Kieran Egan: What are cognitive tools and how many of them are there?
The immediate stimulus for this topic has been a number of discussions, suggestions, and question from a number of IERGy folk. They include David Coulter, Michael Ling, the Imagination and Education M.Ed. cohort, and Mark Fettes and his EDUC 902 class. The locus of attention has been on the way in the IERG has been using the Vygotskian notion of “cognitive tools”, and the way I have been using it in a ms. (“An imaginative approach to teaching”) which a number of kind and put-upon people have commented on.
Vygotsky refers to language as a cognitive tool, and to forms of counting, mnemonic techniques, algebraic symbols, works of art, writing, and so on. The Vygotskian scholar Alex Kozulin writes about fine poems as “super-tools,” in that they do in spades whatever it is language is supposed to do for our minds. And in IERG publications we have been referring to things like the use of binary opposites or stories or associating with heroes as examples of “cognitive tools.” This apparent diversity raises the question of how we are to classify these tools––the above set, for example, look enormously diverse. If poems are super-tools how do we classify Shakespeare’s sonnets. Do they constitute a tool? Does each sonnet constitute a tool? Each line? Is Hamlet one tool and differential equations another? Why talk about tools at all if the term refers simply to the general stuff of the curriculum. We surely have an adequate traditional language to refer to the stuff of our cultural inheritance, and introducing this “tool talk” is simply injecting jargon that turns our minds away from old problems, or, worse, persuades us we have solutions to old problems when all we are doing in restating these old problems in new language.
That, anyway, is an attempt to state the problem I’d like to address in this seminar. The difference between a seminar and a lecture, at least as I’d like to interpret it today, is that in the case of a lecture I would have some responsibility for giving you an answer to the problem, whereas in a seminar I can hope to have you answer it. So I’ll begin by trying to describe what I understand by the term “cognitive tools,” try to suggest some distinctions that might be useful in classifying them, and then worry about whether any of it is adequate or makes much sense.
to read more about cognitive tools go here.