Primary Cognitive Tools – Kieran Egan

Kieran Egan asserts that “increased focus on students’ imaginations will lead to improvements in all measures of educational achievement, including the most basic standardized tests.” (p.xvii) His book, An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, “describe[s] some of the characteristics, or ‘cognitive tools,’ of students’ imaginations.” (p.xvii), among which he includes the following ‘primary cognitive tools’:

Story is one of the most powerful cognitive tools students have available for imaginatively engaging with knowledge.  Stories shape our emotional understanding of their content. Stories can shape real-world content as well as fictional material. It is this real-world story-shaping that promises most value for teaching.” (p.2)

Metaphor is the tool that enables us to see one thing in terms of another. This peculiar ability lies at the heart of human intellectual inventiveness, creativity, and imagination. It is important to help students keep this ability vividly alive by exercising it frequently; using it frequently in teaching will help students learn to read with energy and flexibility.

Binary opposites are the most basic and powerful tools for organizing and categorizing knowledge. We see such opposites in conflict in nearly all stories, and they are crucial in providing an initial ordering to many complex forms of knowledge. The most powerfully engaging opposites – like good/bad, security/fear, competition/cooperation – are emotionally charged and, when attached to content, imaginatively engaging.

Rhyme, rhythm, and pattern are potent tools for giving meaningful, memorable, and attractive shape to any content. Their roles in learning are numerous, and their power to engage the imagination in learning the rhythms and patterns of language – and the underlying emotions that they reflect – is enormous. They are important in learning all symbol systems, like mathematics and music, and all forms of knowledge and experience.” (p.3)

Jokes and humor can expose some of the basic ways in which language works and, at the same time, allow students to play with elements of knowledge, so discovering some of learning’s rewards. They can also assist in the struggle against sclerosis of the imagination as students go through their schooling – helping to fight against rigid conventional uses of rules and showing students rich dimensions of knowledge and encouraging flexibility of mind.

Mental imagery is a tool of immense emotional importance, influencing us throughout our lives. In societies saturated by visual images, such as those of all Western and most Eastern countries today, it is perhaps increasingly important to allow students space to learn to generate their own mental images. We can easily forget the potency of our unique images generated from words. Often the image carries more imaginative and memorable force than the concept alone can hold. Together they can be even more potent. The use of mental images (as distinct from external pictures) should play a large role in teaching and learning.

Gossip is often thought of as idle pleasure. But it can also play an important [-p.5] role in learning. Gossip represents one of the most basic forms of social interaction; it is easy to engage in and is usually pleasurable. These are not good reasons to avoid its use in teaching! It involves a series of skills, including the ability to fit events into a narrative, and can enlarge students’ imaginative grasp of knowledge. Gossip can also contribute important elements to students’ language, especially oral language, capacities.

Play is a related cognitive tool, or set of tools. It helps people free themselves from objects with which behavior is often fused, as in, say, a classroom. By ‘playing school,’ for example, children can enlarge their understanding of the norms and limits of school behavior and get pleasure from parodying what previously had been a world in which they were constrained. Play can also enlarge students’ self-control – and their uncerstanding of the importance of self-control. In play they learn they cannot act by impulse but have to follow flexible rules, and they can pretend to cry while getting pleasure from the pretence.

Mystery is an important tool in developing an engagement with knowledge [-p.6] that is beyond thes tudents’ everyday environment. It creates an attractive sense of how much that is fascinating remains to be discovered. All the subjects of the curriculum have mysteries attached to them, and part of our job in making curriculum content known to students is to give them an image of richer and deeper understanding that is there to draw their minds into the adventure of learning.

Embryonic tools of literacy will be picked up while students mainly use the tools of oral language, and increasingly the new tools will be engaged as students become more fluent readers and writers. We need to provide opportunities for students to begin using some of the later tool kit even if in embryonic form. In Vygotsky’s terms (1978), this might be seen as drawing the students forward in their ‘zone of proximal development.'” (pp.4-6)

Ref: (italics in original) Kieran Egan (c2005) An Imaginative Approach to Teaching. Jossey-Bass: San Fransisco

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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