Cognitive tools in Philosophic understanding


We analyzed an experimental assignment taking into account the framework proposed by Kieran Egan.
As teachers, we are interested in relating the theory to the practice in class because we think that theory allows us to think about our teaching process and, of course, about the specific learning process. .

About cognitive tools

Cognitive tools allow us to develop different kinds of understanding.
Cognitive tools are mediation tools from the vigotskian point of view. When there is an appropriation of a tool we call it “cognitive”.

The cognitive tools in philosophic understanding (Egan, 1997) are:

  • sense of abstract reality. This tool lets us give sense to the outside world in terms of abstract ideas.
    the grasp of general ideas and their anomalies. This tool lets us form abstract ideas on nature, society and history, and then identify their weaknesses (insufficiency) and rebuild them into more complex ideas.

  • Other cognitive tools pertaining to philosophic understanding are the sense of agency, the search for authority and truth and the meta-narrative understanding. In this work, we will focus on the first two mentioned tools. In this work we are interested in the two first mentioned tools. In next works we will refer to the others.

Short description of the class experience.

Our case

Where: the class and the practical work took place in the lab of the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, where I am teacher.
The topic: Simple harmonic motion, focusing on the elastic pendulum, simple pendulum and the physical pendulum systems.
Instructional sequence:The simple harmonic motion (SHM) model was explained in class. Then, demonstrations allowed the teacher to present the mathematical model of the SHM. We used an elastic pendulum (spring) and a simple pendulum systems.
Our students: 16-year-old students, in groups.

Why do we want to teach the topic simple harmonic motion(SHM)?

  • Because there are many situations in which we may find a motion of this type. Or, in other words, there are many motions in nature which can be described through this model. In a simple harmonic motion, the restoring force is directly proportional to displacement with respect to the equilibrium position.

  • Because this model is more complicated that the models students saw in the previous studies. Therefore they can build more complicated models.

  • Because it is a starting point for the topic WAVES, one of the most interesting topics in Physics. (We will develop soon some of the interesting topics related to Waves: Music, Resonance, …)


    Students went to the lab to perform their traditional experimental work. They had a guide to study the relationship between the amplitude, the mass and the length with the period.
    But then they found a “new” system: the Physical pendulum. A strange body had a movement.
    And students had to think about it. They were asked to think about the new system, to think about their motion.
    Could they affirm that this system had a SHM? Why?

    And their answers:

    Finally: I had the surprise.

    Most of the students found it difficult to apply the concept of simple harmonic motion to a system not deeply studied in class, such as the physical pendulum.
    Students did not consider that the model of simple harmonic motion was related to the direct proportion between the force (or torque) and the displacement, even though it was discussed.
    They thought that the important point for the model was the negligible mass. Is it possible to build the model only if the mass is punctual?

    Besides they thought that the physical pendulum didn’t have a SHM because the energy wasn’t conserved. This point wasn’t a limitation to the model. In that case the motion is harmonic but also damped.

    That is, the limitation of the model is not related to the energy conservation but to the hypothesis of direct proportion mentioned before.

    We don’t know, at this step of our analysis, if the students’ confusion is due to a problem of acquiring the two cognitive tools mentioned or to a didactic problem. We consider it is necessary to clarify the differences among hypotheses in class. This clarification would probably facilitate the discussion on the acquisition of cognitive tools studied in this work.

    However, we believe that, in spite of the difficulties encountered in the acquisition of cognitive tools during Physics learning processes, it was possible to start thinking about the importance of taking into account the differences in the formulated hypotheses when we teach these topics.

    I would like to thank the assistant teachers of practical lessons of the Physics Department of Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (CNBA) [Buenos Aires National High School] and especially to Andrea Povis, Carlos Elizalde y Mariela Josebachuili for their help to discuss these ideas, and the analysis of the educational experience, as well as their enthusiastic work with their students. In addition, I would like to thank Gabriela Schenoni, UTN [National Technological University] professor for their useful comments about the article in Spanish.
    Besides, thank Ignacio , my brother, for their comments about the complete article in English.

    It is possible to find more information about cognitive tools and kind of understanding in “The educated mind” (Kieran Egan, 1997) and in the following web sites depending on the IERG.(International education research group)