Friday, November 19, 2010

For Everything Else We Use Tools

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. ~Abraham Maslow

Yesterday, as I waited for the children to assemble at school before we set out for an adventure-packed field trip (the bus broke down and we had to walk part of the way), I was salvaging zip ties. It turns out that about 25 percent of our bamboo cane fort had been assembled using ties that had been installed "backwards," meaning that they weren't particularly effective in holding the thing together, but on the plus side, they were rendered reusable.

Dennis was the first to arrive. He's been one of the driving forces in our den construction this week and in explaining what I was doing mentioned that maybe next time we'd try using wire instead of cable ties. He answered, "I can twist wire."

I'd been inspired in my own thinking by this simple post from my blog friend Anna Golden, a fellow artist and preschool teacher, in which she points out the importance of children learning basic technique and skills to support "student-driven inquiry." I'd been thinking along these lines all week as we learned to use zip ties, no simple thing really, as Juliet Robertson, another blogging friend, pointed out in a comment. Judging from the results so far, we're still only 75 percent of the way toward "mastering" that tool.

Anna talks about technique and skills, whereas I tend to talk about using tools, but it's the same thing. Humans are driven to use tools to imprint their visions on the world. Almost everything we make or do involves, at some level a tool, the mastery of which requires practice. In preschool, we need ample opportunity to sort of mess around with a wide variety of tools like wire, scissors, hole punches, hammers, paint brushes, saws, glue guns, pencils, screwdrivers, knives, and paper clips. We need to get our hands on brooms, clothes pins, drills, shovels, rulers, pulleys, trowels, staplers, and rakes. As humans we have being alone, we have talking face-to-face; for everything else we use tools.

Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.  ~Ani DiFranco

As teachers, our job when introducing a new tool or skill is to find that crucial balance between free experimentation and demonstrating proper technique. Tools are inherently dangerous, they all have a dark side, a potential for injury if misused, the basic kitchen knife being a classic example, but even a piece of paper can cut. A humble paper clip if inserted in an electrical outlet can have disastrous results. Sometimes we have to let children learn about that dark side through their experimentation, such as by hitting their fingers with an ill-aimed hammer or burning themselves with a glue gun in a moment of inattention. Sometimes we need to protect them, such as with the paper clip and the electrical outlet, because of the potential for grave injury or death. But most of the time we must accept that pain is part of the trade-off for benefiting from tool's power -- ask any secretary if it's possible to avoid paper cuts 100 percent of the time.

Anything you can do needs to be done, so pick up the tool of your choice and get started. ~Ben Linder

Every day, in every corner of every classroom, all around the world, children are using tools, developing proficiency, learning through their successes and their mistakes, bringing their unique vision into the world through both pain and joy, preparing themselves for a life of inquiry. They are all tools of creation, awaiting the human being to pick them up and get started.

The future always belongs to the tool user. The more tools you can use, the better that future will be.

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Play for Life said...

... and as Bill Gates said - “If you give people tools, [and they use] their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”
I don't know if he was actually referring to pre-schoolers ... or was he?!

Donna :) :)

Kami said...

I am always so amazed at the world that opens up when I learn to use a new tool. I am so excited about children growing up with all these different avenues of possibility that each tool opens up available to them from the very beginning of their lives! What will they make? I can't wait to see!

Holly said...

I love this post Teacher Tom. I included a quote (and a link to your blog) in my blogpost on "Take Apart". You can check it out here: