The Cognitive Toolkits of Historical Understanding

What are these cognitive tools and what do they do for us?

There is a short answer to this and a longer answer. The longer answer can be found by clicking here. The short answer is that cognitive tools are the things that enable our brains to do cultural work. Our brains, like those of any animal, are responsible for enabling us to do bodily and social work. But we have also amassed that external symbolic material that constitutes our literacy and culture. As we learn features of our cultural inheritance, the brain is provided with the tools that enable it to realize various of its capacities. Alone, no one learns to speak, to read and write, or to think with theoretic abstractions, or, indeed, to think historically. These potentials of human brains are actualized only by the brain learning, and learning to use, particular pieces from our symbolic cultural storehouse. Culture, as it were, programs the brain. It is simplistic to push the analogy of brain as computer and culture as operating systems and programs, but the analogy is helpful in so far as it locates a significant part of our minds in that culture material.

We use “cognitive tools,” or “tools of imaginative engagement” (Mark Fettes’s useful descriptor), in the rest of this site, and particularly in the Teachers Resources section, to refer to these features of our thinking that enable us to grasp our history and its meanings.

The early toolkit used in first learning history in schools

For practical purposes, we divide the cognitive tools into two main sets: first, those that are commonly found in oral cultures, and which remain used today by everyone who has learned to talk, and especially by young children as they begin to learn to read and write and begin learning basic historical information and historical thinking; and, second, those that come along with later intellectual developments. Teachers can get a better grasp on how to help people learn history by understanding the tools that underlie it and from which it emerged historically and from which it emerges in individuals today. Examples of how each of these tools can be used in everyday history teaching will be applied to:

  • the story––one of the most powerful tools for engaging the emotions in learning and subject;
  • metaphor––crucial for flexible and creative thinking;
  • vivid images––generating images from words is central to engaging the imagination in learning;
  • binary opposites––a powerful organizing tool, common to nearly all early childhood classifying;
  • rhyme and rhythm––potent tools for aiding memory and for establishing emotional meaning and interest;
  • jokes and humor––certain jokes can help make language “visible” and greatly aid awareness and control of language;

and some others.

Those cognitive tools are most prominently used by children between the ages of 3 through 8. We suggest an age range because different children in different circumstances differ in (a) the time it takes, (b) the degree of fluency, and (c) the control they develop in using these tools.

A further toolkit used in later history teaching

The above set of cognitive tools does not go away with further intellectual development, but they are changed in sometimes subtle ways, as we will explore. (You can read, if you have nothing better to do, an extensive discussion of this process in the book described here.) Every teacher knows that the range of attainment in any class during these years is quite wide. While we’ve listed a small age range, keep in mind that the tools themselves allow some latitude for their applicability, as you’ll see. We will give frequent examples of how the following tools can be easily used in teaching history:

  • “the redefinition of reality” (Bruner, 1988, p. 205*)––in which students’ interest in content shifts in subtle and important ways;
  • engagement by the limits of reality and the extremes of experience––students develop a fascination with the exotic and extreme, as, for example, in the Guinness Website of World Records;
  • associations with the heroic––gives confidence and enables students to take on in some degree the qualities of the heroes with whom they associate;
  • seeing knowledge in terms of human qualities–– recognize that all knowledge is human knowledge, and a product of someone’s hopes, fears, passions, or ingenuity, and so make the world opened by historical understanding more richly meaningful;
  • collecting things or a developing a hobby––the urge to grasp securely some feature of reality can stimulate many history teaching activities;
  • the sense of wonder––can capture the imagination in the worlds, both real and fictional, that literacy opens up;
  • and some others.

     (* Bruner, Jerome.  (1988).  Discussion.  Yale Journal of Criticism, 2(1).)

The tools above apply primarily to children from about the ages of 8 to 15 and often later—again, they don’t simply fade away, nor do the set described previously, but they become somewhat transformed as new tools are picked up.