We are surrounded by mystery


Kieran Egan — our greatest living educational philosopher — reflects on his schooling, and all schooling:

I suppose, being a university professor dripping with awards and prizes, that I have played the schooling game well. But I was never sure what sense it all made. Why did I have to learn to decline those Latin irregular nouns, or be able to prove that opposite interior angles of a parallelogram are congruent, or recall the provisions of the treaty of Ghent?  Much of the time I and everyone I knew was bored with schooling, and had difficulty relating what was happening in class with human life and its enhancement.

My book is an attempt to show that, indeed, everything in the world is wonderful, but that schools are designed almost to disguise this slightly shameful fact.  We represent the world to children as mostly known and rather dull.  The opposite is the case: we are surrounded by mystery, and what we know is fascinating.

My book is an attempt to show how we can reconceive the school and the process of education to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with knowledge.

(The book in question, incidentally, is The Future of Education: Reimagining Schools from the Ground Up, which may be the best introduction to his wide-ranging body of thought.)

In our (future) school, we don't want to cover knowledge — we want to uncover it. We want to help kids see that the world around them is a mystery — where do clouds come from? how does a microwave work? — and to excite them with the chance of unravelling it.

If we succeed at that, we'll succeed at nearly all our goals.

The stupid power of stupid stories

WHY IS THIS SO INTERESTING?!?! One of Kieran Egan’s major emphases is how tremendously foundational stories are for human cognition. Almost anything, it seems, can be understood more readily if we put it in the form of a story.

Why this is complex and fascinating — stories seem to sit in the nexus of culture and biology. At some point, I’d like to unpack some of this here.

For now, I’ll just relegate myself to (ha!) a simple story. A week ago, my family took a camping trip out to the San Juan Islands, off the Washington coast. It was an excellent trip, all in all, but the drive back home was a little vexing.

James, my three-year-old, was kvetching in the back seat — he had been cooped up far too long — and I decided to distract him with some of the cool studies on crow intelligence that had been done recently at the University of Washington, from which I recently graduated.

I put on my super-excited-distract-the-kid voice:

“JAMES! Some people wanted to SEE how SMART CROWS were! So they went to the CROWS’ NESTS and…”

Epic fail. James’ attention was barely pricked, and he fell back to whining and violently thrusting his toy airplane around the car.

I remembered the cognitive primacy of simple stories, and abased myself, this time in a more measured tone:

“James! Once there was a crow named — erm — ‘Crowster.’”

Attention: snagged.

“And one day he saw a human walking toward his nest.”

It was amazing — in teen argot, “stupid” — how immediately he paid attention, and how perfectly he maintained it. (And, for that matter, how frustrated he was when, for purposes of navigation, I had to break off the story a few minutes later.)

(Fuller accounts of these studies on crow intelligence, incidentally, can be found at the New York Times and at this TED talk. Neither uses simple stories, or, alas, the character of, erm, “Crowster.” They’re still pretty great.)

I don’t want to press this too far: anecdotes featuring one’s child are perhaps the lowliest form of empirical evidence. But this seems to illustrate something broader: stories are magic.

Stories are a format our minds (innately? culturally?) are biased to pay attention to, and to remember. We are the storytelling animal, par excellence. (Take that, dolphins!)

Stories even factor into the System 1 / System 2 division. Daniel Kahneman writes, in Thinking, Fast and Slow

A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent... does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has.... The mind — especially System 1 — appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. (p. 29)

Well, well.

A few questions seem to arise for we who wish to design a new kind of school:

  • How can stories enrich all the disciplines, not just (say) literature and history?
  • How can we design the curriculum so that these stories connect up with and support each other?
  • What are the limits of stories? Are there situations when a story is exactly what a student doesn’t need to understand something?

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.


CONTENT is KING. Or maybe not? (part 2)

On Monday, I tried to explain why I found Kieran Egan’s model of Imaginative Education (and Corbett Charter School’s living out of Egan’s model) so danged exciting. I attempted to explain it in terms of the depth of content that their teachers and students regularly swim in. Instead of skating the surface of a topic, covering what’s most important, they dive into topics, constantly uncovering fascinating details.

As I pointed out, that explanation fails. Depth of content can’t, all by itself, be what strikes me so powerfully about IE, because diving deeply into content can still be boring. (Horribly boring, in fact.)

If content-focused education is to be wonderful, I suggested, it would have to be nested inside something larger.

So let me try this again:

What strikes me so powerfully about IE is that it engages emotions, not just cognition. Furthermore, it sees all academic content as potentially rich in emotional substance.

There are two pieces of this, which I’ll explore for the rest of the week. First, IE is making a statement about human psychology: our emotions are more fundamental than our rationality. Second, IE is making a statement about the external world: virtually everything already has emotional resonance; we don’t have to try to “make” things interesting, as much as “bring out” how they’re already interesting.

Again, I’ll sketch out these two pieces this week, but in the end this discussion boils down to this:

How can we create a school that puts human interests, emotions, hopes, and fears at the center of the curriculum? How can we create a school that sees “academic content” (gods, that term is so dry, isn’t it?) as full of rich complexity that can feed many aspects of our students? How can we conceive of a school that sees itself as a portal to the wonder of the world?

CONTENT is KING. Or maybe not? (part 1)

I suggested, in last Wednesday’s post about the consummate awesomeness of organizing all lesson planning around teams of teachers, that having the teams themselves wasn’t sufficient. The amazing thing Corbett is doing, in my mind, is both who and what: they combine team-planning with a specific method of planning —

they put the question of “what to do in class” after the question of “what is amazing about this content?” That is, they don’t explicitly talk about the form of instruction (game? debate? art project?) before nailing what the beating heart of the story is.

(This is one of the central characteristics of “Imaginative Education,” an approach coming from Kieran Egan and the rest of the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, B.C.)

Ooh how I love thisBut why, precisely?

At first, I thought we might distill it (with apologies to Bill Gates, and the Internet as a whole) quite simply —

Content is king.

That is, I thought that IE’s wonder might come by getting teachers and students deep into the heart of academic subject-matter. And it’s there, I thought, where the wild things are — where the excitement and pleasures of learning reside.

I think this is a little right, and a little wrong.

First, the rightness of putting content at the center of pedagogy:

Teaching the “content” of the world is the one thing schools are charged to do that differentiates them from all other societal institutions — from the scouting and television and summer camps.

Schools, to be clear, do a lot of things: they socialize kids with one another, prepare people for careers, and teach us all not to wipe our noses on our sleeves (shout-out to my second-grade teacher!). Thus, the school overlaps with other institutions — we can, for example, have productive discussions about what our school can learn from the Green Berets, or from (gods help us) a nineteenth-century free love commune, or from whatever.

But at the end of the day, I’ll suggest, a school is fundamentally about doing something else: engaging academic content, which is to say bringing the swirl of the external world to the consideration of five-to-eighteen year olds.

So, again, my initial theory as to why what Imaginative Education says (and what Corbett Charter School does) strikes me as so amazing is that it doesn’t allow us teachers to skate on the surface of content, but to dive right in.

There’s a problem with this idea, however: content can be dead.

That is, content can be dull, dreary, meaningless. It can be any other nasty adjective we’d like to apply to it. Focusing on content can lead us to a pointless, thirteen-year trudge through minutiae.

And we’ve all experienced this sort of education. (If, someone, you’ve avoided this, watch 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Ben Stein’s immortal lesson on the Hawley Smoot Tariff.)

This charge has led many to de-emphasize rich content, in favor of thinking skills or child-centered learning, or practical skills.

(I don’t, for the record, mean this as a criticism, though I have my criticisms of these movements. Educating is hard, and one mussn’t be too ornery.)

I’ve been drawn, in the past, to those who oppose this rising tide, and attempt to bring “rich content” back to the heart of schooling.

A contemporary leader of the “content = king” paradigm is the wonderful E.D. Hirsch, whose thinking I have a complex relationship with. His popular work includes The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and the series What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know.

Hirsch is vexed by the contemporary movement to replace rich content (myths and historical accounts and literature) with what he sees as soulless skills (“finding the main idea” and “making reader–text connections” and similar bilge). Here, I largely (entirely? vociferously?) agree with him.

He’s done wonderful work in arguing, from the work of cognitive psychologists, that specific knowledge is crucial for higher-level thinking. Want to be a powerful reader? Learn stuff! Want to be a masterful writer? Eat the world, and ruminate on it in your writing!

(If you’re interested in his argument here, you’ll want to check out cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham’s wonderful Why Don’t Students Like School?)

There were a few years in which I found this compelling. But I’ve slowly circled around to the idea that idea that Hirsch’s conception is simply not enough. Rhetorically, it’s open to complaints that schools “teach dead content” and “engage rote memory.” Practically, it doesn't guarantee that classrooms won't devolve (under the control of less-than-inspired teachers) into a succession of "one damn thing after another.”

If we want to put content at the center of schooling, we need to nest it in something bigger.

On Tuesday, I’ll sketch out a better way — what, I think, IE and Corbett is doing that is so wonderful.