What If Myths, Metaphors and Riddles Are the Key to Reshaping K-12 Education?

Schools need to tap into the same sense of wonder that led early humans to seek unifying stories to explain their place in the world — and teachers need to do more to incorporate myths, jokes and riddles into curriculum and teaching practices, from the earliest grades up through high school.

That’s the argument of Kieran Egan, a Canadian philosopher and longtime professor at Simon Fraser University who passed away in 2022. The scholar’s ideas are suddenly having a moment in tech and innovation circles, thanks to a blog post on a website popular among Silicon Valley insiders.

The blog, Astral Codex Ten, has been described by The New York Times as “a window into the psyche of many tech leaders building our collective future.” Every year ACX, as the blog is often called, hosts a book review contest, and the latest winner summarizes Egan’s 1997 book, “The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding.”

The argument in Egan’s book is hard to summarize, but the thrust is that the way schools teach has become too disconnected from the way young people are wired to learn.

And that appealed to Brandon Hendrickson, who stumbled across Egan’s work while doing a master’s program in education at the University of Washington. Since then he’s been digging into the scholar’s work, and he now pens a newsletter on substack called The Lost Tools of Learning espousing the philosopher’s teachings. And he spent months writing his review of Egan’s book — a hefty summary that clocks in at more than 23,000 words.

“For the last few decades, educational reform has been coasting on these outdated ideas about human nature, about human psychology and human society,” says Hendrickson. “You can’t have a culture without having metaphors. You can’t have a culture without having songs and dances and rituals. And in order to bind together as a group of people, you need to have these things … they’re the big gears that turn the wheels of the human mind.”

Hendrickson argues, citing Egan’s theory, that teachers should do more to shape the material they teach the way bards once spread Homeric myths (and the way that Hollywood screenwriters keep stories lively). The idea is that material sticks best when students can see it as part of larger narratives, such as of humans trying to overcome obstacles to survive.

“What he suggests … is that we look at how myths operate as narratives — so we can design an intellectually vivid history curriculum,” Hendrickson writes in his blog post. “And myths really are special: each is built on at least one binary (like weak vs. strong, or lies vs. truth, or so on), and uses that to tell the story of the big picture of the world. They’re so powerful that people can understand it, remember it, and love it — even if that thing never happened.”

To some, that may sound like a call for edutainment, or more style than substance in education.

For Hendrickson, though, the theory gets at a key flaw of education today — that surveys show students don’t feel that what they’re learning in school matters.

“It’s like there’s a button in our head that is the ‘mattering button,’” he says. “If we think the lesson matters, then the lesson itself doesn’t need to be that great — we will work to understand it. So much of educational reform, especially the cognitive science and education movement that I really adore, ignores the primacy of mattering. In the end, the student has to find something meaningful to them.”

Some commenters on Hendrickson’s book review pointed out that plenty of teachers already work to playfully connect with their students to get them to focus on lessons.

But Hendrickson argues that the reason his blog post is getting so much attention is that “there is a desire, especially among people in Silicon Valley who have kids, there’s this desperate need to help our kids experience the joy of wrestling with ideas and of finding the experience of the world to be terribly interesting.” And he and others worry that that doesn’t happen enough in today’s schools.

EdSurge connected with Hendrickon to hear more about what he’s learned from Egan’s ideas, and how a school in Oregon tried to put them into practice.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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