The Weird, the Wonderful, and Emphatically Not the Everyday
Using WORLD RECORDS to Capture Children's Interest and Provide Intellectual and Emotional Context
If you parent or teach kids ages 8 to 15, you should know about Kieran Egan’s simple yet stunning ideas about using world records to reach them.
Kieran Egan is an educational philosopher and the author of The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding.
I. World Records Capture Student Interest
One of Egan’s key ideas is that children between the ages of 8 and 15 are hungry for what he calls “Romantic knowledge.” By providing appropriate instruction, teachers and parents can use this hunger to bring their instruction to a whole new level. Egan writes:
Students in early adolescence seem most readily engaged...by material such as that compiled in the Guinness Book of Records. That is, they are attracted not to reality in its everyday aspects, but rather to its extremes, to exotica and the bizarre.
The student's imaginative grappling with reality emphasizes who or what is the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the slowest, the fattest, the thinnest, the hairiest, etc. It is the mysterious, the strange, the weird, the wonderful, and emphatically not the everyday that engages the student's imagination.
Put simply, the extremes of the world are exactly what students at this
stage of cognitive development are naturally most interested in.
II. World Records Give Students Context for Knowledge and Self
Students love world records because the records form an outline of the world. As students learn, it is as though they are completing a jigsaw puzzle. Each bit of knowledge they acquire is a piece of the puzzle that needs to fit in somewhere. The world records are like the edge and corner pieces of a puzzle—they form the outline that all other knowledge fits within.
This is extremely intellectually satisfying to the young adolescent mind.
Moreover, world records are emotionally satisfying as well. Egan explains:
By discovering the real limits of the world and of human experience, we form a context that enables us to establish some security and to establish proportionate meaning within it. Knowing about the biggest and smallest...allows us, on the one hand, to wonder at their extreme sizes, but, on the other hand, to be reassured about our own scale. Once we have some sense of context, we can begin to develop some sense of proportionate meaning of things.
Helping kids develop “some sense of proportionate meaning,” arguably, is the ultimate goal of every teacher and parent.
III. World Records Are Easy to Integrate into Your Teaching
To Egan, the young adolescents’ interest in world records is undeniable. Their “interest in these features of reality is,” he writes, “so obvious.” So he was troubled that this type of learning wasn’t being used by educators to reach and teach students.
It is a little odd that the 8-to-15 year olds’ enjoyment of books, TV shows, and films that deal with the exotic and extreme has had so little impact on curriculum....”
This “little impact on curriculum” has been unfortunate. Happily, however, integrating world records into your teaching is remarkably easy.
World Records are the perfect bellringer or launchpad for discussion. For geography, ask, “What is the world’s longest river?” In government, ask, “What is world’s oldest government?” In history, ask, “What was the world’s oldest city?” In economics, ask, “What was the world’s first industry?” In cultural studies ask, “What is the world’s most diverse country?”
And so on. By asking questions like these, you immediately reach the parts your students that are already intellectually and emotionally hungry. By basing further instruction on world records, you will provide your students with a “sense of context” so that they may “begin to develop some sense of proportionate meaning of things.”
And isn’t that why we parent and teach?
Egan, Kieran. "Relevance and the Romantic Imagination." Canadian Journal of Education 16, no. 1 (1991): 58-73.
Online map of world records developed for teaching: