What’s in Your Toolbox?By Todd R. Nelson
“When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
“It’s a poor workman that blames his tools.”
In shop, “Kenyon” made a chair; “Rose” made a laptop…using their imagination.
My favorite piece of technology is an old blueberry rake that sits on a shelf in my office. I look at it every day. It is next to an old timber-framing mallet, once a common tool for tapping pegs through mortise and tenon joints. Contemporary builders favor the pneumatic nail gun, dimensional lumber, and fast-framing techniques, but there’s nothing like the “tunk” sound of wood on wood driving home an oak peg. I also like the old lead type tray perched on an easel. These are old tools, former technologies, and icons of paradigms lost.
Even an obsolete tool has its work to do, making us think about where we’ve come from. The mallet talks to me of framing standards that persisted for hundreds of years all over the forested world. The type tray harkens back to the standard publishing format for movable type, extant until within living memory. My father used to take me to the composing room at his newspaper where the daily edition was still printed on galleys of lead type. And the blueberry rake reminds me that some hand tools have a perfection that cannot be duplicated by fancier technology, and is still the primary tool for harvesting wild blueberries in Maine. Form and function are the twin sisters of a great tool.
What are the great tools of an elementary school education?
Our tools speak about our values, not just our technologies. We take at face value the virtues of efficiency, speed, and economy, which seem to be the rationale behind many successful new tools. Witness my favorite digital device: the laptop I’m writing with. I learned to type on my father’s big black Royal manual typewriter—a digital word processor, old school style? My favorite writing tool, however, is my fountain pen, though I only use it to sign my name. Like my pen, a really good tool might just slow you down; create a pause and a different appreciation of work. We have grown unaccustomed to the feeling of taking a long time to make things.
How do our older students define their favorite tools, I wondered, if the definition is loosened up a bit. “What’s in your toolbox,” I asked the 3-6th graders at my school? “If you think of a tool as something that extends your ability, gives you added leverage or power,” I suggested, “what would be your favorite?”
There were a few hammers and saws among their responses, mingled with (almost in order of popularity) pens, pencils, fabric, sewing machines, scissors, nails, books—and then a turn toward qualities of mind, emotion, ideas, behavior.
The 3-4th graders shared the following tools: “kindness, friendship, ability to make friends, loving family, no fear of mistakes, imagination, energy, strength, imagination, love, kindness, responsibility, intelligence, forgiveness, playfulness, creativity, ability to soothe others, self-control, flexibility, patience, outgoingness.” Their list doesn’t suggest the frequency of their choice of tool. Pencils and kindnesses won by a long shot.
The 5-6th graders brought some fascinating intellectual and physical tools to their “boxes:” “A pen, my running speed, a lap of hay, my ability to invent, my ability to understand what’s going on in social life, making things with scissors, friendships, my sketching ability, my flexibility at gymnastics, architecture and design skill, mechanical and electrical engineering, reading, helping a friend, positive role modeling.”
Not to be coy, technology in its contemporary sense—computers and digital devices—is alive and well at my school, and thriving in daily use. We are fortunate to have some very cool new machines that extend our reach, challenge our verbal and visual expression, and help us ask and answer big questions. Great tools. The tools to which the current generation of all kids seem to be native. But as with any technology, the tool is only as good as the imagination and sure hand of the user. What good is Wikipedia if you don’t know what to ask or how to manage abundant, bewildering data?
My school’s technology philosophy begins with context: “…We value childhood and authentic learning experiences. Children build higher-order skills by investigating, evaluating, problem solving and communicating in an ongoing collaboration with peers and adults. Just as classroom jobs, the wood shop and outdoor play provide opportunities for children to become interested in larger questions about responsibility, relationships and how things work, technology functions as a tool for investigation, instruction, reflection, and communication.” Even Cyberspace guru John Perry Barlow would steer us toward real versus virtual experiences: “There is a difference between information and experience.” Barlow prefers the latter. So do we.
We will, of course, be held to account for the approach we choose with the digital tools that distract us and supplant attention with busy-ness. A New York Times article on “Growing up Digital” (NYT, 11/21/10) contained an arresting quote: “On YouTube, ‘you can get a whole story in six minutes,’ explains [a high school senior]. ‘A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.’ What kind of tool is that?
The rapid advance of our technological ingenuity makes it hard to keep up. What leverage or power might the latest app supply us, if we add it to our toolbox? Imagine what a mere phone will be capable of two years from now! But there are a few contemporary tools that might be even more powerful then than they are now. The kids know: kindness, imagination, and creativity. Maybe even pencils—which need no recharging, after all.
Our philosophy continues, “Our goal is for children to understand technology within the context of human knowledge, creativity, work, and culture.” We might say that some of the “softer” tools our kids have placed in their toolboxes are the ones which will guide them toward resilient competencies in unpredictable futures, and be of the greatest use once they get there. They are certainly the tools that will guide them in the use of technology, now and then. And they are charged, and ready to go, loaded with random access memory. Form follows function.
Where do game-changing scientific careers begin? Using simple tools in the sandboxes, woods, and classrooms of elementary school. The world awaits new methods of harvesting blueberries…new technologies, and so much more. It awaits new tools, and new appreciation of old tools.
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA.