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  • Writer's pictureTrinity Voice

Pedagogies: Mimetic Teaching

Contributing Author: Mr. Zach Jimison, Upper School Humanities

When quite young, my mom bought me and my brother matching coloring books. Perhaps as a typical younger brother, I waited until Micah opened his and then opened mine to the same page: a cartoony dog in front of a cartoony tree watching a cartoony gopher emerge from a hole. Then, I waited until Micah began coloring the leaves of the tree green. I did the same. Then, I waited again until Micah began coloring the dog brown. I did the same. This pattern went on until Micah finally snapped: “Mom! Zach’s copying me!”

Our ever-diligent mother came to investigate and tried to persuade my brother that my imitation was a compliment—it meant I wanted to be like him. (As I remember, this argument did not persuade him and I wound up coloring many a dog purple after that simply to avoid the accusation of “copying.”)

In this moment, I realized several truths all at once: One, I did want to be like my brother—a fact I had never consciously considered. Two, my Mom was very wise—she knew me better than I knew myself. And three, I was imitating without realizing I was imitating—without realizing there was any alternative to imitation.

I now look back and realize that, in that moment, God was setting the stage for a rich understanding of a certain type of education uniquely extolled in classical Christian schooling: mimetic education.

In his Poetics, Aristotle writes that “the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons.” The Greek word that Aristotle uses for “imitation” is mīmēsis, the root of our English words “mime” and “imitate,” and obviously “mimetic.” Thus, mimetic teaching is teaching through imitation, and the reason we do it is because Aristotle is right: It is “through imitation” that a person “learns his earliest lessons.”

You don’t have to be a Freudian or Lacanian scholar to realize that babies imitate their parents’ facial expressions, that siblings imitate their siblings, or that students do best when they have a clear model to replicate. It’s how writers like Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass—who hand-copied word-for-word writing that they admired—became such excellent stylists.

It’s how the Brontë sisters—who imitated the language of the Psalms in everything they wrote—became such fantastic novelists and poets. Most importantly, it is how we are called to become more like Christ. As Paul writes, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” And as Jesus tells his disciples, “You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’; and you are correct, for so I am. So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example, so that you also would do just as I did for you.”

Thus, by teaching mimetically, we are not only following common sense, the wisdom of the ages, and the psychology of today—we are imitating the Teacher: Jesus Christ.

Mimetic teaching happens when a teacher prepares their students to receive an object worthy of imitation, presents them with that object, invites them to explore that object and compare it to other more familiar objects, and then—once they have grasped it—invites them to imitate it themselves.

So, let’s say I want my students to write a poem in the style of E. E. Cummings. I would start by ensuring that they understand the grammar and vocabulary necessary to understand the poetry. I would also want them to have encountered other, more traditional poems. Rossetti or Shakespeare provide a point of comparison. Once I know they are prepared, we’ll enjoy some of Cummings’ poems together. We compare his poems with those by Rossetti and Shakespeare, and eventually come to understand what makes Cummings poetry so unique. We see his unconventional punctuation, the rare capitalization, the use of pronouns and verbs and adjectives as nouns, the playfulness with language, and more. Once they have really grasped it—I will set them loose to write their own poems in the style of E. E. Cummings.

This kind of teaching extends to every discipline and every area of life. It is through imitating the masters that we learn both to color and write, that we learn to be good children and parents, that we learn basic addition and the most complex Calculus. Most importantly, it is through imitating those around us that we learn to be better (or worse) imitators of Christ.

This is why Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Why not imitate Christ directly? Because Christ had already ascended. It is far easier to imitate that which we can see than that which we can only read about.

Afterall, why does Christ become incarnate? So that we can know the Father. Before Christ, we already knew the Father, but our imitation of Him was limited. How do we imitate that which is wholly invisible, often inaudible, and infinitely beyond our ability to comprehend? Only through an act of incarnation.

As Christian educators, we strive to recognize that every time we teach, we are imitating the incarnation: taking ideas that were previously unseen, unheard, and not understood, and making those ideas seeable, hearable, understandable—and therefore imitable.

We also strive to recognize that, even more than our ideas, our students will imitate us. Hence, we strive to be people who are worthy of that imitation. We strive, in other words, to imitate the only object worthy of our perfect imitation: Jesus Christ, the visible incarnation of God.

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