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May 9, 2011


“It’s not about the tool” – a naïve myth.

by Peter Skillen

“It’s not about the tool – it’s about the learning.” – a naïve myth.

I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe they arise from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the ‘subject-matter’ at hand.

However, it is dangerous, in my opinion, to say that it is not about the tools. It is more about the tools than many of us might regularly think.

I appreciate that Dean Shareski, @shareski , has written about this issue as well.

Sometimes, one feels very alone having these thoughts – and it is a risk putting them out there whenever the predominant culture – especially, forgive me, Twitter culture is cascading and retweeting these one-line ‘wisdoms’ such as the one that starts this post. (In fact, it is bizarre that Dean used almost the same language as I did in his post. “I understand…” and “It is dangerous”. I started this post without any previous conversation with Dean about this issue.)

There are two main points to be made here.

Media with which to think

Firstly, Salomon suggested that computers can be ‘cognitive partners’ – that they can be leveraged like ‘power tools for the mind’ in the same way that traditional power tools extend our physical capabilities.

The modification of this stance which fascinates me is not just the quantitative amplification of the ‘tool’, but the ‘qualitative’.

Computers are not mere tools but are media with which to think.

For many years I have suggested that computers are not mere tools but are media with which to think. They can provide mental models that are transferable within, and across, domains. In, Deep Understanding – the Issue of Transfer, I outline some practical suggestions of this. Again, Gavriel Salomon’s work on the ‘effects with’ versus the ‘effects of’ technology influenced me greatly.

‘Effects with’ are the changes that take place while one is engaged in intellectual partnership with peers or with a computer tool, as, for example, is the case with the changed quality of problem solving that takes place when individuals work together in a team. On the other hand, ‘effects of’ are those more lasting changes that take place as a consequence of the intellectual partnership, as when computer-enhanced collaboration teaches students to ask more exact and explicit questions even when not using that system.

See also Scaffolding for Deep Understanding.

Tools shape behaviours, cognition & societal structures

Secondly, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.

This is evidenced in many domains of life and is showing up in a lot of the literature in recent years – in fact, for centuries.

In The Drip Effects of Technology I described what Gavriel Salomon said regarding the first- and second-order effects of technologies – “it is quite likely that in the long run education will be affected by the unintended, drip-like effects of computing, particularly the Internet and computer mediated communication“. (Montreal, June 28, 2000)

John Brockman at Digital Life Design 2009. Fre...

CC Attribution ShareAlike via Wikipedia

Anthony Aguirre, in The Enemy of Insight, suggests that “information input from the Internet is simply too fast, leaving little mental space or time to process that information, fit it into existing schema, and think through the implications”. (From Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman)

Max Tegmark says in The Cat is out of the Bag, “Important issues fade from focus fast, and while many of humanity’s challenges get more complicated, society’s ability to pay attention to complex arguments dwindles. Sound bites and attack ads work well when the world has attention deficit disorder.” (From Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman)

In Blue dye plus water? Or blue water?, I briefly recounted Derrick de Kerckhove’s analysis of what happens to society when new media are invented. (I repeat here.) In The Skin of Culture he says, “The addition of a drop of blue dye to a glass of water results not in blue dye plus water, but in blue water: a new reality.” De Kerckhove indicates that McLuhan (his mentor) and others pointed out that “the inculcation of the habit of literacy results not in a pre-literate world plus readers, but in a literate world: a new world in which everything is seen through the eyes of literacy”.

When will we see that we have successfully integrated Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) into the lives of students? It seems to me that this will be achieved when we see them not simply using ICT as ‘tools’, but rather when we see students thinking differently as a result of their ubiquitous presence and facility. The invention of words, and subsequently the printing press, resulted in a new literacy because people now had words with which to think and to communicate. ‘Blue water’ with respect to ICT means that people must sufficiently appropriate these technologies in order that they become ‘media with which to think and to communicate’.

‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’ is history, but history repeats itself

So although we are outside of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”, we are perhaps into another era where there are many parallels. Technologies are not simply tools.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 10 2011

    Thanks Peter for expanding this conversation and backing it with some great perspectives.

    • May 10 2011

      Another funny note I discovered after I posted this. My good friend and colleague at the YMCA of Greater Toronto was taught my Marshall McLuhan back in the 60s.

      Dean, have you ever read any of Gavriel Salomon’s work? I think you’d really appreciate it. Wish he were still more active in the K-12 education sphere. He is mostly involved with peace studies and movement in Israel these days.

      • Jul 17 2011

        Hi Peter,
        I’m a little late to your post here but, once again, you share some great thoughts on the impact of technology.

        I would agree that tools do indeed shape cognition and behaviours and indeed you and I have had some conversations about pros and cons of Twitter!

        In what way are we shaped by it? I must say that in my pre-twitter days I had limited access to what my PLN had to share…whether that be positive or negative. I now probably have to think more critically than ever about what and how information is getting posted, but also about when it’s helpful for me and when it’s a distraction to whatever I’m working on. Would I give it up entirely — probably not.

        I guess the phone, the web and the television shape me in the same way…but I need to also be actively shaping them to suit me as well. 🙂

  2. Stephen Ransom
    Jul 21 2011

    Great post, Peter. David Jonassen also writes a great deal about “mindtools” tools that we work with in intellectual partnership, much along the same line of thinking as Salomon.

    One problem is that many struggle to use/see new tools in this way, as they still use them for rather low level tasks, including information delivery (learning from, not with). The same argument has gone on with the use of calculators in schools. They can be used to take cognitive shortcuts or they can be used as problem solving tools and free up the mind from focusing on rather low level tasks while allowing the bulk of cognitive processing to focus on the bigger problem at hand. Many folks have not really experienced the power of learning WITH new computer-mediated tools… or at least don’t recognize that this is indeed what they have done.

    Even in higher ed, we’re so good at teaching about things like constructivism and constructionism by a really meaty slide deck that relegates students to copious note takers… and this is how students perceive the usefulness and power of technologies in learning. We cling to the magic of interactive whiteboards and Khan Academy-type solutions to learning… still stuck in the information delivery mode and keeping the notion of learning FROM technologies at the forefront.

    I think this is largely part of what drives the “It’s not about the tool – it’s about the learning.” mindset.

  3. Jul 25 2011

    Thanks Stephen – for your thoughtful reply.

    I haven’t read David Jonassen’s work in recent years. I need to revisit that! ALso, I see he is a mountaineer. Something else in common! Sweeet!

    It amazes me that this mindset is so difficult to shift. Is it so entrenched that we can’t shift it? I think so. Even when people do share the cognitive load with computers, or with others, it is so difficult for them to transfer it to classroom practice.

    Still optimistic after all these years. On the good days, at least.

    Maybe I should go back to the mountains for a bit. 🙂

    I should drive (ride!) down there sometime and we could have some conversations with your students about this. I am sure you have done it. What do they say?

  4. Jul 25 2011

    They struggle just as much with this concept, as their experience is largely computers a information access and deliver tools. Constructivist/constructionist learning contexts in general are but a theory in some book chapter for the most part, too. One thing that they all seem to recognize is that they are learning largely by passively sitting and listening… and there is always a desire for more active and meaningful learning contexts. However, for some, in the face of these new learning contexts, they initially perceive them as “a lot more work”, as they have been conditioned to just sit back and soak it all in. The transition can be a hard sell for some who have become intellectually lazy.

    Perhaps you can work some of that Skillen magic on them…

  5. Jul 25 2011

    Well, it’s a conundrum. I DO believe that sitting and listening can be active – in the sense that I love to learn that way too – depending on a whole pile of factors – mood, novelty of material, expertise with domain, engagement of the presenter, materials the presenter is demonstrating, etc.

    However, I can also ‘zoom out’ and analyze for myself the various styles and scenarios.

    I agree with the students that they are a lot more work.

    So, here’s a story.

    I had one student who said to me, “Peter, enough already with the project based learning stuff. I just need this credit. I am not particularly interested in the course. Just need the credit. Give me a textbook. Give me soem assignments and some tests and an exam if you need to. But no projects. I am going to be a plumber. I am in an apprentice program and in three years I’ll be making more money that you!”

    I laughed. Swallowed. Paused. I knew the course (by government standards) did not require projects. I kept my ego at bay. And, I realized that he was entitled to do it his way. And so, he did it that way and the rest of the class went along with the projects.

    Differentiation. Respect. He was ‘in charge of his own learning’. He was meeting the expectations required. So be it.

    So, of course I believe in constructivism and constructionism – and, I believe he constructed it his way.

    But, BUT, unless you are skilled, flexible, knowledgeable and hold your ego under control, you cannot succeed in this fashion.


  6. Jul 26 2011

    Great story.
    I totally get (and appreciate) that a [good] lecture can be informative and even inspiring. For students, this is probably more the exception than the rule, though. And after 2 – 4 classes in a day, primarily made up of lecture, it can get really old. I guess it’s more pressing for me, as I am teaching future teachers, not so much plumbers 😉

    We can all carve out little glimmers of light in our own classes, but it’s the larger context of how the student experiences “learning” as a whole that is more problematic and more challenging to face. The entire “system”, K-20, is on a path, at least here in the US, that is quite troubling for oh so many reasons.


  7. Jul 26 2011

    Agree with you totally Stephen.

    I would love the opportunity to connect with that young plumber dude again – in a different learning venue – one where he was passionate – to encourage and to support him in different styles of approaching it all.

    I guess my point in the story was more of accommodating and respecting his goals. Clearly, the students with whom you are dealing have (should have!) goals that are different – ones that require a broader and deeper scope.

    And, indeed, student teachers should struggle with the issues I faced with that young man when he objected to learning in the ways I had worked hard to create – pbl. What would they do I wonder?


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. It Better Be About The Technology « doug – off the record
  2. Another Brick in the Wall | The Construction Zone
  3. The Butterfly Defect: Technology and the Wandering Mind | The Construction Zone
  4. It’s NOT about the Tools? Really? | The Construction Zone
  5. It IS about the Tools! | The Construction Zone

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