Start with what the student knows or with what the student can imagine?
Start with What theStudent Knows or withWhat the Student
It is almost universally accepted among educators that the best
way to present new material to students is to connect it to what
they already know. Mr. Egan questions this principle and
suggests that students' imaginations might offer a much more
fertile starting point for learning.
By Kieran Egan
IT IS COMMONLY argued that one of the securest findings of
educational research is that new information, to be best
understood, must be attached to knowledge the student already
has. Formulations of this finding have been various, but it has
been a staple of educational thinking from the time of John
Dewey -- and before him of Herbert Spencer -- to the recently
published National Research Council monograph How People
Learn: Bridging Research and Practice.1
I wish to suggest that the common principle of "starting where
the student is" may be both inadequate and restrictive in ways
not often discussed. In its place, I suggest we might sensibly
adopt a second principle of "asking what the student can
imagine." We can pose this question at any point in the learning
process as a starting point for further inquiry.
To show the long influence of the first principle, consider its
early articulation in the work of Herbert Spencer and its use by
John Dewey and others in shaping the curriculum -- in
particular in giving a foundation for the social studies
curriculum. Spencer argued that children's early and simple
experience had to form the basis for all future learning and that
there must be a regular and orderly progression from what is
already familiar to what is slightly less familiar -- an expansion
"by slow degrees to impressions most nearly allied."2 This
principle is believed by nearly every teacher and professor of
education I have encountered. Most people assume that it is so
obviously true that even to question it suggests a degree of
The education reformers of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries encouraged teachers to rethink their ways of
presenting new material to students in their particular
disciplines in accordance with this principle. Thus elementary
mathematics would begin from the experience that children had
with fruit or with games such as marbles, and language studies
would begin with the forms of expression with which children
would already be familiar, rather than with a topic like abstract
But subjects such as mathematics and language were still not
fully articulated with the meaningful daily interactions of children
with their local environments -- "what the student knows." What
was further proposed was a new, central curriculum area -- the
social studies. This was to be a subject that would begin with
the material of children's everyday experience -- with
themselves and their families and with their neighborhoods and
communities. Gradually, student learning would expand from
this meaningful core of personal experience to less familiar
knowledge, until, in the end, the whole universe of knowledge
could be understood as an expansion from what was most vivid
and meaningful to the child. The social studies curriculum was
designed to tie all the knowledge being learned in other
curriculum areas to the child's experience.
So we must start with what is most profoundly known by the
student and build new knowledge on that basis. David Ausubel
declared, "If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to
just one principle, I would say this: The most important single
factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.
Ascertain this and teach him accordingly."3 Apart from this
slightly odd way of putting Spencer's principle, I think there are
four reasons why we might be wary of accepting it.
• First, if this is a fundamental principle of human learning,
there is no way the process can begin.
• Second, if novelty is a problem for human learners,
reducing the amount of the novelty doesn't solve the problem.
And if we can manage some novelty, why can't we manage
more? Perhaps Spencer's "most nearly allied" is far too
• The third objection is less directed at the principle than at
the way it has been invariably interpreted in education and
particularly in the construction of the elementary social studies
curriculum. It is assumed that what children know first and best
will be the details of their everyday social lives. That is, it is
assumed that children's thinking is simple, concrete, and
engaged with their local experience. But, as I will elaborate
below, children also have imaginations and emotions, and
these, too, connect with the world. If children's minds are
supposed to be restricted to the everyday details of their social
lives, why are they full of monsters, talking middle-class rabbits,
and titanic emotions? We cannot sensibly explain Peter
Rabbit's appeal in terms of its "familiar family setting"4 when it
involves a safe forest, a dangerous cultivated garden, death so
close, and so on.
• Fourth, and this appeals to old-fashioned intuition, a few
moments of reflection should make clear that no one's
understanding of the world expands according to this principle
of gradual content association.
Now, given the almost universal acceptance of this principle
and the fact that these four reasons will have little impact on
most of those who believe it, I should add what seems to me
the reason such ideas survive so tenaciously. The principle
survives because, like many such knowledge claims in
education, it is a mixture of analytic truth and empirical
generalization. That is, at some level, the principle is true
simply because people define its terms to mean something that
can't be other than true. It is understood to mean something
like "You don't know whatever you don't know, and if you learn
something new, it has to fit in with what you can comprehend."
If you don't speak Chinese and are told the solution to the three
pagodas puzzle in Chinese, you will be unable to understand it.
If you do speak Chinese and know what pagodas are and
understand the puzzle and fulfill other prerequisites, you will be
able to understand the solution. At this level, the principle is
certainly true, but it isn't very helpful. What would make it
interesting are reliable empirical generalizations. That is, there
should be research showing conditions that constrain learning
that are something other than logical truths, and these are not
thick on the ground.
Well, that's a bit clotted, trying to say too much too briefly. But it
suggests why one might come to question the common
interpretation of starting where the student is. If we mean it as
simply an analytic truth, it is of no particular interest to
educators. If we mean it as an empirical claim, as it has been
taken at least since Spencer's time, then it is inadequate for the
reasons given above.
Now let us consider what might be implied by taking seriously
the principle of what the student can imagine. For obvious
reasons, there has not been much research on students'
imaginations, and yet they are clearly central to students'
learning. But ignoring the imagination because our research
methods have difficulty coming to grips with it is somewhat self-
First, I want to argue that the imagination is the ability to think
of things as possibly being so.5 This odd ability, which seems
to be most energetically active in our early years, is clearly not
some casual, frothy part of our mind's functioning, to be blown
away with the growth of rationality. It is a hard-working core of
Second, I want to look in some detail at just three features of
children's imaginative engagement with the world and show
how they challenge the principle of "starting with what the
student knows," which has had so significant an impact on
teaching and curriculum thinking. The first feature concerns the
story form, which children engage so enthusiastically very early
in life and in all cultures and in all times that we know about.
The second concerns the kinds of abstract and affective
concepts that give structure to the fantasy stories common
across the world -- such concepts as good/bad,
brave/cowardly, rich/poor, anxiety/security, and so on, with all
the freight they carry for human cultures. The third follows from
the content of children's fantasy stories and why they are so full
of creatures like Peter Rabbit, a talking, middle-class animal
that cannot exist.
Clearly, storytellers don't pay much attention to the principle of
starting with what children know, in the way that the designers
and defenders of the elementary social studies curriculum do.
Storytellers might begin boldly with galaxies far, far away and
long, long ago, if it suits them, confident that their audience will
make sense of the content. They can introduce strange
characters and weird situations, like Harry Potter's or Frodo's,
as long as they build their narratives on the kind of abstract
concepts students are familiar with: good/bad, brave/cowardly,
anxiety/security, and so on.
Consider how children learn about the temperature continuum
conceptually. They begin with the concepts "hot" and "cold," as
these are both logically and empirically the first concepts that
can be meaningful -- "hot" being hotter than the child's body
and "cold" being colder. Then they can elaborate or mediate
these concepts by learning the concept "warm," for example.
Then they can learn an array of other temperature terms in the
context created by the first terms that form the ends of the
continuum. Later, they will learn to use abstract terms, like
thermometer numbers, to refer to temperature.
This procedure, which is very effective in dealing with the
material world, creates problems when applied to concepts that
have no mediating categories, such as life and death or nature
and culture or human and animal. Nevertheless, the world of
children's imaginative lives is filled with generated mediations
between these logically discrete concepts. If there is nothing
between life and death, we invent ghosts that are to "life" and
"death" as "warm" is to "hot" and "cold." Between nature and
culture, we invent that menagerie of talking middle-class
animals that fill the fantasy stories of children and the mythic
stories of the world.
Something serious is going on here that has little to do with
starting where the student is and gradually building on the
knowledge the student has -- except if we define these
conditions as analytic truths. The connections are made by
metaphorical leaps, not by logical connections. This article is a
meditation on what aspects of our assumptions about learning
and curriculum we might need to give up if we acknowledge the
importance of students' imaginations. For teaching, we need
not be constrained by trying to make content associations with
knowledge students already have, for there are other ways of
expanding knowledge. For the curriculum, we need no longer
be constrained to tie knowledge to the everyday experience of
students, which can be very dreary for them, but can recognize
that their imaginations allow much freedom in how they can go
about grasping the universe of knowledge.
Let me conclude by pointing out the obvious -- that I am not
arguing for ignoring students' prior knowledge and everyday
experience. Rather, I am arguing that these have been taken
as implying greater restrictions on children's learning and
curriculum possibilities than is warranted when we consider
their imaginative lives. We can start with what they can
1. Suzanne M. Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W.
Pellegrino, eds., How People Learn: Bridging Research and
Practice (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999).
2. Herbert Spencer, Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical
(London: G. Manwaring, 1861), p. 82.
3. David P. Ausubel, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View
(London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968), p. 18.
4. Arthur N. Applebee, The Child's Concept of Story (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 75.
5. Alan R. White, The Language of Imagination (Oxford:
6. Mary Warnock, Imagination (London: Faber, 1976).