The Educated Mind

The Educated Mind

In his book on How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, Kieran Egan argued that the focus of education should shift from the acquisition of knowledge to the development of understanding.

He identified 5 types of understanding:

  1. Somatic – our relationship with our immediate environment
  2. Mythic – stories of the infinite
  3. Romantic – the extremes of reality
  4. Philosophic – the general principles underlying reality
  5. Ironic – the ability to critique and reimagine schema

Egan believed that these 5 types of understanding developed in human societies over centuries as new tools were created.

  • Mythic understanding developed with oral language
  • Romantic understanding developed with written language
  • Philosophic understanding developed with academic faculties and institutions
  • Ironic understanding developed with people taking a “Socratic” stance

We have all generally assumed that education is fundamentally about three things:

  1. Socialisation – helping young people to fit well in society (happy, successful, productive, good citizens etc)
  2. Truth – helping young people to understand what is true and real (a focus Egan credits Plato with defining)
  3. Nature – helping young people to develop their full potential (a focus Egan credits Rousseau with defining)

Schools generally try to hold these 3 ideas in tension, but there are incompatibilities which will always prevent a happy equilibrium from being reached. So Egan proposes an alternative which can retain useful elements of all 3 without being constrained by them, namely:

The purpose of education is to help each child to recapitulate the process
of progressive development of the 5 different kinds of understanding for themselves.

Whatever we may think of Egan’s specific proposal, his book highlights a number of significant general points:

  • We rarely reconsider the over-arching purpose of education and we should
  • We do not necessarily need to change the content of our curricula, but we can change the way we present that content
  • The tools that we use – especially linguistic tools – profoundly change our understanding of that content
  • As teachers we need to actively encourage multiple approaches to that same content in order to broaden our students’ understanding and not just to extend their knowledge

Egan summarises Vygotsky’s view that “we make sense of the world by use of mediating intellectual tools that in turn profoundly influence the kind of sense we make … The process of intellectual development, then, is to be recognised in the individual’s degree of mastery of tools and of sign systems such as language … ‘The system of signs restructures the whole psychological process’ … So the set of sign systems one internalises … will significantly inform the kind of understanding of the world that one can construct.” Egan thus encourages us to learn other languages “not to achieve fluency but simply to get some insight into how a very different language delivers a representation of the world.”