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Unleash The Power Of Curriculum with Cognitive Tools

Posted by on in Student Engagement
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Curriculum has latent power. It contains possibilities of all kinds, including possibilities for engagement, empowerment, joy, inquiry, and  transformation in learning. Our challenge as teachers is to enable these possibilities for our students, to activate a process that leaves our students feeling knowledgeable, capable, and inspired.

Are you using the best teaching tools to unleash the power of your curriculum? 

No matter their age, our students come to us with active emotional and imaginative lives. They all frequently and routinely think about the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations.

For example, they universally enjoy stories or narratives of all kinds. They all enjoy jokes and humour. They all identify patterns in the world around them. Many are fascinated by extremes of experience and limits of reality--the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records. Many associate with heroes and even idolize people, ideas, or institutions. Many start collecting things and obsess over hobbies. Words cause images to arise in all of their minds. They all enjoy a good mystery and can be left awestruck by unanswered questions or strange events. Our older students may enjoy abstract ideas and theories that represent them. Some seek ways to enact change in their environments. I could go on and on; our students' emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways.

These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are actually ways of thinking that help human beings learn. In Imaginative Education we call these features of our imaginative and emotional lives "cognitive tools"--they are emotional and imaginative ways human beings make meaning in the world. They are also the best tools available for unleashing the latent power in your curriculum.

3 reasons why cognitive tools unleash the power of curricula

#1 Cognitive tools improve memory & stimulate meaning.

In other words, using a cognitive tool to teach something makes it easier for your students to remember the topic. Ted Hughes once called cognitive tools "little factories of understanding"--this is a great metaphor for describing what cognitive tools do for our minds.  Using cognitive tools in your teaching--the story-form, humanization of meaning, jokes & humour, collections & hobbies and more--will have a profound impact on students; they will leave students  feeling an emotional connection of some kind with the content. The curriculum content within students' minds is now tied up with the generative what if feature of the imagination.

For example, if you embed the learning of a mathematical theorem within a conversation that evokes a great controversy around that idea (Revolt and Idealism tool) or within the context of the mathematician struggling to propose a new idea (Humanization of Meaning tool) or within a vivid image of how that theorem works or was discovered (Mental Imagery Evoked From Words tool) then you tie up emotion and imagination with the theorem itself. (See many more examples of cognitive tools applied to subject matter in the Tools of Imagination series or within various lesson and unit plans on the Imaginative Education Research Group website. Or check out this instruction table of cognitive tools.)

The great thing about cognitive tools, too, is that all of your students are already using them to make sense of the world. Rather than teaching students to use them, your job is to engage these already-active features of their minds.

#2 Cognitive tools ignite YOUR passion.

Successful teaching requires an engaged teacher as much as an engaged student. Cognitive tools will ignite your passion for learning as much as your students. Take a few minutes and see what I mean. Simply pick a cognitive tool from those listed in the Tools of Imagination Series. Read what the tool is about and see how you might use it to teach something in your curriculum. Sure, you might need to think differently about your topic (e.g. see Tip #8 Seek Heroic Qualities or Tip #2 Find A Source of Dramatic Tension), but that's where you can spark your own curiosity. Cognitive tools engage your passion. They set the stage for you to engage your students.

#3 Cognitive tools power critical, creative, & collaborative thinking.

The goals of schools are varied and have always been contested--you prioritize initiatives differently depending on your view of the purpose of education. But few would disagree with the need to educate students to be good thinkers. That is to say, to have the critical, creative and collaborative thinking skills required to navigate a high-tech, multi-cultural and multi-modal world. At the end of the day, good thinking--the kinds of skills we describe as "21st century skills"--all require rich and flexible use of cognitive tools. The more we tie up knowledge of all kinds with the features of the human imagination, the more we support the ability for our students to think well.

Final Thoughts

The meaning of "curriculum" is changing. For many years it was simply the content--the stuff--to get through in a course of study. Thankfully, few people still hold this parochial view. Educators understand the complexity of the teaching-learning process, the complexity of "curriculum". They understand that covering topics over the course of a school year is not as important for the overall intellectual well-being of the child as uncovering relationships of all kinds--relationships between topics (all knowledge is connected), relationships between students and knowledge (enabling curiosity, inquiry, feelings of autonomy), relationships between students (the power of collaboration and mentorship in learning) etc. They understand that curriculum is a fascinating network of processes and possibilities.

If you want to unleash the power of your curriculum the best way to do so is to equip your cognitive toolkit. A cognitive tools approach to teaching is an easy and effective way to unleash the latent power of curriculum--to engage, enable, and inspire students.  Learn more at imaginED.

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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Guest Monday, 15 July 2019