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July 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 10

Of Whales and Wonder

By using cognitive tools to shape instruction, we can make the curriculum more imaginatively engaging.

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Children and adolescents we label "reluctant learners" are often anything but reluctant to learn some things. They commonly expend prodigious intellectual energy on whatever engages them—collecting hockey cards or seashells, deciphering arcane rules in online gaming communities, amassing vast amounts of information about pop stars, maneuvering through the Internet, or manipulating a cell phone with skill that seems close to wizardry. No reluctance evident there: They exhibit all the signs of imaginative engagement. It's just that their imaginations seem unable to connect with the curriculum they encounter in school.
What accounts for these students' reluctance to expend effort on school learning? The world we expect them to learn about in school is, after all, wonderful and endlessly varied. Why do they fail to see it as such? And how can we make the curriculum as engaging as the world we want to reveal to students?

Available to All: Cognitive Tools

One answer for engaging the imaginations of so-called reluctant learners comes from Lev Vygotsky (1962, 1997), who saw human development as a process in which the individual picks up from his or her sociocultural surroundings certain commonly usedcognitive tools. What are cognitive tools? Imagine it's 60,000 years ago, on the plains of Africa. A tribal leader is hunting gazelles when a lion emerges from the bush ahead of him. He feels the lion tense, ready to pounce, and he knows his spear will be as useless as a blade of grass to stop it. Just then a gazelle breaks from cover, sees the man and lion, and turns too sharply, slipping in a panic to get away. The lion pauses: The gazelle will taste sweeter than the man; it is hurt and vulnerable; and it doesn't have a sharp stick. The man smells the lion in the rush of air as its powerful legs thrust forward in pursuit of the gazelle.
Later, by the fire, the man tries to tell his friends about the moment when the lion was choosing whether to take him or the gazelle. As he struggles to capture his intense feelings, he makes up language that we translate as, "If I had moved, if I hadn't had my spear, he might have taken me." His friends, puzzled, say, "He didn't take you." The leader repeats forcefully, "He might have taken me."
That is, he invents the subjunctive. Well, someone invented it. Someone, under conditions we can only guess, created a new cognitive tool. Our cultural history is made up of such inventions, each of which has now become a potentially powerful tool to enlarge any individual's ability to think, communicate, and understand. One can imagine the tribal leader finding that at first, only a few of his friends began using his new form of language to refer to possibilities. But as an old man, he might have noticed that all the children learned to use the subjunctive early in life as they mastered language.
Vygotsky described an array of such tools, which are related to language, numbering and counting systems, mnemonic techniques, algebraic symbols, works of art, writing, and so on. Elaborating on those tools has been a significant part of the work of the Imaginative Education Research Group ( based at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Drawing on Vygotsky's work, we have described a set of cognitive tools in a form appropriate for use in the everyday classroom (Egan, 1997, 2005).
Any child who has mastered an oral language will have a number of cognitive tools available for learning, including story structuring, metaphor, vivid images, binary opposites, rhyme and rhythm, jokes and humor, and a sense of mystery. Later, another set of cognitive tools comes along with the great tool kit of literacy: Among many others, these include engagement by the limits of reality and the extremes of experience (a fascination with the exotic and extreme, as, for example, in the Guinness Book of World Records); associations with the heroic (in which students take on, to some degree, the qualities of the heroes they learn about); and seeing knowledge in terms of human qualities (recognizing that all human knowledge is a product of someone's hopes, fears, and passions, an awareness that adds rich meaning to the world opened by literacy). We can see all of these tools energetically at work in the activities that so-called reluctant learners eagerly engage in, such as electronic games, collections, and social activities.

Three Oral Language Tools

Let's look at just a few of the cognitive tools that humans develop with oral language: story structuring, binary opposites, and forming images from words. How can these tools help us engage students' imaginations in learning?

Story Structuring

We define story structuring in the sense that newspaper editors mean when they ask a reporter to "get the story" on a bridge collapse. The editor doesn't want the reporter to make up a fictional story; rather, she is asking him to describe the facts clearly in a manner that brings their emotional meaning to the fore.
As a cognitive tool, story structuring shapes experience and knowledge into forms that establish their emotional meaning, helping us understand how to feel about events. If we were to tell you about a generous and skilled doctor, and add, "It was a hot day, and the doctor dived into the water," you might feel a small pleasure for her. But when we add, "The water was crowded with hungry sharks," you might feel some distress. The story could continue with the information that the doctor was trying out a new shark repellant or risking her life to save a child who had fallen into the water. Your feelings would change depending on the subsequent events in the story. In this case, your feelings would be significantly shaped by whether the doctor later had lunch or was lunch.
We continually use story structuring to shape events—to tell our friends about something that happened in the office or an adventure we had on holiday. Telling such narratives is a central human skill that we all have to a greater or lesser degree. To use this tool systematically in teaching, we begin planning a lesson by asking, What's the story on the topic? That is, How can I make the factual content clear and bring out its emotional importance?

Binary Opposites

Bruno Bettelheim (1976) noted that children "bring some order into [their] world by dividing everything into opposites" (p. 74). Binary opposites can provide a first clear orientation to content, as they do in the stories that children find most engaging. Take the Grimm fairy tales (or the evening news!), and you will find under the surface of the story those great opposites of good/bad, brave/cowardly, security/fear, rich/poor, and so on.
Human beings easily divide the world into binary opposites. Such opposites provide our first and clearest grappling tools to grab onto reality; later, we learn to see that these simple opposites are inadequate to describe the complexity of the world. In school, however, we often try to cover topics before providing students with clear grappling hooks to grasp them. We leave the students behind, and they feel resentful that they have no orientation to the content being taught.

Forming Images from Words

As we write this, we occasionally glance out the window of an ochre teahouse, looking down on a Japanese garden, on whose pond we can see three red water lilies. Across the pond is a moss garden, in which gray rocks are embedded at irregular intervals. A stream brings water through stones to a small waterfall that flows into the pond. Goldfish slowly move just below the surface. Whether you like it or not, you will likely have formed some images in response to the previous four sentences (which, unfortunately, are fictional). If you think of the most powerfully memorable events of your life, you will call them to mind very largely in emotionally charged images.
Such images are immensely effective in engaging our imaginations, communicating important information, and helping us retain events, facts, and ideas in memory. Yet, in teacher education programs we spend much time on matters of content and concepts but hardly any time on showing beginning teachers how to search for emotionally charged images in curriculum topics.
All topics in the curriculum have images embedded in them—mathematics no less than history, science no less than the arts. Often those images involve people who had some role in discovering or inventing the knowledge that is being taught. It is much more engaging to learn how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth by using the theorem that alternate interior angles are congruent and measuring the shadow of a stick in a courtyard in Alexandria 2,000 years ago, than simply to learn the theorem and then use it in lots of calculations. And knowing what Pythagoras was up to poking dots in the sand can vividly, meaningfully, and memorably bring to life what his theorem is about. The task for the teacher who hopes to engage reluctant learners (and any kind of learner) is to locate those images and use them to bring the content vividly to life in the students' minds.

Using Cognitive Tools

Let's look at two examples showing how we can use these three cognitive tools to make common curriculum topics more engaging to reluctant learners' imaginations.

Images of Whales

Consider the typical grade 2 or 3 topic of whales, usually taught in a science unit on mammals. Instead of beginning to plan this unit with objectives, we will begin by asking, How can we bring to the mind the vastness and power of these magnificent animals? What's the story about whales? And on what binary opposites can we build our story? The teacher does not need to be explicit, telling the students that they'll be using a story form and binary opposites. These are rather the shaping devices the teacher can use to animate the content.
For example, the teacher might begin by telling students that the heart of a blue whale is the size of a small car. This mighty heart pumps ponds-full of blood through arteries that are big enough for the students to comfortably crawl through. The tongue of a blue whale is the size of an elephant. The teacher then describes how whales might at that moment be moving in deep oceans:It is night, in a storm, in the middle of the ocean. These mighty beasts are traveling about 15 miles an hour toward a feeding ground off Australia. They rise to the surface, hear the roaring winds and pounding seas, see the lightning flash; then they dive in a pod that communicates through constant clicking that carries great distances, and down they go to calmer waters for 20 minutes, moving steadily onward, after which they emerge into the dark roaring storm to breathe again.
The teacher plays a recording of the beating heart of a blue whale, pumping 10 times a minute, the sound filling the classroom; he or she teaches the students to find their own pulse and feel it as they listen to the slow, liquid thump of the vast muscular contraction pushing blood into the whale's huge arteries.
Our binary opposites for the unit on whales might be majesty and vulnerability. The teacher describes for students how, despite their majestic size and power, whales remain vulnerable, especially to human activities. Human hunters, from early times, worked out ways to attack and kill whales. As human technology increased in power, the great beasts became more helpless against whalers. Our activities on land are polluting the waters in which they live, and now our influence on global warming is further degrading their habitat.
The "story about whales" that the lesson tells continually ties together the majestic power and wonder of these great beasts with their vulnerability. All the factual material the teacher wants to convey is organized and "plotted" onto the story line—the narrative—structured by these oppositions. And the students' imaginations are continually drawn to the vivid and powerful images the lesson presents.
Incidentally, there is no "right" answer in choosing binary opposites; we simply look for the set that seems best able to bring out the details in a clear, dramatic way. In teaching about whales, for example, we could choose familiar/mysterious. In that case, we would focus first on the many features of whales' lives that are familiar to us. Their breathing and eating, their search for food, and their migrations are common to many mammals. Then we would search for what is mysterious about each of these aspects of their lives. Their breathing goes on in vast gulps of air that sustain them under the water for 20 minutes at a time. They are the largest mammal and yet eat tiny krill: How can such microscopic creatures sustain the vast bulk of the whale? We could discuss the mystery of whale "beaching," in which sometimes dozens of the huge animals run aground and die. Whatever story line we choose, we need not make the binary opposites explicit, although it might often be helpful to draw students' attention to the opposites to help them clarify how we are structuring the content.

Stories of Air

Most curriculums in most countries require that 7- or 8-year-olds study the properties of air. What's the story on air? The main story is a kind of mystery: We usually assume that the air is empty, but it is full of varied wonders that we can't see or touch.
We might begin the unit with a radio, turning it on in one part of the classroom, then changing channels while walking around, hearing music and voices and all kinds of sounds. What would the room look like if our eyes worked like radios do? (Many thanks to the hunter and his invention of the subjunctive!) Some student may volunteer what he knows about radio waves. How many waves are there in the classroom?
Then we might block the windows, letting a single beam of sunlight shine through, highlighting the dust in the room. What is dust made of? Sixty percent of dust in the average classroom is made of decayed human skin. Yuck! Who did I just breathe in? If we really want to engage the yuck factor, we can discuss fly feces. And pollens, and viruses, and muons—particles from the sun—and on and on. Each image is aimed at creating an emotional response—even if the emotion is only disgust. Disgust is more engaging than no emotion at all.
We might also ask students to play with their imaginations while considering the properties of the air—for example, by imagining various entities as characters (that speedy Muon family!) or building hugely enlarged models of pollen, dust, and radio waves and hanging them from the ceiling.
Gradually, we build the students' sense that the air is full of wonders—many gases in odd proportions, radio waves, particles from the sun, dust, pollen, and so on. The story we are telling is that the air, which students assumed was empty and boring, is in fact more complex, full, and rich than almost anything we can see. It is much more interesting than the chairs and tables in an average room. The binary opposites that give structure to the unit are the sense of empty and boring contrasted with full and fascinatingly complex.

Toward a More Human Curriculum

To engage students in learning, we must begin by bringing out the imaginative and emotional features of the content, whether in mathematics, science, or any other curriculum area. Everything in the curriculum is human knowledge—a product of human hopes, fears, and passions. If we want to make that knowledge engaging to students, we have to show it in the context of the hopes, fears, and passions from which it has grown and in which it finds a living meaning. By shaping curriculum content around the cognitive tools that students have available, we can make it more imaginatively engaging and more human. Then we will see no more "reluctant" learners.

Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment. New York: Knopf.

Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language(E. Haufmann & G. Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1997). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky (R. W. Rieber & J. Wollock, Eds.). New York: Plenum.

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