Tips For Imaginative Educators #18: Introduce General Theories & Anomalies

What does every theory have?  An anomaly.

What’s more, it’s the anomalous nature of theory that generates learning and deep understanding for the philosophic thinker.

(Are you new to the Tools of Imagination series? Get the whole set here. FYI: Tips #1-7 are fantastic with our youngest students, Tips #8-15 work very well for students from elementary through secondary.  Tips #16-18 are for our oldest, more theoretically engaged students).

Let me explain…

The tension between what a theory explains and what a theory doesn’t explain is a generative force in philosophic thinking. Indeed, it may be considered the fuel for philosophic thinking and inquiry. For those of our students who are able to make (some) sense of the world through abstract ideas, general theories or schemes give them answers—or meaning—for how the world works.

General theories help them to understand nature, society, history, human psychology—you name it. So you will want your teaching to introduce the general theories within your subject area if you hope to maximize philosophic engagement. But, as we know, no theory is perfect.

NO theory explains everything.

All theories face anomalies—there are always bits that don’t fit or aren’t adequately explained. Focus on those anomalies and you generate the power of philosophic engagement.

A Powerful Pair: General Theory & Anomalies

It is in the dynamic tension between a general theory and its anomaly(ies) that the intellectual work and imaginative engagement of philosophic thinking happens. Why? Because in order to “deal with” an anomaly, one must learn more about a topic. As we learn more our theory becomes more sophisticated or it falls apart. This is a powerful process within philosophic thinking; it’s an engine that runs throughout the learning process. Read more here.

A Few Examples

Here are some brief examples in which our philosophic tools come together—you’ll note here the influence of big ideas/abstract ideas (described in Tip #16) presented alongside the theory/anomaly tool being described now. In an engaging classroom many tools of imagination will come together within a story-shaped structure to tap into different aspects of students’ imaginations (See Tip #17).  We only “pull them apart” for teaching purposes–in an engaging context you’ll find many tools from this series actively employed. (You can find more examples on the IERG website here–once there, scroll down to see philosophic tools at work.)

Topic: Conflict Resolution     Subject Area: Psychology/History     By:  Dr. Kieran Egan      

Since (and before?) our Cro-Magnon ancestors overcame Neanderthals (or proved to have better survival skills) some forty thousand years ago, conflict seems inevitable for our species. When threatened, instincts drive us to fight, flee or freeze. Yet, logic dictates that human survival depends upon learning to resolve conflicts in ways other than fighting and vanquishing our perceived enemies. At every level of existence–personal, political and planetary–we feel the need to assert, express and protect ourselves, while we have the capacity to listen, think and learn to make peace. How are the competing forces of instinct and logic at work in our lives? How can we learn to think through conflict?

An alternative general theory: How important and responsible are leaders for keeping the peace? What are various styles, models, and methods of handling conflict for effective leadership?

OR If Cro-Magnon wiped out Neanderthals as a result of fighting, why did it not happen earlier? Why is it that we find settlements of both close to each other? Are there other ways to account for the extinction of Neanderthals that have nothing to do with conflict?

Topic:  Mosses     Subject Area:  Biology     By:  Yvan Zebroff

Download a detailed example of teaching for philosophic engagement here (Thank you Yvan Zebroff):

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Final Thoughts

It’s important to be sensitive to the power of ideas for adolescents. Indeed, the lure of theory we have spoken of before can have a profound impact on our students’ sense of self, their behavior, their sense of purpose. As educators we need to be sensitive to the profound ways our teaching can impact their emotional well-being.

How do you support your students in coming to terms with challenges to the theories they think with? Keep this in mind for your next lesson.  Be sure, too, to employ other tools in our Tools of Imagination series–they are all tools for making any knowledge in the curriculum more meaningful and memorable to students.  imaginED!

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