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Philosophical Meanderings

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

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

I think I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe it is a reaction that arises because some teachers and kids are focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the ‘subject-matter’ at hand. Many times we see kids spending much time on learning technical aspects of software rather than on gaining the deeper understandings and knowledge construction related to the intended content.

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, Gavriel 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...

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.

(cross posted from The Construction Zone)

About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.


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

  1. Awhile back, I wrote a post called “Actually, It Is About the Technology”

    The truth is that the world is changing in radical waves. It’s transforming community, cognition, our definition of identity, the way we communicate, etc. It is far more than simply “a tool.” I don’t even think we’ve come to terms yet with some of the most common media we use. The nuance and mystery of something as simple as Twitter – a communication device, a place, a community, a tool. We redefine it as it redefines us. To say simply, “It’s not about the tool” is to deny powerful geographic, political, economic and social shifts resulting in the use of the technology.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | May 28, 2012, 3:12 pm
    • Hi John,

      “Great minds think alike” — oh, or is it, “fools…” – oh you know! 🙂

      Seriously, this is what I love. I love that we are moved by the same ‘one liner’ and then can write these ideas independently, each from our own experiences and perspectives. I learn more. 🙂


      Posted by peter skillen | May 29, 2012, 9:28 am
  2. “Is twentieth-century man one who runs down the street shouting, ‘I’ve got the answers, what are the questions?'” Marshall McLuhan. That’s kind of how I feel ICT/edtech has been and is still approached – as the answer without really understanding the question. I was first introduced to the writings of Marshall McLuhan through a book by Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. While Shane’s book is targeted to faith communities, I think many of the same ideas hold true for education communities. Shane skillfully identifies and describes basic media inventions that have had enormous impacts upon Western civilization. So all consuming are the resulting cultural shifts that we often no longer recognize their birth was caused, in part, by technology we now take for granted. That is the hidden power behind the medium.

    Posted by Kim Wilkens (@kimxtom) | May 28, 2012, 9:34 pm
    • Hi Kim,
      You say, “So all consuming are the resulting cultural shifts that we often no longer recognize their birth was caused, in part, by technology we now take for granted.”

      This is so true, isn’t it? We need to frequently choose to ‘zoom out’ – historically, culturally, and geographically in order to better understand ‘where’ we are located. 🙂

      Have you read Derrick de Kerckhove?
      I think you will like his work.

      Thank you


      Posted by peter skillen | May 29, 2012, 9:33 am
      • Peter – no I had not heard of him, thanks for introducing me. I stumbled onto connectivism last year and it seemed like an extension of McLuhan’s thoughts into how we learn in the electronic age, but I’ve been wondering why we don’t hear more about it. It looks like the “Augmented Mind” fills in more gaps, but after reading “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era” in NYTimes today – I can see how the idea of the “always-on” generation boggles some minds.

        Posted by Kim Wilkens (@kimxtom) | May 30, 2012, 6:28 am
        • Thanks Kim for the thoughts you share. I need to spend more time digging into the ‘connectivism’ work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes – I got started into and it and have had a few conversations with them — but, alas, have lots of questions! I guess that’s a good thing! 🙂
          I’ll also have to read “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era” in NYTimes. Thx for the lead!

          Posted by Peter Skillen (@peterskillen) | May 30, 2012, 1:43 pm
  3. It will be of great assistance to some, and a hindrance to a great number of others…

    There is a reason why references to ‘personal computers in the home’ are banned from NYC’s standardized tests ( ) — it induces stereotype threat by pre-loading an indicator regarding performance — Not everyone has the latest and greatest. (Maybe everyone ‘should’ – but how pushes this advancement? Who will pay for it? Who will profit?)

    I am not anti-tech. “Knowing” how, when and why to go mining, I’ve programmed databases to mine terabytes of information so that clients might arrive at “answers” they could use. The issue beneath was the clients’ inability to figure out what they would find useful and that, by the by, rested on their not knowing the ‘why’ of their questions — a matter that technology abjectly fails to disclose.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | May 29, 2012, 9:09 am
    • Hi Brent,

      Thank you for your comment to this post.

      I am wondering how do you think the tools might shape behaviours and/or society?


      Posted by peter skillen | May 29, 2012, 9:37 am
      • The “tool” is only part of a story that encompasses behaviors and societies…

        Due to the availability/non-availability of resources believed crucial for human survival, the past whale oil shortage and today’s petroleum shortage crises shaped/shape technologies and tools. Different energies have been developed or accessed – kerosene altered dependence on whale oil, and both green and not-so-green energies affect petroleum dependence. With new technologies and tools arrived at, discovered or developed, the “good” of abundant energy, new jobs and economic growth shape/d behaviors and social groups in a cascade.

        It sounds pretty good, and yet such benefits are seen only from particular vantage points. Tools also shape/d through the application of violence by way of war, suppression and control of populations by physical force, the inculcation of fear and the indirect effects of “economics”. Humankind has consistently exhibited gross short-sightedness, and while seeking to avert what is perceived to be imminent disaster, seldom gives such results the consideration they are due.

        In connection with schools, teachers, ‘students’ and education, perhaps a foundational question should be asked:

        What intended and unintended consequences will result as hydraulic despots feed children and adults tools as food-of-the-gods?

        Perhaps there will be a City on a Hill. Perhaps it will be a brave new world. Perhaps a scorched earth…

        I remain hopeful.

        Posted by Brent Snavely | May 31, 2012, 10:49 am
        • Thank you Brent,
          “What intended and unintended consequences will result as hydraulic despots feed children and adults tools as food-of-the-gods? ”

          This is exactly the kind of thinking I would like teachers and kids to consider with regards to technology – ‘intended and unintended’ results equates somewhat, in my mind, to ‘first- and second-order effects of which Salomon speaks.

          Posted by peter skillen | June 2, 2012, 8:14 am
  4. The current prevailing wisdom of using computers in schools at the policy level is as content delivery & assessment devices. This suggests to me that there is a group of policy makers which has no imagination on how computers could be used in schools in other ways.

    So if we do not openly discuss the approach we should use with computers, we will end up with places like the Math Emporium which would not be possible without computers, so of course the tool matters, but which have an educational philosophy which is as far removed from what I would like to see in education as is possible.

    The tool obviously matters, but our use of the tool also matters, and while technology can influence our cognition, it can also do so in ways which are not at all positive.

    Posted by dwees | May 29, 2012, 2:39 pm
    • You say, “and while technology can influence our cognition, it can also do so in ways which are not at all positive.”


      I think of what we used to call CAI – computer assisted instruction. Or what I referred to as Computer Assisted Institutionalization. LOL

      I believe a lot of those uses of technologies can serve to shape a patterned response mentality that seeks a single ‘correct’ answer rather than the awesome uses you and I undoubtedly prefer. I believe these can serve to increase the development of different mental structures that enable creativity, synthesis, production, etc.

      Is that the kind of thing you are getting at?

      Posted by Peter Skillen (@peterskillen) | May 30, 2012, 1:50 pm
  5. Peter, awesome to read you.

    This has me thinking of practical matters, like some kind of daybook-keeping for students so that they jot a note or sketch an image connecting each thing they find online to something in their lives – or in another text or the same text or whatever – the strategy is an old one, but one seldom used in schools with the Intertubez, I think, and one not often internalized by those of us rushing through our schools.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 3, 2012, 10:10 am
    • Hi Chad,
      Thx for your response! Good to ‘see’ you again. 🙂

      You say, “they jot a note or sketch an image connecting each thing they find online to something in their lives – or in another text or the same text or whatever”.

      Are you thinking that this is a way for them to build an understanding of the role of technology that may have unintended consequences on self and/or society?

      Could you expand on that a bit for me? How you think this might help them to ‘zoom out’ a bit?

      thx Chad,


      Posted by peter skillen | June 3, 2012, 10:25 am


  1. Pingback: “It’s not about the tool” – a naïve myth. | New Learning - Ny læring | - June 4, 2012

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