Re: [xmca] Toolsfor thought

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at>
Date: Sat Jul 07 2007 - 12:47:15 PDT

Nice to have you view on the conversation(S), David. Thanks for taking the
time to comment. Some time when we can sit down over a bear
we can discuss the ideas of mythic and theoretical, etc cultures. I'll need
some convincing, as interesting as the Merlin's work is in many ways.

On 7/6/07, David Williamson Shaffer <> wrote:
> Hi,
> 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
> discussion.
> 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
> example.
> 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
> everything.)
> 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
> epistemological.
> So for me the philosophical argument is trying to serve this very
> pragmatic
> end.
> 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
> =======================================
> 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 Sat Jul 7 12:49 PDT 2007

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