You can’t think with tools you don’t have

Three short stories, and an axe to grind. Bear with me, and I’ll get to the point.

You can’t think with tools you don’t have. Seems simple enough, right?

Story number one. My mother saw the new computer at college that I’d bought through the tech department’s arrangement with Apple Computer, and said, “what do you need one of those for?” I told her, “writing papers, making art, sending email, publishing a newsletter. You have to get one.” she asked me, incredulously, “what would I use it for?” I told her to get one first, and find out what she used it for later. Twenty-five years later, she’s used it to be the president of a board of trustees, to be a graphic designer, a home-business entrepreneur, an accountant, a data-gatherer, a phenomenal correspondent and a journalist.

If she’d waited to get a computer until she knew what she was going to do with it, she’d still be waiting.

Story number two. My friend Josh has built a pair of headband-mounted cat ears on servos, attached to an EKG reader and an Arduino chip. When you wear the ears, and mount the EKG sensor on your forehead with a little grounding clipped to your ear, the ears swivel left and right, up and down, depending on how much attention you’re paying to what’s going on around you. To build them, he needed a soldering iron, a Cupcake MakerBot (3-D printing), various electronics parts, and a community of folks interested in Arduino devices and having them read code from EkG sensors. Ultimately, he even needed the expertise of some serious electronics designers to solve a power problem.

But he couldn’t have done any of it without a set of tools he already knew how to use, and some ambition (in the form of a cosplaying lady friend).

Third story. Around a million years ago, more or less, our hominid ancestors started making tools. They’d been making “tool” for around a million years, but the Acheulian Hand Axe was our go-to device for a million years. The archaeological record strongly suggests we didn’t know how to make anything else. But then, over a few thousand years, we invented a stunning number of tools in very short order — hammers, knives, needles, fishhooks, harpoons, bowls, cups, baskets, fishing line, arrows, bows, swords… The list goes on and on, and really the business of inventing specialty tools hasn’t stopped at any time in the last million years. A million years of tool-making.

I’m simplifying these tales a lot, because I want to grind an axe, and then I want to chop a point onto this spear I’m pointing. Today, an adequate “school kit” should contain more than just pens and pencils. I realize we’re worried about violence in schools, but safety scissors are dumb. Can we please give kids real tools, and let them have at least a pocket knife in their school bag? For a million years, kids as young as two have been given sharp implements and instruction in how to use them effectively. This is the patrimony of the planet, and if a kid doesn’t know how to use a knife safely by the time she learns to read, how is she going to feed herself, hmmm?

End of axe-grinding. Onto the point.

If the Kavad, and my designer friends, have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t learn to think through problems with tools you don’t have or have never learned to use. Walking around my friend Matt’s new house with him, we thought nothing of looking at misplaced doors and locations where there should be windows. He’s a carpenter! Walls in old houses aren’t solid to him. He has the tools and technology to rebuild them. My friend C takes apart commercially-made toy puppets because they don’t serve his hands very well. He rebuilds them to suit his improv games. He knows how to use a sewing machine and a glue gun, and he knows how fabric behaves when it has a head-shaped piece of foam under it. My friend Jared codes websites for a living, because he understands CSS and HTML and Java from the process of goofing around on his computer, and learning these tools. My friend K is a moderately successful chef in large part because he was cutting vegetables and making food from an early age. He knows his way around a kitchen.

These are anecdotes, of course. But it doesn’t change the reality — tools are the heritage and patrimony of the human species, and yet most schools expect and count on students to graduate with only a strong familiarity with six of them: pencil, pen, college-ruled lined paper, textbook, and correcting pen. If they’re really lucky, scissors, glue stick, ruler, rubber band, and (cheap, plastic) geometry compass will appear on the secondary list. oh, and one of the most villainous tools of all, they learn to use quite well: the bubble test.

This is appalling.

One of the things that appears so often on the list of things that American businesses want from employees is creativity. Yet they can’t get creativity from their employees because their employees learned to be creative despite (rather than because of) schools. It’s seen as an “extracurricular” skill at best. Kids learn to analyze literature only, instead of learning to create it. They study history to learn what they’re stuck with, rather than how to change it, or how to make it. And left to themselves, students learn how to use Facebook instead of learning how to make memes that take over Facebook.

So, in the comments here, i’d like you to name five tools that belong in a new, revamped “back to school kit.” They can be digital or analog. They can be online tools or physical objects. At least one of them has to be sharp, and one of them has to be upsetting. You can specify grade level or type of class, but be a little risky, and a little frisky.

Go on, I dare you.

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  1. Axe, string – do I really need five? I just want to build a tree house…

    A vice – mostly because I wanted a screw in the mix and because I do like things held solidly in place. Do you need a full size vice? – the workshop equivalent of a two pack a day habit. As you know, I have plenty of vices.

    Upsetting… Give me a wheelbarrow and a shovel. Actually I don’t like the design of the American wheelbarrow. It’s ok for a strong man who needs to wheel concrete mud on a 2×8 path, but it requires too much work. I’ve heard good words about the Chinese wheelbarrow but I think it’s basically a garden cart.
    And the two person shovel technique is also pretty nice. Sometimes the wealth to afford enough shovels takes away from the experience.

  2. Here from the person with no kids and no teaching experience.
    1 – I must say I like the animal idea but I’d extend it – cat or dog or bird or snake or rat or turtle, whatever. I’d require kids to have a pet – and if for some reason (allergies etc) it cannot be kept at home then make it a snake or a fish or a lizard or something that can be kept at school.
    2 – a smart phone because it can do it all and it’s small
    3 – a hammer, a screwdriver and a drill – and require them to find some way to use one of the three every week – then write about why they chose that one and how it worked on their project.
    4 – I’m not sure how to call this a tool but I think every kid should start young with financial understanding – the ability to balance a checkbook by the age of 12. A good solid comprehension of compound interest and a working knowledge of derivatives, stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, credit cards and personal financial statements should be required to graduate high school.
    5 – a garden – with all the associated pruners, spades, hoes, and trowels.

    Lastly I’d love to identify a tool that helps kids (people) keep a handle on who they truly are and what they truly enjoy – so much of that is bred out of us.

    • I chose a dog or cat because they are more personal. I think the students will identify with them and develop a relationship most can’t have with another type of pet. I have had a lot of classroom pets over the years and they don’t get very attached to them.

    • I don’t disagree with your list of tools-of-abstraction, but I am very much aware how much my own ability to think abstractly is based on my ability to think concretely by picking up knives and scissors and foamboard and build a model of the thing I’m thinking. Or draw it with markers on paper. Or lay out the geometry of the thought process…. What actual, concrete tools would you want kids to bring to school?

    • It was my experience that many VERY bright children were great idea people, but had a difficult time building them. Coaching a robotics and science olympiad team helped me get real tools into their hands. Keeping in mind that “if the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails” here is my list:
      1. woodshop/industrial arts/intro to tech room- to build something substantial
      2. legos, erector sets, lincoln logs, construx,etc- to model
      3. lots of masking tape and measuring instruments- to “see” the actual size of things
      4. a box o’ fun ( – parts, toys, motors, wires, paper tubes, marbles,batteries, stuff to take apart to build imagination
      5. microscope, magnifying glass, binoculars, telescope – to get perspective

  3. 1) 3d printer: Home printing will be huge very soon, students need to get exposed to it as soon as possible.
    2) Small printing press: There is something satisfying about going through the process of making things by hand.
    3) Musical instruments: Having the opportunity to take a break in class, pick up a ukulele and strum a while would be great.
    4) Carpentry tools: I am not very handy with tools or construction. Perhaps if I had more opportunities to play with the tools I would be more competent.
    5) A dog or cat: There are a lot of life lessons to be learned from pets including responsibility, respect, and annoying habits.

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