RE: [xmca] Toolsfor thought

From: David Williamson Shaffer <dws who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jul 06 2007 - 10:18:06 PDT


I've been enjoying reading the discussion over the past few weeks started by
Katie and my article "Toolforthoughts"--I say "started by" rather than
"about" because the topics were so interesting and wide-ranging, expanding
on the points in the original rather than just debating them.

Mike was kind enough to explicitly invite Katie and me to participate in the
discussion. I was traveling and had limited email access when the discussion
began, and by the time I was back in contact the conversation was so rich
that I didn't want to step in and spoil it. I felt as though Katie and I had
our say, and it was good to let others talk before jumping in.

I just had the pleasure of reading over the entire thread (threads, really),
and I thought I might share a few thoughts with folks--not by way of
summary, but rather by way of reflection, in the hopes that perhaps the
conversation will continue even as a next article is being chosen for

The discussion here touched on a number of philosophical issues and
philosophical positions, but in the end Jay Lemke is right about me: my
concerns in this piece (and in all my work, really) are more pragmatic. I am
interested in what we do to help young people prepare for life in a complex
world, and how we as adults decide what that preparation should look like.

I should say at this point that Katie is the more philosophical of the team.
I hope she might decide to chime in too, but in any case I hope it is clear
that the thoughtful bits of what follows were shaped by my conversations
with her, and the rest are my own.

My interest in the concept of toolforthoughts is simply this: In a world
where technology can do more and more, what is worth learning?

Any sociocultural perspective suggests that in the end this means asking:
What is worth being able to *do*?

But as technology becomes more powerful-indeed, as it starts to be able to
do things that once required human intervention-there is a temptation to say
that what matters is not just what you can do, but whether you "understand"
what you are doing.

This is only natural, I think: an urge to maintain our sense of humanity as
our world becomes more technological.

But the danger is that in doing so we reinscribe the power relations of
existing technologies at the expense of new ones: We only "really
understand" math when we can do it without the aid of a calculator, for

Is it enough to simply learn to use a calculator to do multiplication? Of
course not. But the problem is not in the "use a calculator" part but in the
"simply... to do multiplication." And the answer is not to teach people to
do what a tool can already do better, but to teach them to do things with
the tool that are really worth doing.

In this respect, the "symmetry" of tools and thoughts (or technologies and
persons) is not that they are "the same." But rather that both contribute
(although in different amounts and with different affordandces and
constraints) to action. It is an ontological symmetry, but things of the
same kind don't have to be the same in every respect.

What we should care about is the action: What is someone able to accomplish?

And similarly: What things does a particular tool help and what kinds of
things does it hinder?

These issues are easier to grapple with in the concrete than the abstract,
of course. Are students better off spending time making a music video or
writing an essay? Learning geometric proofs or doing graphic design? (Or if
you think the answer is all of the above, then pick something you think is
less worth doing than another thing, since clearly no one can learn

The answers will have to be about what people will be able to do in the
future from doing these things now.

The point of the neologism "toolforthought" is to reinforce this focus on
action. Rather than asking whether someone "understands X", we ask: What
toolforthought have they learned to work with? And what kinds of action will
that make possible in the future?

In a world of finite resources, where no one can learn everything, that
gives us a way of making pedagogical choices that are not tied to
assumptions about the value of particular tools or particular ways of doing
things because of their value in the past. And thus it gives us a way of
validating forms of learning and ways of thinking that don't necessarily
re-inscribe existing hierarchies-political, social, cultural, or

So for me the philosophical argument is trying to serve this very pragmatic

For those interested in how I see this philosophical argument playing out in
the design of technologies for learning, my recent book "How Computer Games
Help Children Learn" is about specific learning games that my research group
has designed and tested, but really more it is about a new way of thinking
about thinking and learning in the computer age. I don't use the term
"toolforthoughts" in the book, which is written for a general audience, but
the book addresses issues from the same perspective. (I know we're not
supposed to pimp our own work on the listserv, but Mike asked about some
examples and the best ones are there.)

There were a few points that came up in the discussion that I thought I
could add something to more specifically:

Mike Cole asked "to what extent is it helpful to characterize entire
cultural systems by the dominant modes of tool mediation"? And similarly
Louise Hawkins asked "'how psychological constructs need to be categorically
constructed on evolutionary and cultural-historical grounds"? For both of
these issues I can't recommend strongly enough Merlin Donald's wonderful
book "The Origins of the Modern Mind." Not everyone will agree with his
approach or conclusions, but the book is extremely thoughtful,
thought-provoking, and exhaustively researched.

Emily Duvall wrote: 'I don't have a problem with technology changing what it

means to be human, but whether these changes will be"showing us the way
forward" and whether they may exacerbate the stratification of our
neoliberal world need to be considered.' I couldn't agree more, and part of
my interest in writing about toolforthoughts was to highlight that this
notion of "the way forward" is complex, and that therefore out judgments
about new tools are inextricably tied to larger questions about what we
think the way forward might be. But if we start by making assumptions about
tools, that locks us in to assumptions about particular ways forward. If we
work the other way around, we actually have more freedom to get beyond
existing power dynamics and hierarchies.

Finally, thanks to Don Cunningham for the wonderful video on
shirt-folding-and to everyone for the great analysis that followed.

It was an honor to have the article that Katie and I wrote chosen for
discussion, and I can honestly say that in all my years in academia I have
never seen as much thought go into and around an idea as on this listserv!


david williamson shaffer
associate professor of learning science
department of educational psychology
university of wisconsin-madison
educational sciences building room 1069
1025 west johnson street, madison, wi 53711
v/f +1 608 265 4602 e

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Received on Fri Jul 6 10:22 PDT 2007

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