Tool Time

I keep saying that you can’t think with tools you don’t have. I mean this metaphorically, in part: if no one has taught you how to break your writing into paragraphs, you don’t. That’s a tool. Another kind of tool is more literal: a pair of tin snips. Until you’ve had the pleasure of cutting metal, it’s hard to believe how easy it is, or how hard it is to do well.

It’s hard, as well, to use power tools of a given kind before you’ve used the hand version. At yesterday’s fair I bypassed all kinds of electric sanders and saws in favor of two working hand drills and a pair of tin snips. I almost bought a book press too, to turn into a mini printing press, but it was $100 and I didn’t have that cash with me.

The guy also had inside-calipers and outside-calipers for precise measurement that may have been a century old, but they cost more than I could have afforded. And yet the result of my not buying them is that we won’t be able to think about those measurements in the design lab. At least, not yet. And this is sort of the point: until you can drill holes easily and precisely, you don’t think about holes as contributing to a solution to a problem. Once holes are part of your repertoire of solutions, because you know how to use a drill, you think about them as part of your mental process.

And so I wonder what set of tools to make available to kids in the design lab. Because whatever tools we give them to use become part of their mental repertoire as well as their physical one.

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  1. Hmmm. Andrew, you’re pointing out something I know but hate admitting. Indeed, we do give kids a lot of structure telling them when it’s ok, and when it’s not ok, to use the tools in their toolkits. So you’re right, just changing the toolkit isn’t going to fix that.

    On the other hand, if kids don’t have scissors or penknives, drills or awls or similar cutting and punching tools, they can’t even think about using or mis-using them. So it’s a bit of a bind, and one which I don’t see a way out of at the moment.

  2. Yesterday I spent an hour futzing with the config screens of my FIOS router. There was a software update recently that broke my hard-fought LAN setup. My father is visiting and after watching me sigh and reboot long enough, frustrated hour, he started asking basic questions about the problem. When I reached the original sin at the heart of the problem (“the FIOS guy ran the wrong line through the wall at installation”), he looked at me puzzled. “Then let’s drill another whole through the exterior wall and run the right cable! That can’t take more a an hour.”

    Not true. It takes a different lifetime, and a different vocabulary of tools.

    • “a different vocabulary of skills”

      Right. We ask kids to memorize timelines and word lists, but in essence we ask every kid to solve problems with the same basic tool kit in school — a pen (sometimes colored pens!), a pencil, a 3-ring binder, a planning book of some kind, lined paper, graph paper, pocket folders.

      It’s a pretty sophisticated tool set, and it can help you solve a lot of abstract as well as concrete problems. But you need some conceptual frameworks first in order to solve them with this tool set.

      My ideal “pencil case” would include one of those little hand wood drills you can buy at Michael’s in the wood supply section, and a penknife or Swiss Army knife with a saw blade and an awl, and a pair of scissors. A stapler and some paper clips, too.

    • Here’s my problem with the pencil case / tool box. Even for those tools that we already consider part of the “normal” kid tool set, we also build an entire structure that tells them when it’s OK to consider using that tool. Kids learn to use scissors, but only when there’s printed paper with dotted lines. Including hand drills with that mentality wouldn’t help.

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