense of, and practices with, children. How teachers talk about imagination is based on assumptions, shared to some extent throughout the school, about what children are. These are basic to the behaviours expected from children and permitted in schools – through rules, suggestions, tasks, materials supplied in playgrounds and classrooms, divisions of time, and so on.

How teachers talk about imagination, and the children they figuratively and materially produce, is our starting point.

Children are… Naturally Imagining

ME: What do you think of when I say ‘imagination’?

SHIRLEY: We forget that children […] [imagination]’s just like their natural state, we forget that that’s what they need, time to live in that. Young children, I’ve learnt to watch them, and you find, and I’ve found that when you talk to them about anything, and if we learn to talk in pictures, you can see them building what they’re hearing, and it kind of happens in front and above, and you can see them actually building that, and so […] it’s something that we’re born with, it’s inherent (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).

What Shirley is telling us is that imagining is what and where children are. Imagination is not simply something that some children have while others don’t, nor is it something children can choose to do or not. Rather imagination is part of the definition of what makes a child a child, and what makes a child able to grow up into a good (normal, natural) adult. Imagination is a child’s ‘natural state’, something they need to be in, something they need to be, as a part of being a child. Here we have a description that identifies imagination and child-ness as co-determining states of being. Children are imagining.

This way of talking about imagination is part of a wider way of talking about children. Throughout the interview, we can sense a particular type of child – interestingly, a child much like Shirley describes herself as having been.

Shirley sees the child as having a deep need, a hunger for stories that they can imagine with. This child is threatened severely by the adult world; at stake is their capacity to think and to be good. Their minds and their morals are threatened by the horrors that abound in the adult world in its billboards, its noise, its six o’clock news. If allowed to live in imagination, children will naturally develop an intellectual life and the pictures they have in their minds will fade. But until that time, this child is guarded as she builds a little world, thinking in pictures during the whole of their school day. She might be dreamy just as Shirley claims she was as a child. She might be a pain in the neck, as Shirley jokes she was. But certainly she is happy, balanced, and enlivened. She will gradually grow into a responsible adult.

Children who do not get enough opportunity to occupy their imagination will be lacking a basic nutrient necessary for their normal development. Just as babies need their mother’s milk, so children need to imagine through stories. Talking about the reaction of children at mainstream schools to being told a story from their teacher’s mind, Shirley says:

There’s something in them that cries, that sucks it up like a sponge, sucks it out of you, they are desperate for it, even though it would be difficult for them to identify it since they’ve never had it, but when they get it and it’s the first time they’re experienced that, never have I seen anyone go, ‘Jesus, just go and get the book’ (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).

Children are… Naturally Variable

ME: What do you think of when I say ‘imagination’?

MR ROBERTSON: ‘Ummm […] the things you think of, the word pictures in your mind, or the pictures in your mind, ah, imagining something that isn’t there at the moment, ability to construct in your mind ideas about things […] that sort of thing. Imagination. Some children don’t have it. Some children, when we are doing creative writing, find it very difficult, they are very literal. I quite like imagination. I think it’s very good to imagine something that could be, good skill. There you go, that’ll do (Independent School, author interview with teacher, 17 April 2007).

Mr Robertson has given an answer that says imagination is a thing to have: it is a specific skill or talent, an ability that some children have and others don’t. It is a good and useful skill, but its lack is not disabling except during certain tasks, like creative writing. For Mr Robertson, imagination is something individuals do or do not have.

In Mr Robertson’s words, imagination is made as one attribute in the collection that children are born with. Instead of being a natural state that all children should live in, as we see in Shirley’s answer, imagination is a skill.

This notion blends with images of children as described throughout the interview. In this interview, Mr Robertson’s conjures up two imagining children. One is fading to the point of vanishing. This child is only six or seven years old and is lying on the mat, eyes closed, as the teacher tells them a story. They are flying on a magic carpet. This says that the skill of imagination is used less as children go through school. The other child, aged nine or ten as grade four children are, is sitting up at a desk, listening to the teacher as he reminds them of past lessons, and builds up into new lessons, using words that have pictures attached. This child is an ‘imagineer’. She is visualising, making plans, and writing lists. This child is conceiving their assignments in topic work, and is taking on a persona in drama. They are not feeling inferior. They are thinking what it would be like if they could run harder or be first. But not all children are doing this, and it is not a problem. These other children are literal and, apart from having trouble with creative writing, are just as intelligent and as capable as their peers (Independent School, author interview with teacher, 17 April 2007).

Children do Imagination… by Intentionally Opening their Minds

ME: What do you think of when I say ‘imagination’?

JUSTINE: Ummm – I think of opening your mind up to other possibilities and seeing things differently, umm, just drawing on ideas and experiences, imagining putting yourself into a different time a different space, to think a little, umm, outside the square, to let, I guess, to open up your mind to things that are more creative, and, yeah, to let images and ideas flow through your mind (Government School, author interview with teacher, 29 May 2007).

Justine describes imagination as something that we do when we open our minds. Imagination is something that we can do, but crucially we do it in order to find a different perspective. This is why we must allow and encourage children to do imagination: to make sure they will have a sense of empathy and creativity in their lives. Imagination is something we do as a matter of choice, that we do when we choose to open our minds. It is directed and useful action.

What type of child does Justine see alongside this notion of imagination? He or she is playing mothers and fathers, learning roles and how to relate to others and to orient themselves in their lessons. This is the modern child that Justine is trying to help her students be. But their game is at risk of coming to a premature end. They feel pressure from adults to get serious, to get to their music lesson or sports training, to forget those childish things, to grow up.

There is also the spectre of another child here, one who is profoundly disabled. Never wondering, never curious, just taking things to be as they are rather than having a sense they could change them. This is the child that Justine perceives herself to have been. She has only recently recognised this in her past because of the disability she believes it gave her. This recognition has occurred since her husband died, and she found herself afloat in a world that she hadn’t dreamt of but had to find ways to climb out of. She couldn’t do so until she could imagine new futures that would require her own power and agency to build. Looking back at her young life, she now wishes that someone had encouraged her to imagine then, had taught her of the power of imagination to help us make things anew. Seeing the children around her, their need for free imaginative play to make them flexible agents, she believes they must be protected from adult pressures. They must be encouraged to choose to open their minds (Government School, author interview with teacher, 29 May 2007).

Children do Imagination… but Need to be Kept in the Real

ME: What do you think of when I say ‘imagination’?

DIANE: I think of what happens in people’s heads that they don’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s connected with anything real or not, it’s just where their heads go. At different times. Things that evoke imagination, you know, smells from the past, things from the past, things that you want to do. So it’s sort of forward and back (Special School, author interview with teacher, 26 October 2007).

For Diane imagination is something that we do, but is not purposeful and not necessarily real. Instead, imagination is evoked by the world around us; its smells, its things that remind us of the past. It is drawn on by undisciplined remembering and desiring bodies. We do not control our relationships with our imaginations even while we engage with it. In doing imagination we are pulled into connections with things real and unreal. What we do when we do imagining is unruly; it is undirected action.

Diane faces the pathological imagination every day. For her, what is and is not ‘normal’ imagination is a concern. There is only a faint spectre in her interview of the ‘normally’ imagining child. The normal child is able to distinguish real from unreal. This imagining child feels safe. She is happy pottering alone, in his or her own company, or is happily playing a made up game with a friend – making up their own names and their own countries rather than getting them from TV and movies. This child can empathise; this child can plan and cope with situations.

But, Diane says, many of the children at her school cannot behave like this child because they need the concrete and the here-and-now to transfer things from. They lack the experiences, or the memory of experiences, on which to base elaborated imaginary lives. They are children who have a hole where they should have experiences to supply them with things to imagine from, like pictures of snowy mountains that don’t come from TV. They are scared of making their own decisions, overcompensated for their lacks, or frightened of punishment. The teacher responds to their needs, moment by moment, here and now. She doesn’t get carried away with the words as if the words were a big deal. Instead she teaches life skills and keeps the children happy and feeling safe. She sticks to the concrete with the children, but needs to be imaginative herself. She imagines, she poses questions, makes plans, and enjoys things. Diane is laughing now, telling me that she’s imagining what she will look like in a dress knowing well that she won’t look anything like so good (Special School, author interview with teacher, 26 October 2007).

Children can Use… Multiple Imaginations

ME: What do you think of when I say ‘imagination’?

MRS RICH: The things that I think of is, like, thinking creatively, images in your mind, just forming ideas in my mind. That’s what I think of. One aspect, I think, [of] imagination is creating things that are totally imaginative and don’t really exist. And another part is thinking, no, it’s just a form of thinking. Imagine you were there, imagine. So I think of imagination as being fantasy and imagination as being, […] being real. So there’s two aspects of imagination that I think of. And both of them valuable for different things. […] I think it’s more a thinking tool (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007).

Here Mrs Rich tells imagination as one of the tools we have in an arsenal of thinking. We might think in fantasy – and then one type of imagination is valuable. We might think about some other time or place – and then ‘imagining if’ will be valuable. It is a multiple tool applicable in different situations. We do various types of thinking and imagination might help us.

The imagining children told of in Mrs Rich’s interview are multiple and marked by their variety. The child has changed over time. Once she was passive, happily sitting at the desk with a book. Now all these multiple children need to be motivated and the teacher is working to give them all reasons to and ways to learn. There are two types of imagining children now in her classroom. One is letting themselves go wherever their imagination takes them, creating crazy and wild things. The other is the child who is using it as a thinking tool. This child is drawing connections in their mind and letting them show, so that the teacher might see how they think. They are advantaged in their ability to learn, to read, to understand things. They are also advantaged in their humanity, able to empathise and build relationships. Each child is different, has slightly different thinking tools, and the teacher must have many strategies ready at all times. The good teacher makes children think always, with open-ended questions that all can answer according to their ability. She makes things fun and boosts esteem. She can do this because she can imagine what her students’ home lives might be like. She is always on the ball.

There is also a not-imagining child. This child has trouble expressing themselves and their understanding is weak, though how much is due to intellect and how much with language we can’t know. This child needs their teacher to talk of the familiar. To do imagination for Mrs Rich is integral to being a thinking person, whatever one’s thought is about (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007).


Here I have argued that imagination should not be taken to mean any single thing. Rather, I have shown that teachers use it to refer to their various sets of practices in the classroom and with the children they have spent time with over their lives. ‘Imagination’, I have said, does not represent, but conglomerates practices and possibilities.

This said, the word ‘imagination’ could not be used to point to just any practices. For language to work, there must be some overlaps between what speakers mean. ‘Imagination’ could be thought of as what Star and Griesemer (1989) call a ‘boundary object’. These are tools – words, rulers, maps, rules, people – that act as interfaces between communities of practice. They are things flexible enough to be adapted to particular needs and yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across boundaries. They are things that can be used differently, and hence mean different things, but still retain enough of their identity to stay together. ‘They have different meanings in different social worlds, but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable’ (Star and Griesemer 1989: 393).

We have seen that, for each of these teachers, imagination conglomerates differently. This does not depend only on the type of school they teach in, but is contingent on their specific circumstances. As we have seen, these circumstances might be related to a teacher’s memory of their own childhood, what their students are like, and the materials available to them, the professional development leader who comes to their school, or their school’s ways of marketing itself.

What is also evident is that for each teacher, what imagination turns out to be is related to their understandings of what children and humans more generally are like; what the world is like, and how therefore children should best know and imagine. Put another way, these answers to ‘what do you think of when I say imagination?’ tell us about multiple understandings of good knowing and good living. For Shirley, good knowing is related to our stage of life. Knowers should be protected from tired concepts for as long as they can in order to live well in original and personally relevant ways. For Mr Robertson, good knowing has something to do with knowing our attributes and knowing which realms will allow us to reveal them. Good living is about being able to apply the particular set of skills you have. For Justine, good knowing is being open to possibilities of being other than we are. This makes good living possible for each of us even as our circumstances change, making us able to change who we are and what we do. For Diane, good knowing is about knowing where you are, whether you are connected to the real, the fantastical, to this person, or that thing. Good living has something to do with being happily in touch with whatever, whoever, and wherever – either real or made up, you find yourself. For Mrs Rich, good knowing is flexible and responsive to what we need to do. Good living means always being on the ball to work out what needs to be done, or thought, or connected to now.