Foundations of IST

Three foundations of this approach

 

num1A part of the novelty of this approach is that it draws on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and extends his “cognitive tools” for use in daily science teaching. What are “cognitive tools”? The short answer is that they are features of our minds that shape the ways we make sense of the world around us; the richer the cognitive toolkit we accumulate, the better the sense we make. The particular tools we pick up influence our interpretations of the world around us, just as lenses influence what our eyes see. The lenses or cognitive tools “mediate” how we can see and make sense of things. If we want to understand how and what we can learn, then, we should focus our attention on those cognitive tools. Our educational challenge is how to stimulate, use, and develop these tools to enhance students’ understanding of science—and that’s what this website aims to show you how to do. Vygotsky’s work suggests a new approach to teaching science because of his fundamentally different way of describing how human beings develop intellectually.

Another foundation for this approach involves studies of thinking in traditional oral cultures. This might seem a second rather unusual place to look to for help with everyday science teaching today, but we will explore what this seemingly indirect route to scientific understanding has to offer. But teachers can get a better grasp on how to help people learn science by understanding the tools that underlie it and from which scientific  thinking emerged historically and how it can emerge in children today. Clearly children in the West who come to our science classes cannot be considered in any simple sense like people who live in oral cultures.  For one thing, the environment of the modern young child in the West is full of scientific influences.  But despite this, many of the “cognitive tools” we find in oral cultures, such as images, stories, binary oppositions and pattern formation, help us to understand how science instruction might be made more imaginatively engaging to students.  Even very briefly exploring some of the cognitive tools used in oral cultures for understanding their environments and making sense of their physical world will yield a number of practical techniques.

The third foundation is the work of the Imaginative Education Research Group. This group came into formation with the beginning of the 21st century, and has quickly developed an international reputation for its innovative, practical, and successful programs. Their focus has been to show how the emotions and imagination of learners have to be engaged for learning to be effective and efficient, and they have shown great versatility in designing techniques and methods for enabling teachers to routinely engage students in these richly evocative ways. This program in imaginative science teaching is the newest of their initiatives. You can find further material, and many more examples of lesson and units plans, at http://www.ierg.net. This third foundation is described in detail in Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding (University of Chicago Press) .

The cognitive toolkits of scientific understanding

So 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. 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 set of  “cognitive tools,” or “tools of imaginative engagement” (Mark Fettes’s useful descriptor), in the rest of this site, and particularly in the Teacher Resources section.

The early toolkit used in first learning science 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 science; and, second, those that come along with later intellectual developments. Teachers can get a better grasp on how to help people learn science 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 science 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 science instruction

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 science:

• “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 scientific understanding more richly meaningful;

• collecting things or a developing a hobby––the urge to grasp securely some feature of reality can stimulate many scientific 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, but become somewhat transformed as new tools are picked up.