Dr. Gillian Judson on Imagination in Learning, Teaching Practices and Leadership

December 10, 2020

Dr. Gillian Judson is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. She teaches in Educational Leadership and in Curriculum and Instruction programs. Her current research looks at the role of imagination in leadership. Dr. Judson’s previous scholarship examines imagination’s role in learning (K-post-secondary), imaginative and ecological teaching practices (PreK through post-secondary), and imaginative assessment in the post-secondary context. Her latest books are entitled Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (Egan & Judson, 2015), Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies for Teaching (Judson, 2015), and A Walking Curriculum (Judson, 2018/2019).

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I recently took on the position of Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership here in the Faculty of Education. While this position is new to me, I have been part of the SFU Education community for over 15 years—as a Ph.D. student, Lecturer, Supervisor of graduate programs in Imaginative Education, Director for the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and most recently, as the Executive Director of the Centre for Imagination in Research, Culture and Education (CIRCE). Prior to working at SFU I was a K-12 teacher in Langley, B.C. In my Director and Executive Director roles, I focused on developing a strong network of educational practitioners and researchers worldwide who share a passion for imagination. Through extensive offerings of professional development, collaborations with other organizations interested in imagination and, notably, through imaginED, a site sharing a wide range of imagination-focused educational practices and research, CIRCE’s networks have expanded, and there has been increased awareness of research and pedagogy focusing on imagination.

The images are taken from Imaginative School Network Event and with teachers at Walking Curriculum workshops.

Please share the type of research that you will be conducting as our new faculty member at the faculty of Education.

I have always been curious about imagination’s roles in education. By imagination I mean the ability to envision the possible in all things; it is the generative feature of mind that enables understanding of the self, and others, and that fuels creativity and innovation. Imagination allows for empathy and lies at the heart of social and ecological justice, equity and inclusion. Up to now, my scholarship has looked at the pedagogical implications of imagination in learning contexts of all kinds and for learners of all ages (including preschool education through graduate school, formal schools, museums, alternative education centres, outdoor learning programs). A significant part of my scholarship has examined the role of imagination in Ecological Education and has involved working with teachers and schools to implement inquiry- and imagination-focused practices such as the Walking Curriculum, an example of the Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) approach that I initially developed as part of my Ph.D. research.

In my role as Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership, my focus is shifting to investigate the multi-faceted roles of imagination in educational leadership. I have recently completed a qualitative content analysis that investigated how imagination is conceptualized in educational leadership. I am currently leading a community-based project called the Imaginative School Network (ISN) that began in the Fall of 2019. The ISN symposium series has connected MEd students in the Imaginative K-12 leadership program with practicing leaders in local districts in a process of envisioning a range of features of imagination-focused schools. Stemming from the ISN project I am involved in a collaborative qualitative inquiry with four of the leaders from this network. We are looking at their stories of leadership and collaboratively analysing these to see how they conceive of imagination and how it is manifest in their professional practices. The ISN is also supporting research into leadership pedagogy. As a curriculum scholar, I am keenly interested in leadership education and will be conducting a case study in 2021 that seeks to better understand how pre-service educational leadership students experience imagination-focused teaching practices and how they experienced learning about leadership through engagement in the ISN symposium series. In the future, I plan to research the nature of the leadership (involving both formal administrators and instructional leaders) in schools implementing IEE practices such as the Walking Curriculum.

Can you tell us more about the Walking Curriculum?

The origins of the Walking Curriculum go back to my childhood. I grew up in rural Saanich, amongst gorgeous Arbutus trees. I spent many days as a child wandering our acreage, fully immersed in nature. I developed a strong emotional connection with nature as a result. What I learned from my doctoral research—and what has been evident to me in my work on imaginative ecological teaching practices since finishing my Ph.D. in 2009—is that pedagogy designed to support ecological understanding (an understanding of the interconnectedness of the world, humankind’s place within a living world and the care/concern to live differently) must address the emotional core of its goal. Pedagogy that ignores emotion or imagination is ill-suited to support ecological understanding. Based on principles of IEE, the Walking Curriculum offers educators a set of walking-focused activities designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particularities of Place, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. The resource is designed for teachers who do not necessarily consider themselves “outdoor educators.” Teachers in urban, sub-urban, and even in rural areas, often have little imagination-focused curricular resources designed to develop students’ sense of ecological understanding and contribute to their understanding of many other areas of the curriculum. This resource seems to be filling that gap. Through walking and inquiry, educators can routinely enrich students’ sense-making abilities, and enhance their understanding of, and connections with, the world in which they spend so much of their everyday lives.

What impact would you like to see your research have on communities and society at large?

Overall, I think my research has helped to bring imagination to a more central position in how people think, talk about, and practice education. Over the past decade it has brought imagination into conversations about pedagogy not only in K-12 but also in graduate school. It has brought imagination into conversations about Museum Education and about Assessment for Learning in Higher Education. I think the biggest impact of my research to date may be with shifting perceptions of educators about outdoor learning—making it accessible to more educators and, thus, more students.

My IEE research—specifically the Walking Curriculum work—has resulted in thousands of educators worldwide taking more learners outdoors for learning more often. This makes me happy. I really want to push how educators conceive of their practices—I urge educators to “#getoutside”—yes, this is physically outside, but ultimately I hope that learning about cognitive tools, such as the story-form, vivid images, role play, transcendent qualities, and the sense of wonder, and how these develop the imagination, can shift educators’ beliefs about how people best learn in all contexts. I believe that better understanding of imagination in the context of leadership in schools, colleges and universities—and how we can grow imagination with pre-service/in-service teacher leaders—will enrich leadership research and practice and have a positive impact on learning environments. Right now, there is very little research on imagination in the context of educational leadership. It is my intention to develop theoretical and practical knowledge in this area.

What suggestion would you like to give to prospective graduate students interested in your field of research?

I would urge prospective graduate students to consider how imagination is or is not acknowledged in all aspects of education and why this is the case. I would urge them to consider their own presuppositions about learning and imagination. I look forward to exploring the power and potential of imagination in learning and leadership with students in the future.


Judson, G. (2018/2019).  A walking curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing a sense of place (k-12). Vancouver: KDP.  

Egan, K. & Judson, G. (2015). Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Judson, G. (2015). Engaging imagination in ecological education: Practical strategies for teaching. Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.