Cognitive Tools Theory (Egan)

Summary: There exist five kinds of understanding (or cognitive tools) that individuals usually master in a particular order during the course of their development; these have important educational implications.

Originator: Kieran Egan, a Professor at Simon Fraser University, proposed his theory of cognitive tools as part of a sustained program of writing and research on the role of imagination in learning, teaching, and curriculum.

Keywords: Cognitive, Stages, Imagination, Ironic, Literacy, Memes

Cognitive Tools Theory (Egan)

Canadian curriculum theorist Kieran Egan (1997) offered a theory of cognitive tools as a possible replacement for several dominant theories of learning widely applied to education, including Piaget’s theory of cognitive stages, Dewey’s theories about the nature and goals of education, and applications of evolutionary theory applied to cognitive development and learning[1]. Egan proposed that there exist five kinds of understanding (or cognitive tools) that individuals usually master in a particular order during the course of their development that reflect psychological, epistemological, and cultural factors. The first four cognitive tools that Egan proposes (Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, and Philosophical) mirror the characteristics and timing of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development (sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, formal operational). In addition, Egan proposes a fifth tool, Ironic understanding. However, it is not a matter of the brain’s characteristics unfolding in a fixed sequence with new capacities emerging in a biologically driven sequence and timing. What Egan proposes is that various human inventions—cognitive tools—were developed over history and that these effectively can be introduced to children once they reach a particularly level of biological maturation. However, these tools compete, as it were, for access to children at different stages of their development. Civilization has developed in concert with the training of youth in these cognitive tools over time. Later elements of the civilization software, as it were, depend on the prior installation and practice with the earlier elements (see Carson, 1998[2]). Teachers, then, effectively play the role of ensuring that the new modes of understanding are introduced at the right points and only after there has been sufficient practice with the earlier cognitive tools.

  1. The first kind of understanding is Somatic, from birth till about age 2. The main goal is the mastery of mimetic (copying) activities. The main characteristics involve mastery of physical activities and a non-verbal appreciation of the world.
  2. The second kind of understanding is Mythic, from about ages 3-7. The main goal is the mastery of oral language. The main characteristics involve binary opposites in thinking, metaphors, and stereotypes, including socialization into the culture’s myths and taboos, and gaining a shared sense of right and wrong.
  3. The third kind of understanding is Romantic, from about ages 8-14. The main goal is the mastery of literacy. The main characteristics involve acquisition of conventional skills involving getting along, writing and literacy, and to gain an appreciation for finer gradations in perception and thinking (not just the binary opposites of Mythic understanding). There is also a concern with the limits and extremes of human potential.
  4. The fourth kind of understanding is Philosophical, from about ages 15-20. The main goal is the mastery of theoretic abstractions. The main characteristics involve a concern with the theories of the world and one’s position in the world, including its theories. All the facts that the individual had been accruing through Romantic understanding now become sorted and organized into various preferred theories. One develops an ability to both support a theory with the addition of relevant facts as well as to ignore or dismiss facts that may appear inconsistent with that preferred theory.
  5. The fifth kind of understanding is Ironic, from about age 21+. The main goal is the mastery of refined reflexiveness. The main characteristics involve skepticism about the various theories (typical of Romantic understanding), or skepticism about the features and interpretation of facts or stories about human potential (characteristic of Romantic understanding), and so on. Such skepticism can range in how extreme it becomes (from scathing caustic satire on one extreme, to gently skeptical questioning and kind or even silly humor on the other).

Egan’s theory has important implications for learning and education. First, one might argue against the current trend to push literacy education into ages traditionally associated with Mythical understanding, because this may negatively affect the ability of those children and the adults that they subsequently become to exercise their imaginations. Second, one might argue in favor of current trends to emphasize skills-oriented education at the elementary level (including heavy emphasis on reading and math skills); when Egan published the theory, this was a popular idea only among educational conservatives. Third, one might argue for greater emphasis in secondary education for more rigorous instruction in logic, rational thinking, and theory testing. This is consistent with the current emphases on STEM education. Fourth, one might argue for greater emphasis on skeptical thinking of all sorts in post-secondary education. This might run counter to some of the emphasis in college programs that may focus too exclusively on vocational preparation (except for comedians; Egan might well approve of such courses at the college level).


  1. Egan, K. (1997). The Educated Mind: How Cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Carson, A. D. (1998).  Review of the book The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. McGill Journal of Education, 33(1), 106-109.