Moving Back and Forth Between Fantasy and Reality

During my keynote at Edutech a few weeks back I outlined some of the false pedagogic dichotomies that are present in education. In addition to these supposed tensions there are natural forces and tendencies at play such as moving between fantasy and reality. In this post I will share some of my thinking on the importance of that creative thinking.

Previously I have outlined the importance of saying “I don’t know” to students, encouraging them to discover for longer – not just to start discovering, questioning and digging deeper, but to do it for longer. To stay in the question. Saying “I don’t know” opens learning up to students:

  • to take responsibility
  • to ask more questions and explore further
  • to remain in the state if the unknown for longer
  • to continually ask more complex questions

For youngsters they cannot readily explain their world away with existing knowledge and in fact they remain in the unknown for a long period of time. That world is surely a mysterious one, filled with sights and smells that make no sense. Colours and lights casting images on a young mind, a nurturing world filled with odd sounds and language that is not yet understood.


However that young learner does not attribute the same meaning to the world as we naturally do and so is free of such a burden. As a young adult we certainly go through a time when we think we know everything and the remnants of this mindset are still evident into our adult life. We see the world around us as Known. But it is not that simple.

For one thing as we grow older we are continuously learning, however that illusion of knowledge can descend and we are comforted by just enough information to get by, things become normalised, we begin to believe in the “illusion of the known”. A state that can breed assumption and potentially masks our natural instincts for curiosity.

Secondly the extreme of the Unknown is not so extreme after all. That colourless canvas is rich with ideas and connections. Because while we were choosing kidney beans, our little learners are devising an imaginary world along the Canned Fruit and Vegetables Aisle. Whilst we are watching out for traffic, our little learners are dodging spaceships. Whilst we are helping them to understand the concrete, known world around them, our little learners are dancing in the world of the abstract – splattering the canvas with rich imaginative explanations of their own.

This can often be an imaginary world we don’t see. We have all been there, quite possibly some of you are there now! We all have had our ticket stamped to this place and we must continue to remember that we work with children who are continually exploring this world. It is a world where we need to leave the illusion of knowledge at the door because almost anything is possible.

In this next clip, which I would hope you would have seen, a father who is a special effects technician for films has, in a way, begun to imagine what his own son’s view of the world would be like.

It would seem that the boy’s father deals with the imaginary world pretty regularly himself don’t you think? I love how he depicts what must be happening as his son imagines those scenes unfolding before him. I especially like the bubbling lava in the lounge amongst the sofas I remember leaping from sofa to sofa myself – “it’s crocodiles infested waters, now it’s lava!”

It is not as simple as saying learners are in a known state or in an unknown state when they are young, because they are rapidly moving from one world to the next, building and collapsing them as they go – inviting their friends into them and playing together – exploring and building again, refining and then abandoning them as quickly as they grew. Also they need little if anything at all to help them do this, stories, worlds, scenarios, predicaments and challenges can spring from them effortlessly – just spend some time watching children playing together freely.

Children use their imagination to explore both the things they know and the things they don’t.

Maurice Sendak – the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are left an indelible mark on me as a youngster with his depiction of Max, in his wolf onesie and his imaginary world. We read the book when I was young and then for many years it drifted into my distant memory, returning with a significant bump when I became a teacher and I discovered the book in a class library whilst on teaching practice. I think it was the faces of the monsters that I remember the most, their beady eyes watching Max.

Sendak’s work perfectly captures how our young learners weave the tendrils of their imagination into and between the concrete world around them, not only shifting effortlessly between these worlds but blurring it too.



With Sendak’s words I will leave you and encourage you to see the world through the eyes of our youngsters. But also to continually consider how we can design conditions for learning that embrace these natural imaginative tendencies and present opportunities for children’s ideas and “What if’s” to have the impact on the world that they deserve.


  1. I have search all over the web and found these websites which really justifies their names

  2. I agree there is a need for conditions of learning that support play as children get older. It bothers me we remove the dress up and play structures that are so common in early learning so soon.

  3. Here’s to cognitive discomfort! You might like this book: “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Chabris and Simons which explores that illusion of knowledge, amongst others, that often clouds our view.

    Another is a lovely book about seeing the world through expert eyes and defintiely about domains of knowledge causing us to see the world differently, if you have not already seen it I am sure you would enjoy it. “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” – Alexandra Horowitz

  4. Thanks for sending me the link to your blogpost. While I love the idea of curiosity and wonder, the two ideas that really struck me was the challenge to prolong the ‘I don’t know’. I feel this requires accepting discomfort and encourages deep learning. I think it’s an important attribute. I was also interested in your comment on the adults’ ‘illusion of the known’. I sometimes feel I see this a great deal when a fixed mindset is present.

  5. Tom,

    Thanks for sharing your thinking and encouraging around these ideas of embracing the unknown to leave space for Wonder to play. Perhaps Wonder is the bridge that somewhat allows us to venture back and forth among reality and imagination. And perhaps we need something of the principle of “suspension of disbelief” in classroom-based education, just like film makers rely on it to help transport the theatre goers.

    I imagine that we would see such graphs as the Gallup poll on K-12 engagement change slope if we all helped make more room for the power of imagination and wonder to enable sustained attention to curios pursuits — to alter the structure of “school” so that student learners, especially as they age, can play with their ideas and wonderings about the world for longer and more self-defined, purpose-rich blocks of time.

    If we imagine the Action Movie Kid being directed by adults in ways more similar to typical school – losing the degree of self-authorship that he has to decide what that ottoman will be today – then we begin to understand why many school children tend to feel like they have been placed in rooms of kryptonite.

    Here’s to that “little red pill” (curiosity perhaps?) that Neo chooses to begin his journey to Wonderland and put the kryptonite in stronger steal casing.

  6. Thanks Steve – your thinking is always welcome around these parts! Sounds like a curious piece of learning you are on with your students about place – reminds me of an artist in NY who asked for directions from strangers, encouraged them to draw a little map and then placed them together. Fascinating to see an area or place from different POVs.

    A couple of books spring to mind as well – “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Chabris and Simons which explores that illusion of knowledge, amongst others, that often clouds our view.

    Another is a lovely book about seeing the world through expert eyes and defintiely about place, if you have not already seen it I am sure you would enjoy it. “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” – Alexandra Horowitz

  7. Love the message here Tom. It resonates really strongly with me on a couple of fronts.

    I am currently reading A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger and there is a section about to ask Why? we have to step back from doing and step back from knowing. I think the step back form knowing, being able to suspend our preconceptions really opens up the sort of curiosity you are vouching for here.

    I have also just had students defining Place. We then challenged this definition by applying it to imaginary or virtual worlds and almost all the students believed that imaginary/virtual worlds do qualify as places. We are now getting curious about the place around us by taking non action based on the idea of Misplace – now we know what fits in a place we are going to think about what doesn’t fit and why

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