Friday, August 14, 2009

Understanding the world in diverse ways: Kieran Egan's perspective on reimagining the learning environment

In The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up, Kieran Egan refers to education as "the process in which we maximize the tool kit we individually take from the external storehouse of culture" (p. 40). I take the term 'education' to comprise any kind of learning, whether deliberately self-chosen, culturally expected, state enforced or facilitated, or accidentally engaged in. Egan's affirmation then makes sense. The accelerated evolution of our species at its current stage of development is to a much greater extent determined by our ability to interact with the cultural legacy to which our ancestors contributed than by the genomic heritage they left behind. This sets us apart from any other species in the animal kingdom. It is the reason why the particular development our brains have undergone is the greatest gift we owe to evolution.

The tools Egan refers to are cognitive tools, the kind of mental faculties that "enable the brains to do cultural work" (p. 40). In fact, they are themselves part of the cultural heritage of humankind. One acquires the tools and the abilities associated with their usage by interacting with that cultural heritage. Hence Egan's above cited notion of education. He identifies these tools in the context of five different kinds of understanding, i.e., somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophical, and ironic understanding. The table below provides a quick overview of these five kinds of understanding. A much more elaborate rationale can be found in Chapter 3 of Egan's book.

We develop the cognitive tools in these five domains successively as we grow more mature in our understanding of the world. However, as we become mentally more sophisticated, we mustn't throw out prior ways of understanding as we develop the cognitive tools associated with new ways of understanding. As we progress through life we need them all. We must keep the prior tools in our tool kits as we are continually in need of understanding the world in complex ways and from multiple perspectives.

Egan's idea of 'cognitive tools that allow the brains to do cultural work' leading to different kinds of understanding is based on a conception of the mind as "an ambivalent thing, made up of culture drawn from outside the organism and of cognition within" (p. 84). It creates a framework for thinking about educational reform based on a scheme that "combines epistemological, psychological and emotional characteristics together" (p. 84).

Egan uses that scheme in the second half of the book in which he describes a history of the future of education on earth from 2010 to 2060 in five ten-year intervals from the perspective of a fictitious researcher coming from a planet outside our own solar system. This is an interesting way to test the ideas developed in the first part of the book by means of a thought experiment regarding how the world would change if such ideas were put into practice in such a way as to avoid that they would be rejected. After all, many good ideas get rejected as soon as it comes to implementing them in settings that are impervious to change, as both traditionalist and progressivist educational environments tend to be.

Depending on one's attitude towards anything Utopian, one may variously like the description that ensues. I, for one, was more enthralled by what I read in the first part of the book than by my subsequent exposure to the road to Utopia. The more ideal the world of education became as the story of the future enfolded in Egan's book, the more uncomfortable I felt with the impending state of perfection and the gradual disappearance of problems. Would there be anything left after 2060 that one might want to meaningfully engage in to further improve the world and the human condition?

One of the more provocative assertions regarding the future of education has to do with the use of technology in education. Current expectations are that technology will have a positive influence on the quality of the school environment. Contrary to that expectation, Egan's thought experiment points towards the "near absence" (p. 167) of technology in the schools in the 2040-2050 decade. Says Egan:
'Access to information' had been one of the mantras of the early days, when computers began to have an effect on education. But access to knowledge had never been the problem, and it should have been clear then, and was to many, of course. Even a hundred years earlier, students had access to plenty of knowledge; the problem was getting it into the students, and getting it to mean anything much to them. The most fundamental change in schooling was tied up with precisely that problem. Technology had its uses in providing immediate access to any information required, but the more important feature of the new schooling was the recognition of how to use the older technologies of human communication like the story and mental images, which connect knowledge with human emotions. (pp. 167-168.)
No doubt, interesting food for thought!


Egan, K. (2008). The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Ron Burnett said...

I am not convinced by Egan's arguments regarding the value and use of the neurosciences. Too much remains unknown about the brain and the manner in which the brain distributes, manufactures and then outputs information, ideas and emotions. In any case, the focus on the brain to the exclusion of the body is one of the great challenges for the cognitive sciences. I don't think that there is much in this book that convinces me about the author's understanding of the complexity and multi-layered experiences that are at the heart of learning.

Jan Visser said...

Actually, while I agree, Ron, that much still remains unknown about the brain, Egan doesn't say much, if anything, about it, let alone about the neurosciences, except that he recognizes that, should we not have the kind of brain we have, we would likely not have developed the ability to build on the heritage of our ancestors other than than via our genes. At the basis of our making sense of the world is, according to Egan, somatic understanding. That clearly puts the focus on the body (including, obviously, the brain) instead of "on the brain to the exclusion of the body." If I suggested (possibly implicitly?) that Egan's argument is built on the neurosciences, I must have expressed myself inadequately. This is not what Egan does.
Does Egan understand "the complexity and multi-layered experiences that are at the heart of learning"? Well, I think so. His fifth domain of understanding, 'ironic understanding', is entirely about what he refers to on page 83 as the "multiperspectival congregation of views in the one mind at the one time."

Nana Premadi said...

Thank you for bringing this up, Jan.
I admit I started to learn about learning horrifyingly late: when I realised I have to teach...
Obviously I have not read Egan's book, so I won't comment much. Yet your note on it reminds me of the significant difference I experienced in science class compared to music class. Even if the itemization of Egan's materialised in both classes, they materialised differently.
Just a few weeks ago, a number of former students and I engaged in conversation (on facebook :-) ) about technology in education. A few of them argue that education via internet would perhaps one day render schools as obsolete...
I disagree, as I think that way of learning does not stimulate all learning faculties needed in building a multifacet yet coherent understanding of the matter being studied. For me, learning seems to call for some human touch. It can be something intangible like experiencing what the teacher experienced. A music teacher does not only teach the technique of playing an instrument, but also, very importantly, share how he/she lives/interprets the music being played. Of course I agree that we can learn a lot from remote sources. I wonder what Lya has to say about this?
Well, this is only what I feel, as I really don't know much.

Jan_Visser said...

I guess it depends, Nana, on what your students were referring to in their argument. They may merely see technology (the Internet) as a lucky opportunity to get rid of a stale education system, without actually implying that the technology as such constitutes the radical improvement that is required. If so, it may well fall in line with Egan's history of the future. Though at the end technology will largely have disappeared in Egan's scenario, it could still have played a role in preparing for that future.

I agree with your perspective that learning calls for a human touch. Actually, it's of course more than just 'a touch.' Learning, as I see it, is profoundly human. I am not sure if that, by its very nature, excludes technology. In the past, when the major technology to interact with the human sources of wisdom and knowledge was the printed word (in addition to the teachers one had), I never felt that books were obstacles to feeling the presence of their authors, those individuals much more advanced in their thinking than I, in my life. Some books indeed propelled me to seek out their authors and make face to face contact with them. I think the Internet can play a similar role. But it depends of course on how we use the technology. It depends particularly on the question if we are able and willing to see beyond the Internet.

Here there seems to be a particular challenge as some developments in collaborative authoring lead to anonymity in a distributively intelligent environment. This does indeed seriously hinder the possibility to identify with the humans of flesh and blood that embody the knowledge we seek to interact with. I see that as a problem worth solving.