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July 6, 2015


It’s NOT about the Tools? Really?

by Peter Skillen

It is very much about the tools:

and their impact—both intended and unintended.

Once again, as a result of the ISTE conference, the issue represented by statements such as, “It’s not about the tools, it’s about the pedagogy” has come to the fore. (See Stop It Already by @dougpete and Not Everyone is You by @gcouros.)

I have spoken about this before in “It’s Not About the Tool”—A Naïve Myth.” In that post I share some thoughts related to computers as cognitive partners, ‘effects of’ vs ‘effects with,’ drip effects of technology, blue dye plus water or blue water and other McLuhanist-type thoughts.

As I mentioned there, 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 learning at hand. So, yes, that would be an issue. I totally understand that problem. That’s why, in 2002, I presented a session at a CUE conference titled Mindstrokes—Not Keystrokes.

However, it is very much about the tools.

As described in that post, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.

caveman-159359_640Let’s face it, eras of humankind have historically been defined by tool creation and use (the Three Age System)! We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Then came the Industrial Age, and, now, the Digital Era. In fairness, these descriptors vary regionally and are constantly under revision as many cultures use reference to other types of technologies.

So to simplistically say that it isn’t about the tools, is in my opinion, digital age doodoo.

“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”

Seymour Papert in Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, 1987

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 6 2015

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Peter. Not surprisingly, we seem to be pretty close in our thinking about this. I like your analogy to the ages of mankind. There are a couple of things that fall from that and Papert’s quote that hit me immediately.

    The Stone Age, etc. that you allude to I would suggest are different than the Digital Age. They certainly lasted longer and humankind had time to learn and grow with things. One only has to turn on the computer and do some reading to realize that this thing we call the Digital Age has changed since last night. To that end, I think that learning and understanding and growing both as student/teacher/schools becomes more crucial than ever. To wait until we fully understand everything puts us further behind.

    I see that extending the quote that you provided. If everything else is changing so quickly, then our notion of pedagogy most certainly needs to change to stay abreast. Will one more course do it? No way. If there ever was a case for the life long learner, this is it.

    • Jul 8 2015

      No surprise we think similarly indeed Doug! 🙂

      You’ve pointed out the obvious challenge with analogies, metaphors and comparisons. There’s rarely a complete one-to-one mapping of all the aspects! 😉

      I agree that we need not to wait until we understand everything before we do anything—and, we need to develop a learning stance of iterative reflective practice. This would mean that, as we progress and learn, we would see it with different eyes every step of the way.

      This is, as you say, a case for the life long learner.

      thx for your comment Doug.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Peter. Here are some reflexions from a critical friend. I like the questions you bring with regards to the emerging technological context we find ourselves in, and how this is reflected by the different AGES humanity has undergone.

    Like with everything else in education, I feel as though we feel a need to define something in opposition to things that came before it. Any “ism” in education be it constructivism or pragmatism seems to define itself by opposition to other educational trends. Although Dewey cautioned us against this back almost a hundred years ago in his book Experience and Education, educators seem to be in a perpetual quest for the pedagogical holy grail of education. What we might want to focus on instead would be building a sound understanding of an effective pedagogy of experience.

    This being said, I think there is some worth in understanding pedagogy WITH technology, but this resistance to adaptability has been a growing trend that is quickly loosing meaningful purpose other than fear of change.

    For a long time now (just as Papert predicted) we have failed to adequately integrated technology in the classroom. Maybe we need to promote more arguments like the ones you bring forth, to help us understand that it might be time we gave up on trying to stick computers in the classroom. Why not give up on the classroom altogether, because until we are ready to ask ourselves hard questions about the very fragments of our educational system any technological integration is bound to be superficial in nature.

    That being said it might be time to stop trying to put machines in pedagogy, and start asking what it might look like to build our pedagogy into the technological context.

    • Jul 8 2015

      Thanks for your comments Jean Marc. It really is wonderful getting to know you and your thinking as we travel this path. 🙂

      You’ve made some salient points—ones that sadden me—because when we started this journey some 38 years ago (in my case, and the beginning of microcomputers in schools), we were fortunate to NOT be dumping technology in schools.

      At that time (and for the following decade or so), teachers made the CHOICE to get computers into their classrooms—and that acquisition was definitely based on pedagogical and philosophical beliefs (of different stripes)!

      We had the usual dichotomy—constructivists (constructionists) versus CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction) or as I liked to call it, Computer Assisted Institutionalization! 🙂 Or, differently said, kids in charge of technology or technology in charge of kids.

      The mindless use of technology came later—as a result of the pressures on teachers from administrators and system leaders to ‘get on board’. Of course, they were all non-users—so have never really ‘got it’. That is much the same today—as they mindlessly roll out Chromebooks, iPads, and now maker stuff.

      These decisions should always have been left in the hands (minds) of the teachers with loving, sensitive and intelligent support from budget holders—along with system leaders (program/curriculum folks) who have a passion for learning and a visceral understanding of the interplay of technology as cognitive partners and cultural change agents.

      The amount of money mindlessly wasted over the decades sickens me. 😦

      However, I’m still in the game so I ain’t that sick! LOL And, we have people like you fighting the good fight and learning deeply about these significant issues!

  3. Jul 6 2015

    Thanks for adding this post to the conversation Peter. We sure have talked about the issue lots..and also the dichotomies that Jean-Marc mentions as well. To add to the list of things technology might shape, I’m reminded about our recent conversations about perceptions. Technology shapes behaviour and cognition, and one byproduct of cognition is our perception or beliefs. Linda Stone’s work about attention comes to mind – what we think we are experiencing might not be accurate and technology plays a part there.

    Hope I’m making sense…it’s not a very well-developed thought at the moment…at least that is my perception. 🙂

    • Jul 8 2015

      Your perceptions are always of value to me. 🙂

      Yes, Linda Stone’s stuff—also Daniel Kahneman’s work on Fast and Slow thinking comes to bear on these things as well.

      So many perspectives!!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  4. Neil Postman had it Right Back in the 80’s | The Construction Zone
  5. It IS about the Tools! | The Construction Zone
  6. Not About the Tool? @peterskillen

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