How To Grow Your Creative Imagination: Bridging Creativity And Imagination Research

I’ve recently finished reading Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein’s (1999) book entitled Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. It’s chock-full of the stories of extraordinary creators—scientists, artists, authors, dancers, builders, engineers, doctors, designers and so on. The Root-Bernsteins engage readers’ imaginations by humanizing the content—they tell the stories of those that have playfully and courageously envisioned the world anew and illustrate just what thinking skills allow them to do so successfully.

In a chapter entitled “Schooling the Imagination,” the authors make a plea for an education that supports and nurtures the imagination. The kind of education they envision is rich with opportunities to grow imagination. It is a multi- and transdisciplinary education that is closely linked to all forms of the arts, experience, play and experimentation. It values feeling and intuition. It’s an education that explores the stories of people exemplifying imagination. It produces “imaginative generalists” who have a rich and broad understanding of the world and a deep sense of curiosity “who can take us into the uncharted future” (1999, p. 319).

In reading this book, I was struck by how it beautifully bridges two currently “separate” fields of study: the field of creativity and the field of Imaginative Education. Of course, these fields are not separate—their worlds are completely interconnected. But so far, there has been no work connecting the research on creativity with Imaginative Education. The Root-Bernsteins discuss the ways of thinking that all of the world’s greatest creators employ in developing and using creative imagination. As a curriculum scholar specializing in the theory and practice of Kieran Egan’s Imaginative Education pedagogy, I’m reading these “ways of thinking” as different expressions, combinations and examples of Egan’s cognitive tools. Imaginative Educators use cognitive tools—learning tools—to maximize understanding and expand learners’ imaginative capacities. Imaginative educators use cognitive tools to grow imagination. They are employing and growing their students’ capacities to create and innovate by using cognitive tools.

And this is good news that you’ll hear in both fields. We can all grow imagination.

All human beings are born with the exceptional capacity we call imagination, the ability to envision the possible, not just the actual. Imagination enables us to enjoy a story, to empathize, to figure a way out of sticky situations (and, also, get us into sticky situations). Imagination is what enables you to visualize and enjoy the metaphor of a sticky situation. There is no creativity without imagination. There is no innovation without imagination. Imagination is the unsung hero fueling those activities. Through use—through actively engaging in activities that push us to envision the possible—we can all become more imaginative.

A Bridge

Those of us working in the field of Imaginative Education (IE) are speaking the same language as the Root-Bernsteins. Of course, it should come as no surprise that there is overlap here—the difference is a matter of semantics and forced disciplinary divisions. IE’s cognitive tools reflect the ways in which imagination develops through the use of language in all cultures and for all people. The Root-Bernsteins’ thinking tools do the same thing—represented through the stories of some of the greatest creators our world has ever seen.

I want to visually create a bridge to show those scholars studying creativity, that there’s an educational theory out there that supports their work. I also want imaginative educators to remember that when they use cognitive tools with their students, they are helping their students think and feel like the greatest creators and innovators.

The following table pairs the Root-Bernsteins’ 13 creative imagination thinking skills with Egan’s cognitive tools of Imaginative Education. In the left column of the table, you’ll find tools #1-9. These are what the Root-Bernstein’s refer to as “primary tools of the creative imagination.” The Root-Bernsteins note that these tools are not fully independent from each other, but each can be engaged and  developed somewhat independently from the others. The right column of the table provides examples of Egan’s cognitive tools associated with the body, oral language, written language and theoretical language that grow imagination in the same way. Each cognitive tool in the right column is hyper-linked to one of the “Tips for Imaginative Educators” here on imaginED.

Creative Imagination Thinking Tools


Cognitive Tools of Imagination


#1 Observing

paying attention to what is seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, or felt within the body

  • employing the body’s tools—the five senses, the sense of musicality, the sense of incongruity, gesture and movement; emotional response: feeling 

#2 Imaging

recalling or creating thoughts, feelings and sensations (images can be recalled or created for any sense or sensation)

#3 Abstracting

finding simple concepts within complex expressions or experiences and visualizing those in the mind

#4 Recognizing Patterns

identifying similarities in formation, sound, sight, process etc.

#5 Forming Patterns

combining elements in unexpected ways


#6 Analogizing

identifying how apparently different things share properties or functions

#7 Body thinking

“thinking” that occurs through the sensations and awareness of muscle, sinew, and skin—including bodily sensations, muscular movements and emotions

  • perfinking: experiencing/learning through the body’s cognitive tools (what Egan calls Somatic Understanding esp. gesturing and posture);
  • role-playing and dramatizing

#8 Empathizing

“becoming” another process, idea, object as fully as possible etc.

#9 Dimensional Thinking

mentally taking something from a flat plane into three dimensions or more, out of this world, through time etc.

Tools #10-13 are considered “higher-order/integrative tools” and rely on tools #1-9 (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999). These complex perfinking activities rely on multiple cognitive tools. Rather than repeat those here, I urge you to peruse all the cognitive tools in the Tips for Imaginative Educator series here, or see the cognitive tools “Teacher Tips” on CIRCE.

#10 Modeling

creating examples or small-scale depictions or enactments of ideas or processes

(= dimensional thinking, abstracting, analogizing, bodily engagement)

#11 Playing

exploring, challenging, trying things out to see what might happen—irreverence for conventional practice or procedure  (= bodily thinking, empathizing, analogizing, modeling)

#12 Transforming

translating between one thinking tool and another and between different forms or formats of expression, communication and exploration e.g. transforming body-based knowing to an equation (= observing, imaging, identifying and forming patterns, abstracting etc.)

#13 Synthesizing

combining many ways of experiencing and knowing—when different thinking tools work together organically; understanding holistically and somatically (all previous thinking tools)—and cognitive tools!

It was refreshing to read this book on “creativity” and to hear described within it so much about the cognitive tools of imagination that we in CIRCE. These tools live in the activities of great human beings! I recommend that you read the Root-Bernsteins’ book and read those stories. Also, if you are new to IE, you can quickly learn how to use cognitive tools with your students to grow their imagination and support the thinking skills of the creative imagination.

Would love to hear about your experiences growing your own imagination or the imaginations of your students!


Egan, K. (1997). The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. Chicago Press.

Root-Bernstein, R. & Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Spark Of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools Of The World Most Creative People. Mariner books.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “How To Grow Your Creative Imagination: Bridging Creativity And Imagination Research

  1. Thanks for providing resources and tools that will help create an imaginative enviromnent. They are vital for the survival of our educational well being.
    Learning without imagination is like a school day without a break, a work day with out repose a life without connections to our self.
    It’s off to amazon I go….
    Thanks so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *