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Classical education for a modern classroom - imagined landscapes

By Sarah Flynn-O'Dea - posted Thursday, 9 June 2022

One of the greatest realisations I have had about learning in recent years is that all education, and life for that matter is experienced through the imagined landscape of the mind. This is a neuroscientific fact, but even in pre-modern times it was a philosophical and theological truth.

The mind is supple, easily influenced and compelling. We know our consumer choices can be influenced, but the scary truth is, even memories can be easily manipulated; (search up Fuzzy memory). I am regularly reminded of a movie decades ago, based on the book, "I heard the Owl call my name" – this one line ever stuck and puzzled me. In reference to indigenous Canadians, the priest says something like; 'what do we do with a people who believe that the world of dreams is real and the waking world is but a dream?' The priest lamented that all his conviction and biblical truth in the face of an imagined reality was useless. The perceived world, is the most compelling truth we have.

The mind is easily manipulated, yet it also exerts enormous power over one's life. As the Stoics Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus teach us, the thoughts we produce have profound effects over our lives, thus the imagined world is a source of great power and in the progressive system, an underutilised teaching tool. Indeed, Epictetus' maxim - it is not events, but our perception of it that matters - provides the basis for one of our most successful psychotherapies, cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT). Reframing our experiences through reimagining them, is a powerful tool for human flourishing.


Which brings me to the classroom. The geography classroom specifically. I majored in geography and worked in environmental planning for a time. I love maps and weather and natural landscapes and the cultures that inhabit them. However, the modern classroom's take on Geography is less than stimulating to the imagination.

Here in Australia it is difficult to find a teacher in any school who does not bemoan the narrow restrictions inflicted by the Australian curriculum that has resulted in units of work being degraded to a mechanistic work, focussed on the upload of academic jargon into young CPU's......ah..I mean, minds. Topics are totally disembodied - without story, dispossessed - without country and set adrift on a sea of loosely related themes that lead a young mind exactly nowhere in particular. Well, they gain skills, but in absence of a coherent understanding their applicability is unclear.

When even the teacher is falling asleep (this is me) whilst teaching, it is clear we really need to do better. Many experienced teachers do, do better and I am in no way judging the incredible work of many working in a less than optimum context, but in classical education, engaging and sustaining a child's sense of awe and wonder and adding to it wisdom and knowledge is known as a 'living education'. It is a core principle. A living education, excites the imagination in the same way that many wonderful ideas feel intuitively correct. Sadly, teaching in this model, I felt as far east is to west, so how to turn it around?

The key thing to understand about the 'living education' a term coined by classical education champion Charlotte Mason in the late 19th century, is that narrative is the centrepiece of curriculum. 'Living books' - books carefully selected to facilitate a living education- operate on many levels, one of which, is to provide the basis for an integrated curriculum. Another is to stimulate and engage the imagination, to overlay learning upon an imagined landscape.

I have come to understand why this is so powerful from a psychological perspective after much contemplation and a little research. When living books are used, the imagined world comes alive we see the stories run like a film in the mind's eye. The best books expertly use poetic skill to create this imagined world, full of characters and great stories. Thus, when an education is 'living' the mind is engaged in imagined relationships in an imagined landscape that are personally relatable. The imagined landscape speaks to us, it comes alive. Remember, the mind is powerful and the imagined world, even hallucinations and dreams, activate the brain in the same way that reality does. Thus, when these stories are imagined the relational brain is activated in turn.

Recent neuroscience research has shown that when the relational brain is activated, higher order thinking processes such as analysis, evaluating and judging are more easily engaged. Relational thinking, making connections and seeing patterns are stimulated as students understand knowledge in a tangible context. When knowledge is embedded in a story, a time or place that students connect to from other contexts (either their personal experience, imagined landscape or other disciplines) this kind of thinking is actively facilitated. This cannot be achieved as easily if at all, with disembodied facts and jargon. There is no emotional, social or relational context in which they are embedded to bring them to life.


In a nutshell, teaching a child with an activated imagination, specifically imagined relationships between people, place and action, creates a situation favourable to that holy grail of pedagogy - 'deep learning'.

I am currently reading Anthony Esolen's excellent and witty work "10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" which has really fuelled my thoughts on imagination. Esolen articulates my dilemma perfectly in his reference to Dickens' character, schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind exemplifies the evils of the modern education system, mostly devoid of life, reduced to the regurgitation of facts with no interest in how they are animated in the real world. This was the soul-destroying element for me, as I teach, within the modern system we often lack the time to do better, many teachers would if they could.

But...the challenge I set myself for this blog was to discuss how we can begin to classically educate right where we are now. When it comes to geography I feel we are really up against it. The jargon, tight timeframes, teaching to assessment. However, reframing a unit within a case study for example, provides the elements to develop a rich narrative and context. Case studies are often included in unit plans, but they are ironically the first topics to be cut when timeframes are short, in favour of teaching to assessment. One of my favourite topics is culture and the land and thus I am a good match for indigenous studies which I majored in. Given that indigenous perspectives is being so strongly pushed in the AC I see a great opportunity as many aspects of Aboriginal culture are commensurate with the principles embedded in classical tradition, for example integrated worldview, piety (faithfulness and kinship) veneration of story and its role in cultural transmission, and importantly imagined landscapes.

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This article was first published on Logos Australis.

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About the Author

Sarah Flynn-O'Dea is a Queensland teacher and the founder of Logos Australis.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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