Another dot in the blogosphere?

Tool or musical instrument?

Posted on: November 3, 2015

I have always felt uneasy when people say “technology is a tool”. I definitely take issue with those who say “technology is just a tool”.

However, I could not clearly articulate why except to cite and explain Marshall McLuhan who said: We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

Teachers and school leaders who say that technology is a tool often mean that pedagogy should come first. This gives it purpose. But so does context, relevance, or the nature of the content. So what comes first?

I also used to believe that the pedagogical horse should lead the technology cart. However, that analogy is not relevant. Today we have the car where the horse and the cart are integrated. You can still tell the engine from the cabin, but it would be silly to favour one and not the other. If you did, it would not be a car.

But I discovered an even better analogy in technology isn’t a tool, it’s an instrument. The author cited a gun-related article which stated:

A gun isn’t a tool – it’s not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It’s an instrument, like a guitar or piano. It requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires practice, near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.

After that the author summed up his thoughts like this:

Technology is an instrument. Learning how to use it properly makes you an artist. You can create works of art or works of work. You can become skilled. You can use it to touch other people’s hearts or pull money out of their wallets.

Citing technology as merely a tool is often used as an excuse by those who do not wish to use it in teaching. They say that pedagogy comes first and technology distracts. To borrow a phrase from the author, they treat technology as a wall instead of a conduit.

The shift in thinking could be to see technology not as hammers but as violins instead. Except for trades folk, tools like hammers and screwdrivers are used when they are needed and then put away. Musical instruments, on the other hand, need to be used every day (perhaps more than once a day), practiced with, read up on, and cared for.

There are basics that one needs to master with both tools and instruments. But to be masterful and to change the minds and move the hearts of those who you play for takes dedication with an instrument.

musical toolbox 01 by byronv2, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  byronv2 

All that said, some surgeons call their tools instruments. Some people use tools to create intricate pieces of art. So my reflection is not really about debating the merits of educational technology as tools versus instruments.

A problem that teachers might not realize they have when they reject technology is that they are focusing on skill set. They worry about not being able to use the technology or lacking ideas on how to integrate it. They see technology changing so quickly that what they do might be obsolete before they master it.

The underlying issue is mindset. Pedagogies do not change as quickly as technology and some technologies last longer than others. These are the practices and instruments that last and should be practiced every day.

Whether educational technology is viewed as musical instruments or artisanal tools, their practised use can become less of a chore and more of a joy.

Sharing by blogging and tweeting every day is no more a chore for me than watching entertaining YouTube videos or reading enlightening online articles. This is because basic skill sets have become ingrained by practice and transformed themselves into a mindset. If teachers want to integrate technology effectively, they must acquire both sets.

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