A shortcut to presenting Imaginative Education?

Shortcut We interrupt our regular broadcasting: on Thursday I was mulling over something one of the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) people mentioned to me some time ago: that Kieran Egan’s “cognitive toolkits” idea (which is to say, all his work) is difficult to explain to others even for the people in IERG.

And here I thought the problem had been mine!

Here’s an interesting (if slightly made-up) statistic: 80% of the attempts I’ve made to share Imaginative Education with others have failed.

I can’t count the times I’ve energetically tried to explain Egan’s idea (particularly the cognitive toolkits), only to be met with polite nods, or near-total misunderstanding. (“Ah, so you’re saying that teachers should jump up and down to rile up their students?”)

And in most of these cases, people have actually been nice enough to read a chapter or two of Egan. So the problem may be with the method that Egan himself — who, to be clear, is usually a joyously lucid and engaging writer — uses to introduce his thinking.

Yesterday, I think I came up with an exposition of IE (with an emphasis on the toolkits framework) that could have general appeal: a way of explaining the work of Kieran Egan to the world.

Here’s an excerpt of what I sent one of the IERG folk:

…I've had an idea I'd love your criticism of: a way of coming at IE that (1) just might make more sense to people upon hearing it for the first time, and (2) better emphasize the awesome aspects of IE (or at least those aspects I find awesome).

It's a four-step unveiling of what seem to be, when given in order, sensible arguments:

1. Human cognition is more than logic: it's complex and rich and shot through with emotions.  We are (per David Kresch) “perfinkers,” we are (per R.J. Snell) “lovers more than we are thinkers.”  

(Note: “perfinkers” is short for “perceivers, feelers, and thinkers” — it’s a funny term Egan has borrowed to get at this idea that our cognition is more than mere rational thinking.)

Most schooling, however, leans on rather simple, unemotional forms of cognition; it has a deficient view of human nature.

(Note: it’s since occurred to me that I’m not working with a real opponent here. “Schooling” subsumes ten thousand different theories. That said, I think this criticism is onto something.)

2. As Egan writes, “Everything in the world is wonderful,” which means that everything in the K-12 curriculum is full of the types of complexity that our minds are able to uncover and find deeply interesting.  Most schooling, however, treats the content as information to be covered.  (The implied question: but how do we engage that interest?)

3. To engage that wonder, let's not invent faddish and ephemeral teaching strategies: let's instead depend on what's been working for hundreds (and thousands) (and maybe millions) of years: the cultural–cognitive tools (stories, irony, binary opposites, abstract theories, metanarratives...) that have already demonstrated their ability to engage full human cognition simply by lasting this long. (Presumably there were myriad awful cognitive tools that we no longer know about, precisely because they didn't pass themselves down.)  (The implied question: but how do we decide when to use which tools?)

(Note: I think this point may be new to me, or at least I’m giving it a centrality that I don’t remember seeing in Egan’s writing. It brings the idea of cognitive tools into the framework of memetic evolution.)

4. To help us figure out when to use which tools, we invent a theoretical construct: “cognitive toolkits.”  We know, of course, that language & literacy has expanded cognition on the level of historical cultures (see, e.g., Walter Ong — cultures that write think differently); well, it doesn't seem like too much of a jump to imagine that they could change kids in similar ways.  Thus for kids who can speak but who can't read, we teach by borrowing tools from non-literate cultures.  For kids who can read, borrow tools from literate cultures. 

So here's what I'm thinking might be gained from this framework for presenting IE:

  • Step 1 starts by talking about brain science, which people like, and find easy to latch onto.  (“Oh, yes, of course — schools aren't engaging the whole child!”  “Kids are only using a fraction of their brains!” and so forth.)
  • Step 2 strikes a romantic note that resonates with people, too: “oh, yes, everything really is interesting, isn't it?  Why didn’t they tell us that in school?”
  • Step 3 holds a sort of commonsense conservationism — let's not throw out the stuff that works!  (It also has a multicultural tinge, which I should expand on more.)
  • Step 4 — the crucial idea of the toolkits, which tends to confuse the people I share Egan's work with (I think it sounds fanciful to them, sort of Waldorfian) — is saved for the end.  At that point, it answers the practical question of “so when do we use which tools?”

Overall, it also explains IE without recourse to the word “imagination.”  Now, Egan and the rest of the IE community

Note: it occurred to me here that I was critiquing the utility of the word “imagination” to one of the men who chose that word

…mean something very specific by it, but that meaning can only be understood after understanding the (#4) full toolkits idea, which can only be understood after understanding (#3) cultural–cognitive tools, which can only be understood after understanding (#1) that we need better ways of engaging specifically human cognition.

(And, after sitting through session after goddamned session in which conference presenters who didn't know IE from a hole in their head tossed around the word “imagination” without meaning anything at all by it, I think I've all but given up on using the word.  Maybe you can help me with that?)

Rather, it situates IE in a fuller conception of our humanity — relatively unclaimed ground in the terminology of educational philosophy.  (And one that lets us interface with the contemporary turn in cognitive science which is embracing emotions, linguistics, and narrative.)

So: I’m wondering if I’ve actually stumbled on a framework for explaining Egan’s conception of Imaginative Education that might better capture the excitement that we get from it.

Thoughts?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA