Look Out! A Spontaneous Eruption Of Cognitive Tools!

By Dr. Tim Waddington



You are not going to make it all the way through to the end of this blog, guaranteed!

Anyone with even limited teaching experience will attest that the following scenario is true, … can feel true, … has the unsolicited air of ‘truthiness’ lurking about it.

Every teacher, even the great ones like yourself, has had one of those days when they desolately trudge up the stairs to the third floor hallway much like a prisoner in the middle parts of Spartacus, fighting through the mob of stairway loiterers, doorway sitters, and early eager beavers with their expectant and hopeful noses pressed against the unresponsive classroom door.

Entering classroom C-three-zero-whatever, you attempt to balance a stack of photocopies, three late assignments retrieved from the office mailbox, and a suddenly-realized too-full cup of coffee, all this while also trying to get the key out of the perplexingly belligerent lock and actively wishing for that summer vacation on the still-too-distant horizon, … either that or at least a second right hand.

Realizing that the newfound coffee stain is slowly colonizing the right side of your pant leg, and throwing out the top few photocopies with quiet disgust, you glance into your daybook to see the afternoon’s lesson: The 1838 Rebellions of Upper Canada, or as you derisively scribbled it underneath, “The day that Canadian parliamentary democracy got the trots.


The specifics of such a story will vary, of course, but we can more or less assume as universal the absurdity it offers. Teach the same courses in the same school with the same colleagues to the same kind of kids for a few years, and it’s pretty easy to realize your own manifestation of Sisyphus-nature. We’ve all endured it, that seemingly endless cycle of obviously pointless labour, giving the same lessons, in the same order, semester after semester in batches of twenty-four to thirty.

My advice? Don’t blame yourselves. Just admit it to yourself that the potential is there. You’ll feel better soon enough. Acceptance is freedom.

One of the first principles of Imaginative Education is this: if you cannot locate the emotionally zesty bits in what you are teaching, if you fail to find those morsels and keep them juicy and crisp, the curriculum and pedagogy you derive is likely to be unproductive, without purpose and yes, boring to learners. The “Imaginative” in Imaginative Education reflects the idea that where intellect and emotion come together in learning, we are likely to discover high levels of engagement and noticeable gains in both motivation and positive student outcomes.

This is where the cognitive tools come in: the cognitive tools are the interface – the zesty, juicy, crisp and productive mediational points – where students and the world come together, one hopes, in intellectually rich and emotionally satisfying ways. Jokes, stories, gossip, a sense of wonder, extremes and limits, heroic qualities, an appeal to general concepts, and a solid, well-timed ironic eyebrow all play their part in discovering the patently human kinds of understanding which reside behind all that ‘curriculum stuff’ we want students to know and do.

“All so well and good,” you might say. “Imaginative Education is terrific, I freely grant. But Aha! The joke’s on you! I’m still reading, onto the second page no less!”

Well please, dear Friend and Reader, allow me to retort! I warned you at the beginning of this post that you were not going to be able to reach its end, and I meant it. Now, I will even go so far as to tell you it’s a manifest impossibility!

Entering the scene: my good friend Xeno, an ancient Greek so puzzlingly fascinating that his name has been used to derive both ‘stranger’ and ‘guest’ in the modern English language. Xeno, as you might recall, made two very interesting observations, which weren’t particularly interesting at all, really, until he said them together.

OBSERVATION #1 – Any unit of length, physical or temporal, is on principle divisible into two equal halves.

OBSERVATON #2 – Before we can possibly traverse any distance of length, physical or temporal, we must on principle first complete one half of that distance.

This is good comedy … HAAAA-LAR-IIIII-OUSSS actually! At least it was hilarious until the day I made my young son cry in the car by promising that I’d try to pick him up after soccer practice but then explained why I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it back for him…ever.

(He’s had his own private form of Xenophobia ever since.)


Watch out! Cognitive Tools are literally everywhere! They spontaneously burst forward onto the scene, erupting from topics large and small, even Canadian history of the pre-Confederation period. For “reals” now, just stop and think about how many cognitive tools are either openly stated or otherwise implicit in Xeno’s well-worn paradox. How many of Imaginative Education’s Kinds of Understanding can we experience in that short space of text? I count four, though I know my son gets all five! (Here is a previous post in which I briefly describe the 5 kinds of understandings in Imaginative Education.)

The key for stimulating imaginative engagement is to remain open to the possibility afforded by cognitive tools, to spot them when they present themselves for use, and in the thick Scottish brogue of the exceedingly short-lived President of the Republic of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie, scream to the majestic forests and rivers of a once proud neophytic nation, “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography!”

Still reading? ….Still reading? ….I believe in you.

Your career, I earnestly hope, will be a long one, filled with successes and wonderful memories. In fact, according to Xeno, there is the very real possibility it’s going to last for-ever, so you might at least make it interesting and emotionally satisfying, both for yourself and those who look towards you for intellectual and moral guidance.

Now stop reading blogs.

That stack of marking sitting on your kitchen table isn’t going to finish itself.


Also by Dr. Tim Waddington

Was Literacy Just A Phase?

Aristotle And A Leather Jacket:  An Example Of Concept-Centered Teaching


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6 thoughts on “Look Out! A Spontaneous Eruption Of Cognitive Tools!

  1. Ha! Mr. Waddington, I will follow you to the end of a blog … or the nearest facsimile of the end of a blog … any day. As always, entertaining, encouraging, and educational.

    1. We aim to please, Caitlyn! I hope people in IE uni-student-verse know what a legend you are for unique, truly imaginative pedagogy. Thanks for the feedback. 🙂

  2. This is one of the best introductions to IE I’ve seen — and it’s taken me two re-readings to figure out why!

    OH MY GOSH WE CAN PRESENT IMAGINATIVE EDUCATION IRONICALLY. How entirely appropriate! I think I’ve been stuck on “epic” in my expositions.

    Which then opens us up to be cutting, in a way that’s entirely appropriate (and which lands more softly, since it’s coated in irony) — “if you cannot locate the emotionally zesty bits in what you are teaching… the curriculum and pedagogy you derive is likely to be unproductive, without purpose and yes, boring to learners.” Brilliant.

    More! More!

  3. Hi Brandon. Ta for the compliments.

    Aahh irony…its guns do indeed fire in all directions.

    Another idea shamelessly pilfered from the works of one Kieran Egan.

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